Roper is almost a month into his new job as one of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ assistant equipment managers. It’s a story of perseverance and ambition, and a love of the game that rivals Carl English’s ascent from tiny Patrick’s Cove, on the Cape Shore, to an NCAA Division I university athletic scholarship, Canada’s national basketball team and a lengthy pro career overseas.
Roper? He’s kind of in the same boat, an improbable rise from apprenticing as a volunteer equipment manager/jack of all trades with the Mount Pearl Junior Blades, to sharpening skates in a cubbyhole within the walls of his hometown rink, the Mount Pearl Glacier, to landing with the Toronto Maple Leafs, all within a six-year period.
Roper is a different duck, the life of the party, the guy who’ll don the lampshade or wear a toga.
Look up charisma in Webster’s book, and there’s Roper’s mug with the familiar flat cap covering his dome.
But don’t let the fun-loving, court jester exterior fool you. Know this: Roper is very, very good at his job.
Lou Lamoriello doesn’t suffer fools gladly, so when the Leafs’ general manager put the stamp of approval on Roper’s hiring last month, you know the Newfoundlander’s got it together.
“He’s as passionate and good about it as anyone I’ve seen,” Ryane Clowe told me of Roper’s penchant for equipment management duties.
As Danny Cleary relayed in a text, Newfoundlanders like to look after their own, and no doubt Clowe and Cleary had something to do with Roper’s hiring in Toronto.
But Roper’s also made his own bones, and credit to him.
Just five years ago, after stints with the Junior and Senior Blades, he was a full-time volunteer equipment manager for the Conception Bay CeeBees. For two years after that, he was doing the same duties for a midget hockey team in the city, the St. John’s Privateers.
In between were stints with Newfoundland’s ball hockey teams.
Let’s be brutally honest: it doesn’t get much farther from the National Hockey League than all that.
Through a little bit of luck, and a lot of energy, braveness and, yes, boldness, he got his break two years ago, landing his first full-time paid gig with the Louisiana IceGators of the lowly Southern Professional league.
Last year, through contacts he made in Louisiana — meeting and talking to people is a common refrain with Roper — he moved up a rung on the minor pro ladder, to Norfolk, Va., and the ECHL’s Admirals.
And now, today, at 32 years old, out of Mount Pearl’s O’Donel High School, he’s working for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
All in five years, and as his buddy Terry Ryan points out, with no two or three-year stop in between (well, except for two years with the midget squad, but you get the point).
Just one, steady, progressive climb.
“I still can’t quite wrap my head around it,” Roper was saying just a while ago, over the phone from someplace in Pennsylvania on the long drive from Norfolk to Toronto, after packing up his stuff.
“Me, Dave Roper, from Mount Pearl, working for one of the best and most recognizable sports organizations on the planet.
“It’s funny. You start to think about things, like watching the St. John’s Maple Leafs. I don’t think I missed a game. I was always a big Leafs fans. Myself and Clowie and Mike and Mark Lee, we’d go to the morning skates on the weekend down at the old Stadium.
“It’s very surreal.”
If nothing else, Roper knows how to network. He knows the dogs, and their pups, and they know him, and it’s through that flair and personality he was able to parlay what was a volunteer amateur hockey gig into full-time NHL employment.
It’s how he got into pro hockey to begin with. Working with Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador’s Program of Excellence teams, Roper travelled to Calgary for a Hockey Canada camp — he started off volunteering as an equipment guy, but had enough initiative to get some training through the national body — where he met a guy, who knew a guy and, voila, he’s down in the bayou.
The IceGators were in a pinch for an equipment manager and Scott Burt, assistant coach of the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs, who learned of Louisiana’s plight, recommended Roper (Burt, by the way, played junior with Ryan, just another example of the connect-the-dots-world that is hockey).
It was while he was working in Louisiana that Roper got to know a coach in the Southern Pro league who would later land a job coaching in Norfolk.
