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'New' J.R. playing like his old self

by Adam Kimelman

As much success as Jeremy Roenick has had on the ice, it’s his off-ice, sometimes larger-than-the-game “J.R.” persona that has earned him just as much, if not more, notoriety.
Like many other hockey fans, Jeremy Roenick watched Monday’s Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, watched four contemporaries take their place among the legends of the game, and thought “What if …”

“I very much hope (to be there), he said. “I watched all of them … their speeches and it was amazing, exhilarating to watch. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it, and hope it happens to me. It’s one of the dreams I have of achieving. Hopefully I’ll be able to join those guys.”

His potential candidacy was buoyed last week when he became the third U.S.-born player, and 40th overall, to score 500 career goals.

Other highlights include a pair of 50-goal seasons and 1,180 points in 1,268 games spread over 19 seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks, Phoenix Coyotes, Philadelphia Flyers, Los Angeles Kings and now the San Jose Sharks. He’s also been a part of two conference finalists and one trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

As much success as Roenick has had on the ice, it’s his off-ice, sometimes larger-than-the-game “J.R.” persona that has earned him just as much, if not more, notoriety.

“I think our league is one that doesn’t like controversy,” he said. “We like to have a squeaky-clean image. I’ve been one to speak my opinion and I’m sure people have looked down upon it. I’m sure people have looked past me because they don’t want the hassle of what I might say.”

What he’s said this season, though, has been very little. Roenick has been more than content to store J.R. at his offseason home in Phoenix and just be one of many. And what Roenick has discovered is that, at age 37, he’s happier this way.

“I’m in the same in the locker room that I’ve always been,” he said. “I’m the same energetic guy and I talk as much and bring as much enthusiasm, it’s just that people haven’t noticed it. I’ve been quiet with the media, not drawing attention to myself, but to the team and that’s more important. There are bigger things ahead than what’s going on in my life. I don’t want to sell any more papers. I’ve been taken advantage of at times with the media, misquoted, stuff I’ve said has been flipped around. … I’m tired of it. I’m tired of the attention that’s come of it. I’d rather have the attention come from playing hockey and having the attention come from the score sheet. Until we win the Stanley Cup, there’s a lot of work to be done.

“I’m enjoying myself. Without a doubt I’m enjoying myself playing this year because I don’t feel any pressure. This team is headlined by Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. It’s their team, they’re getting the accolades and the press. I can go to the rink and be a cheerleader and just be one of 25 guys that pull the rope. I’m not looked at as the guy who scores the goals or sells the tickets. I’m just a normal guy on a team full of talent. It’s a fun atmosphere for me to be in. I’m really enjoying it.”

It’s not a place he thought he would be at this point in his career. After three successful seasons in Philadelphia, Roenick was traded after the lockout to the Los Angeles Kings. Roenick has admitted he got caught up in the Hollywood life, and his playing suffered. He signed back with the Phoenix Coyotes last summer -- a team he had played for from 1996-97 to 2000-01 -- but clashed with coach Wayne Gretzky. When Gretzky made him a healthy scratch for an early season game, Roenick infamously left the arena to have dinner at a nearby steakhouse, infuriating Gretzky.

After finishing with just 11 goals and 28 points in 70 games, Roenick figured his career was over. Few teams had pursued him after his season with the Kings, and that number dropped to zero after his debacle in the desert. In July, he sent a text message to a Philadelphia writer that read: “I’m retiring. Is that still news?”

It was to Doug Wilson. The Sharks’ GM has known Roenick since J.R. first started with the Blackhawks and the two were teammates. Despite his poor play over the previous two seasons, Wilson thought Roenick had something left in the tank.

“We watched J.R.’s last 20 games in Phoenix last season,” said Wilson, “and we all felt comfortable in making this offer to him because, while he may have lost a step or two over the years, we felt he was still able to skate well enough.

Brought in to be a veteran presence and a depth winger, Roenick instead has five goals and 10 points in 16 games, has spent time skating on Joe Thornton’s line, and is considering playing again next season.

"Knowing him as well as I do, I felt he still had that burning desire to win and take another swing at winning a Cup."

“There was about three or four weeks there that I pretty much made up my mind that I wasn’t going to play,” said Roenick. “I was tired mentally and physically and a little frustrated with the system. And then all of a sudden I get a call from Willy. … When someone shows you the confidence to ask you to play for them, especially when no one else wants to take a chance on you, I got excited right away. Especially with the talent they have here and the chance they have to win the Stanley Cup.”

Brought in to be a veteran presence and a depth winger, Roenick instead has five goals and 10 points in 16 games, and has spent time skating on Thornton’s line. It’s going so well that Roenick, who recently thought he was done with hockey, is considering playing again next season.

“If things go well this year, maybe there will be a chance to play one more,” he said. “I’m not thinking in that realm right now. I’m focused on helping this team win and prove I belong in this game.”

With 500 goals in the bank and one of the leaders of the greatest generation of American hockey players, he took a moment to ponder his place in the game.

“I think I’m going to have a good legacy,” he said. “Myself, (Mike) Modano, (Keith) Tkachuk, (Brian) Leetch, I think we built a new image for American hockey. I think we put American hockey on the map since 1980. Everyone thinks that was a lucky shot in the dark (the 1980 Olympic team), but that was a booster for guys like myself who wanted to be Olympic athletes and professional athletes, and hopefully we can do the same for younger guys, the Patrick Kanes, Joe Pavelskis, they’re going to help build on that tradition we have worked so hard for the last 20 years to make so good and get a lot of respect out of the world of hockey. Now we’re known as a powerhouse for the last 15 years and that’s due to a lot of guys now skating out of the NHL and making way for the new group.”


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