Gary Roberts' exit from the NHL was as graceful as his play on the ice was ornery.
The left wing, a potential Hall of Famer who retired Tuesday at age 42 after 21 seasons, said he was "okay" with the Lightning's decision to play its youngsters.
He said he was told by ownership and general manager Brian Lawton that if he was not traded by the March 4 deadline or claimed off waivers, there was a possibility he would not play again, and he "understood."
"You're out of the playoffs and you want to evaluate your younger players. I kind of felt they were going to go that route," Roberts said on a conference call. "But I truly thought I was going to get picked up and get one more crack at it."
But a $2.07 million yearly salary cap number, thanks to a contract that paid $10,000 over his $1.25 million salary for every game he played, made Roberts too expensive.
Ironically, Roberts, one of only three players (including Lightning coach Rick Tocchet and Pat Verbeek) with 400 goals and 2,500 penalty minutes, was playing his best hockey of the season.
With Tocchet showcasing him to spur a trade, Roberts played 11 to 15 minutes a game in 11 games since Feb. 4, and knocked in a couple of goals.
"Frankly," Tocchet said, "there weren't a lot of guys in the room that deserved to play over him."
And yet Roberts, a rookie in 1986 with the Flames, with whom he won the '89 Stanley Cup, stayed classy when explaining his retirement. He acknowledged traveling was tiresome, expressed excitement about the impending birth of his third child in May, and responded with this to Lawton's remark he would have been welcomed back:
"Was the door open? Let's just say I was aware of the direction they wanted to go and I was okay with it. Once I made my decision that if I didn't get moved and I was possibly going to retire, we never got down that road where I said I'd like to come and practice a month with the guys. I never asked the question."
But Lawton, in a statement, sort of queried Roberts.
"We hope that if and when the time is right, Gary and his family consider working with the organization in another capacity."
Whether that happens or not, Tocchet said Roberts already left a mark in Tampa despite playing just 23 games and missing 33 with an elbow injury.
"He emptied the tank," Tocchet said. "He gave everything he had. I've never seen a guy work harder on or off the ice. So, I think maybe this year for him, he didn't take it for granted. Maybe that will rub off on some of our players that, 'Hey, listen, the time you have playing in the NHL, make sure you cherish it.' "
The way Steven Stamkos cherished his time with Roberts.
Young and old never were better matched. Roberts marveled at the rookie's talent, told him he looked forward to watching him develop and gave him a signed stick. Stamkos ate with Roberts' family, played with the kids and soaked in advice.
"He was great for me," Stamkos said. "He helped me be a better person and a better player and I can't thank him enough. Words can't describe what he did for me this year. He was there when things weren't going well. He was giving me advice. A lot of stuff came out of his mouth I tried to put into action."
Tough not to considering Roberts' 438 goals and 910 points in 1,224 games, and his return a year after retiring at age 30 after two surgeries to fix bulging neck discs.
"Gary has done everything we could have asked or expected of him," Lawton said. "We are extremely grateful to Gary for his contributions on and off the ice."
NOTES: The AHL upheld the 20-game suspension given Norfolk right wing Steve Downie for striking an official on the shin with his stick during a faceoff at the end of a heated game with Hershey. The Admirals said the contact was accidental. Downie can rejoin the club for its final game on April 11. … Defenseman Richard Petiot was called up from Norfolk.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at email@example.com