Two guesses who that coach, Rob Aldoff, called on with an equipment manager’s job offer on the Admirals.
Aldoff was eventually fired in Norfolk, replaced by former NHL player and coach Robbie Ftorek. Add Ftorek to the list of individuals who love Roper.
During his work with the CeeBees, Roper got to know Ian Moores and Corey Crocker, lifelong friends of Cleary, and it was through that relationship that Roper worked at Cleary’s hockey schools in St. John’s. Not done there, Roper met yet another person in hockey, then Detroit Red Wings equipment manager Chris (Frosty) Scoppetto.
The two hit it off famously.
“We kept in touch,” Roper said of he and Frosty, who has described Cleary as his best friend in hockey.
By this time, Scoppetto had switched teams, going to work under Lamoriello and with Clowe in the New Jersey Devils organization as its equipment manager.
In late August, Roper was in Norfolk preparing for his second ECHL season when the phone rang. It was not a number he recognized.
Brian Papineau, the Leafs’ equipment manager, was on the line. Roper figured he was calling about T.J. Foster, a player who was Leafs’ property and had been on loan to the Admirals last season (Norfolk was a melting pot of players from a number of different organizations in 2016-17, including Toronto, Dallas, Columbus and St. Louis, not to mention Edmonton, with whom the Admirals were officially affiliated).
“He said he’d just gotten approval to add another assistant equipment guy and I came highly recommended from Frosty,” Roper recalls.
“I’m thinking somebody’s playing a cruel joke. So ‘Papi’ asks me if I’m interested. I said, ‘Absolutely.’”
A week goes by before Roper hears anything from Toronto.
“I’m getting out of the shower and my phone rings. It’s a 416 area code, so I’m thinking, I’d better get this. It’s Papi, and he’s saying, ‘Sorry for the delay, and sorry for the late notice, but can you come to Toronto for a meeting?’
“I said, ‘I can be there first thing in the morning.’”
Roper flew to Toronto and went straight to the MasterCard Centre, the Leafs’ training rink in Etobicoke. He was given the five-cent tour, and chatted extensively with Papineau.
Then the two headed downtown to the Air Canada Centre, for a sit-down with the Pope.
“Lou tells me he spoke about me with three people he admires and trusts — Clowie, who he went on and on about, Robbie Ftorek, with whom he says he has a special relationship, and (Admirals president) Michael Santos. He helped Santos get his first job in hockey.
“They’d all put in a good word in for me, which was pretty cool to hear.”
There was no job offer that day inside the ACC, but Lamoriello did indicate a decision would be made within 24 hours.
Twenty-four hours stretched into a couple of days, but Papineau did call back.
Dave Roper had gotten his call up to The Show.
Those in hockey, or those who have an idea of the goings on in hockey, understand that the job of equipment guys, and to a lesser degree the training staff, is a tough one. The pay’s pretty good, but the hours are wickedly long.
And it’s slowly creeping into a 12-month-a-year thing, what with rookie camps and the like.
Nobody has to tell Roper this. But he was a one-man band in Norfolk, with the exception of a couple of stick boys who helped out, and an NHL road trip is only a joke compared to the treks he’s made in the Southern Pro league and ECHL, although for now he won’t be on the road a lot, staying behind in Toronto with the injured guys.
The equipment and training staff are part of the lifeblood of a hockey team. If you want to know anything that’s going on with a team, ask those guys.
They are, in some ways, as much a part of the team’s fabric as the first-string centre or starting goalie.
And Roper, in his own way, will be “good in the room,” as they say.
Guaranteed, as the players get to know him, Roper will be a favourite.
“First of all,” he said, “I’ll be bringing my work ethic. When I got to Norfolk, the coaches and players pushed me and challenged me. There were high expectations, but I’m pretty certain I lived up to them.
“Robbie told me to just be myself. I’m ready to do the same thing that got me here.”
And will, no doubt, keep him there for a long, long time.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort