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Keenan's tough love helped shape Roenick's career

by Mike G. Morreale
Jeremy Roenick vividly can recall the day "Iron Mike" challenged him to shape up or ship out.

It occurred during Roenick's first NHL season, in 1988-89, when Chicago Blackhawks coach Mike Keenan was in command. It was Keenan's inaugural season in the Windy City following four years in Philadelphia, during a preseason game against the Minnesota North Stars, in Kalamazoo, Mich.

"I was so scared when I entered the League, but Mike Keenan changed all that," Roenick said. "He scared the dickens out of me."

What? Jeremy Roenick ... scared?

"He once grabbed me by my throat when we were playing in Kalamazoo and said, 'If you don't finish your check, if you don't hit that guy next time, you'll never play a game for me again in the NHL.' I was so scared I almost cried on the bench."

So Roenick hopped on the ice his very next shift and transformed into a human missile -- despite the fact he weighed just 158 pounds.

"For fear of my career, I went on the ice and starting hurling my body at everything I could possibly get at, skating as hard as I could," he said. "I threw my body from one side to the other, just crushing guys. And you know who enjoyed that -- the fans. They grasped the way I played and every time I hit someone, the fans erupted and that became my shtick, my personality on the ice. On top of that, I could also score goals."

It was a career-changing moment for Roenick, who took Keenan's advice to heart and parlayed it into an incredibly productive 20 seasons in the League.

"I was an aggressive coach and I saw the potential in this player," Keenan told "He was just a really inexperienced individual and probably didn't realize the demands of being a professional athlete as most youngsters don't realize when they come out of the draft. It's a large jump even if you're one of the very best players in the draft."

Keenan believes Roenick achieved greatness because he was so mentally tough.

"I think he plays a lot like the old-time players," he said. Keenan recalled a playoff game against St. Louis when Roenick had his front teeth knocked out by a high stick (from Blues defenseman Glen Featherstone).

"That meant a major penalty," Keenan said. "To ensure that a major penalty was called, Jeremy kept the teeth (chips) on his tongue and skated over to show the referee. Then he came to the bench, and as a 19-year-old, he came back as a leader. He said to the players, 'Let's get the job done.'"

It's the kind of stuff that makes ordinary players legendary. Roenick, who concluded his career with 1,216 points in 1,363 games, spent eight seasons in Chicago before moving on to play for Phoenix, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Jose. His legend continued to grow Thursday when it was announced he would join Derian and Kevin Hatcher, Art Berglund and Dr. George Nagobads in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame class of 2010.

He retired in August 2009, as the third-highest U.S.-born goal scorer (513) in NHL history -- trailing only Mike Modano (557) and Keith Tkachuk (538).

"I know (Keenan) is one of those guys who wasn't favored as a coach through the years, but when I came up to the NHL as an 18-year-old, I was small, coming out of high school (Thayer Academy in Massachusetts) and very timid," Roenick said. "But Mike taught me a style of game that I adopted. He taught me to play with passion and grit. Away from the rink, he was also there when I had off-ice problems, so Mike Keenan was that guy who really put that in me and I carried it on for a long time."

Roenick had 129 goals and 281 points in 257 games in four seasons playing for Keenan in Chicago, including the first 50-goal, 100-point season of his career, in 1991-92, when he and Keenan teamed to lead the Hawks to the Stanley Cup Final.

"Mike Keenan scared me into becoming the player I was," said Roenick.

Keenan knows how Roenick should be remembered?

"I think he should be remembered as a passionate player that had a long career and played hard and competitively every night, overcoming some very serious injuries and still having the capability and the mental toughness to excel and play at that level," Keenan praised. "That he did throughout his career. Some players would acquiece or lighten their work load with the types of injuries he sustained, but Jeremy was a mentally tough individual."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
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