Practice player learns hard lessons of total commitment

With its dreams of a national championship realized, Minnesota’s men’s hockey team begins a long off-season of questions and answers.

Will junior scoring machine Jeff Taffe leave the Gophers for the Phoenix Coyotes organization? Will incoming freshman Thomas Vanek lay waste to collegiate competition? Will Chad Roberg stay on for his senior year?

Bet that last one never crossed your mind. Roberg, a junior forward used with the frequency of football’s T formation, was the most curious study of all the Gophers players recently anointed champion.

Roberg sat in the locker room dressed in a suit and donning a championship hat. This season, goaltender Adam Hauser had almost as many assists (two) as Roberg had games played (three).

In his career, Roberg has played in nine games and has yet to notch a goal, assist or penalty. And it might be the best thing to ever happen to him.

While at Duluth East High School, Roberg was a three-sport captain his senior year (cross country, track and hockey). His Greyhounds won the boy’s state hockey title in his final year and Roberg is the last player to score a goal at the old St. Paul Civic Center.

He walked on to the Gophers in what turned out to be Don Lucia’s first year at the helm. Frustrated by a lack of playing time, Roberg tried to quit that year. But Lucia wouldn’t let him, so Roberg turned inward.

“When I first came to the University of Minnesota, it gave me a chance to actually be a team player,” Roberg said last Saturday. “Growing up in Duluth I always had a spot where I could shine somehow. And I realized over the last few years how selfish of a way of life that really was. It starts settling in now, how I used to sometimes feel bad if the team had success and I wasn’t involved.”

The Gophers title run allowed Roberg to reflect on what makes a team great. He watched the film about Minnesota’s 1979 title team and realized the benefits of playing for something bigger than oneself.

“Names can be forgotten, but when you get that ring on your finger, it’s a symbol,” he said. “When I see (teammate Nick) Angell up in Duluth I can put it up. That’ll be our thing; that’s what we have.”

As one of Duluth East’s better players, Roberg always considered teammates who didn’t play still teammates. But he never knew how it felt to be one of those players. He wasn’t faced with an option to leave hockey for greener pastures.

He now fights off those urges annually.

“When I first came in, right away there’s the hope of playing well and getting in the game,” he said. “Then there’s a selfish period right after Christmas where you say, ‘I’m never going to play, this sucks, I’m out of here.’

“Right about that time there’s an end-of-the-tunnel period where there’s a month left in the season, and I say, ‘I might as well keep working hard and help the team produce. It’s a cycle that happens every year.”

Learning to appreciate the joys and frustrations of being a behind-the-scenes player is a work in progress for Roberg. And while a national championship makes everything rosy today, tomorrow is another story.

In all, Roberg ñ on full academic scholarship – figures the benefits and the costs will always co-exist, and his senior year might go down as one long gut-check.

His one goal is to earn a letter in hockey, but he’s no where near the minimum for games played. Hopefully, he says, a string or two could be pulled.

“You know, Lucia came up to me when we were celebrating, gave me a hug and said, ‘Aren’t you glad you stuck around?’ I pulled away and said, ‘You know what, I am.’

“Being a champion makes anything worthwhile. It’s just so hard to depend on other people to be out there winning it.”

David La Vaque welcomes comments at [email protected]