Thankfully, one thing he’s never been is quiet. That’s why the colossally conservative hockey community has so desperately needed his technicolored presence – and why, when the Sharks center announces his retirement in San Jose Thursday, the game will be beiger and blander.
Sure, Roenick polarizes people in hockey circles to a degree few other NHLers have in the league’s history. Even the THN offices has its share of J.R.-loathers; when we caught wind of his looming announcement last week, there weren’t many tears being shed for a player whose best on-ice years ended when his stint as a Philadelphia Flyer did in 2004.
But focusing on the guy’s theatrics and dismissing his contributions because you believe all hockey players ought to be brainless drones with zippers for mouth-holes is a convenient way to overlook the stunning array of on-ice achievements that should make Roenick a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame one day.
In his heyday with the Chicago Blackhawks, Roenick put up two 50-goal seasons and three 100-plus point campaigns. He played in nine all-star games, two Olympic tournaments, one Canada Cup and one World Cup. He retires as the league’s third-best American-born amasser of both goals (513) and points (1,216) and is the NHL’s 39th-best point-producer of all time.
Roenick’s detractors will point to a lack of a Stanley Cup championship as an indictment of his 20-year NHL career, but we all know great players in every team sport who’ve suffered the same fate. Ascribing weakness to him, ostensibly because he liked to enjoy his life and wouldn’t fully submit to the whims of overbearing coaches, is to forget exactly how very tough of a mother J.R. actually was on the ice.
Whether he was taking sticks or pucks to the face on a regular basis, playing Game 7 of Phoenix’s first round playoff series against St. Louis despite sustaining a broken jaw weeks earlier, or finding a way to carry on after getting absolutely demolished by a check from then-Maple Leaf Darcy Tucker during a 2004 post-season game between Toronto and Philly, Roenick could take virtually whatever an opposing team threw at him and still make an impact.
Even toward the end of his playing days, when he was hurt and/or disinterested in Los Angeles and Phoenix, he still made the most of one final run after his former teammate Doug Wilson took him on as a reclamation project in San Jose in 2007. Roenick led the Sharks with 10 game-winning goals that year and made all those who thought he was finished eat their words.
Sticking it out that long took tons of guts. But what really separates J.R. from the rest – at least, for me – is his unparalleled courage in taking on the giants of the game in an effort to improve the sport.
When it came to being not only an ambassador, but a fierce advocate for hockey, there simply was no player better suited for the role than Roenick.
His heart always was there on his sleeve for all to see – and he didn’t care in the slightest if its public pumping irked those at the highest levels of the game. As long as he was speaking his mind to keep hockey in the spotlight and expand its popularity, he was as prepared to rip former NHL Players’ Association czar Bob Goodenow as he was to blast commissioner Gary Bettman.
“Our sport still is great,” Roenick told USA Today in 2004, when hockey’s hook-and-clutch era had sucked much of the joy out of the game, while NHL administrators did their utmost to deny the truth at every turn. “It’s just ruled by Neanderthal people, that’s all. Our sport is awesome, it’s the best sport. We just have to learn how to run it right.”
Call him an egotist all you want, but if you had Jeremy Roenick in your corner and representing your team just once over the past 20 years, if you saw him dealing with fans behind the scenes and the way he made himself available for just about any media schlep who put in a request, you’d understand how deep and abiding his love affair with the game truly is.
And if you’re grateful to him for all the laughs, all the emotion and physical sacrifice he made as a player, you’ll pause for a moment and pay your respects to a man and a mouth who scored and roared as well as anyone.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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