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From lung transplant to rink, return to playing hockey marks an important step for Roberts

Dave Roberts, left, and Brian Foley were teammates with the P.E.I. Vanguard 65-plus hockey team at the recent Canadian 55-Plus Games in Saint John, N.B.
Dave Roberts, left, and Brian Foley were teammates with the P.E.I. Vanguard 65-plus hockey team at the recent Canadian 55-Plus Games in Saint John, N.B. - Contributed

FREDERICTON, N.B. – Hockey is much more than just a game to Dave Roberts.

The ability to play the sport again marked a return to normality for the 66-year-old, former Prince Edward Island resident, who now lives in Fredericton, N.B.

It was not long ago when Roberts’s life was in jeopardy as he battled Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF).

“Idiopathic stands for unknown cause, no known cure,” explained Roberts. “Basically, what happens is your lungs progress with scarring of the lung tissue, which progressively becomes thick and stiff until you get to a point where you can’t breathe.

“Most peoples’ lungs are nice and elastic and go in and out like you see a bag on TV blowing in and out. But in this situation, it gets so hard and callous along the edges that they no longer expand and you eventually suffocate quite honestly.”

Roberts, who encourages everyone to seriously consider becoming an organ donor, was diagnosed with IPF in November 2012, and was told he had three to five years to live.

“It was quite a shock to the system at the time,” he said. “I had done everything right throughout my life to live a long life, and I have a very long lifeline with my parents and grandparents.”

Family connections

Roberts was born in Halifax, when his father, Dr. Athol Roberts, was attending medical school. The family moved to Charlottetown when Roberts was seven years old, and he lived in P.E.I.’s capital until he moved away to Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S.

“He was a well-known Island doctor, and my grandfather, his name was Athol Roberts as well, and he was a well-known farmer and sheep farmer,” explained Roberts, who pointed out his grandfather’s 220-acre farm was located on what is now Fox Meadow Golf Course in Stratford.

When Roberts arrived in Toronto in February 2018 to await a double lung transplant, he described his condition as “deathly ill.” He underwent the operation on March 16.

“I will always remember after waking up (following surgery) that there was somebody walking around the hospital with a T-shirt that said, ‘I will fly again on the wings of another.’

“I thought, ‘Wow, that is where I’m at.’

“I have someone else’s wings, which is their lungs inside me, and if they are good and things work out, maybe I will play hockey again. For me, the goal was always to play hockey because if I could play hockey I was returning to normal.”

Joins P.E.I. team

Whether it was fate or not, it was during Roberts’s recovery in Toronto that led to him joining a P.E.I. 65-plus team for the recent Canadian 55-Plus Games in Saint John, N.B., while sitting in the blood testing portion of the lung transplant clinic in Toronto General Hospital the last week of May.

“I was sitting across from a couple who were talking to another couple and they are talking about Prince Edward Island, and I hear the word hockey come up,” explained Roberts. “I immediately jumped in, craving anybody from Atlantic Canada to talk to, and said I was formerly from the Island.”

One of those individuals was Brian Foley, a member of the P.E.I. Vanguard 65-plus team. Foley noted the team was looking for three more forwards and invited Roberts to play. Roberts did not expect to be able to play due to his recovery, but added he could, in all likelihood, find a line of players he played with in Fredericton. Roberts was able to recruit two players and told team organizer Ken Kelly: “If you want, I can throw my name in. It won’t be pretty, but I would love to be a part of it.”

‘Boys of Summer’

Roberts promptly gave the P.E.I. team the “Boys of Summer” nickname.

“(Dave didn't miss a) shift of our four games in four days and didn’t look out of place in the very competitive, fast-paced games,” said teammate Dan McCarthy of Summerside.

Roberts, however, added McCarthy was very generous in his assessment.

“I’m very thankful that Dan came after me,” said Roberts. “I shifted and Dan would come on, so Dan got his fair share of ice time because I came off more quickly than others.”

Nonetheless, Roberts’s accomplishment did not go unnoticed by his teammates.

“It is quite amazing that he was able to play competitively at a national tournament five months after receiving a double lung transplant,” added McCarthy.

Roberts said he could not have asked to play with a better group of individuals.

“They were fun to be with in the dressing room, they were fun to be with after the game, were great advocates for the Island and great advocates for guys who want to live healthy and still play hockey well into their 60s,” said Roberts. “I think the average age was 68, so I was the young guy.”

Most importantly, Roberts’s comeback marked a big step in his recovery, even if the initial conversation regarding his participation took place at an unexpected location.

“Brian Foley was talking one day and he said, ‘We played a team from Calgary that had to fill their roster with some extra players, and they filled it with some retired NHL players,’” recalled Roberts. “Brian said, ‘That’s a little different from us, we drafted a player from the Toronto General Hospital Lung Transplant Unit.’

“Honestly, I’ve heard a lot of great quotes in my life, but that is probably the best I’ve heard.”

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