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Revitalized Roenick meets Keenan again

by Larry Wigge

Veteran center Jeremy Roenick and the Sharks
will have to eliminate his former coach, Mike
Keenan, and the Flames in order to move on in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Roenick played for
Keenan with the Blackhawks from 1988-92.
Sharks-Flames Game 5 highlights 
The chance meeting was more than surreal. It was nearly 20 years ago, in a restroom at the Montreal Forum scant hours before the 1988 NHL Entry Draft.

Mike Keenan was then the coach of the Chicago Blackhawks. Jeremy Roenick was a skinny, little Massachusetts kid from Thayer Academy, hoping he had gotten the attention of at least a couple NHL teams. Roenick remembered that his agent told him to be careful what he said – and to not step on a scale for anyone.

"Hi, J.R.," Keenan said. "We've got the eighth pick in the draft. I was wondering why the Blackhawks should consider taking you."

Roenick remembers a pregnant pause, considering the time and the place. Then ...

"I remember looking him straight in the eyes and saying; 'Because I love to win and I love to score goals,' " Roenick laughed all these years later.

Roenick had an amazing eight-season run in Chicago, scoring 41, 53, 50 and 46 goals in one stretch and eclipsing 100 points in three of those seasons. Keenan was J.R.'s coach for a couple of those seasons, before Roenick went on to Phoenix, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and now San Jose in a noteworthy 18-year NHL career. Roenick has often credited Keenan for taking this scrawny kid and turning him into an edgy, two-way impact player. Keenan, on the other hand, started his NHL tenure in Philadelphia and then went to Chicago, New York, St. Louis, Vancouver, Boston, Florida and now Calgary.

Now, Roenick is trying to beat the coach who gave him his first chance in the NHL as J.R.'s San Jose Sharks hold a 3-2 series lead heading into Sunday's Game 6 (8 p.m. ET, VERSUS, CBC, RIS) against Keenan's Calgary Flames.

There are more Chicago ties in this juicy Roenick-Keenan matchup. Sharks GM and former Blackhawks great Doug Wilson was Roenick's roommate back in Chicago and he wanted J.R.'s experience, leadership, grit and hunger when he called him last summer to offer him an opportunity. Flames GM Darryl Sutter, who played for and began his coaching career under Keenan in Chicago, wanted experience and a strong mind and hand behind his bench when he offered what might be a last chance to “Iron Mike.”

The story of Roenick resuscitating his career after just 20 goals over the last two seasons at Phoenix and Los Angeles is nothing short of slipping on Cinderella's slipper. His 14 goals might not seem like a lot, but then you have to realize that 10 of those goals were game-winners. Along the way, J.R. became only the third American-born player, after Mike Modano and Joe Mullen, to score 500 goals in the NHL (Keith Tkachuk joined that list on the final day of the 2007-08 season).

"I didn't think I was going to be coming back this year," Roenick said earlier this season. "You should have seen my summer routine through June and July. I was at the golf course every day and drinking a bottle of wine every night with my wife. I thought I was retired. I was content to finish with 495 career goals. It was kind of a body-and-soul feeling for me that I had that I lost a little luster for the game after the way I played the last couple of years in Los Angeles and Phoenix.

"It's funny, but then I get a phone call from Doug Wilson, a guy that I've always respected, and immediately my electricity and energy come back."

Roenick, who had played at around 210 pounds for the last couple years, quickly worked his way down to 195 pounds to show the team how serious he was about this opportunity.

"I came here with the idea that I'd be helping the young guys, with my experience," Roenick recalled. "I thought I'd be on a solid fourth-liner who can throw his body around and chip in a goal every once in awhile and be a good motivator with my energy. I told both Wilsons (Doug and coach Ron Wilson) that my job was to make sure you can't take me out of the lineup. It has gone even better than that. Ron Wilson threw me in right away. I was a part of the lineup from Game 1. I don't know if he was going to start me from the beginning of the season, but Devin Setoguchi got hurt in the preseason and that may have opened the door for me. I made sure I would take full advantage of the situation ... and it steamrolled. I never would have expected to contribute this many game-winning goals. It is eerie how that has happened.

"This year has been awesome, fantastic, and especially gratifying after the last couple of year. I'm a 20-year-veteran who is loving being on a winning hockey team. I feel like I have a second life, a second opportunity. We're winning hockey games and the coach uses me in every situation. How can you not be in total awe and have complete satisfaction about this when you have been playing as long as I have?"

Doug Wilson knew he was going to have a young club and he wanted a good voice of reason and experience he could count on in the dressing room. Roenick, he felt, could be that guy.

"I've studied a lot of teams that went on to win the Stanley Cup in recent years and usually they brought in a veteran player or two to help get the team over the top. Look at Teemu Selanne in Anaheim, Ray Bourque in Colorado, Dave Andreychuk in Tampa Bay," Wilson said, rattling off the names of a few veterans who made a move at the end of their careers and fulfilled their dream of winning a Stanley Cup. "We watched J.R.'s last 20 games in Phoenix last season, 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. 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.

"Most important, J.R. said all the things I wanted to hear from him. He said; 'Doug, I'm going to fight guys for ice time, I'm going to battle guys and push guys to keep their spots. I am going to make the most of whatever minutes I get ... eight, 10, 15 minutes. That's how much I want this.' "

The marriage has been wonderful, with the Sharks going on an 18-0-2 run before losing the last two meaningless games leading into the first round of the playoffs against the Flames.

"Last summer when Doug called, I just wanted to try to gain my respectability as a hockey player back and to give the Sharks every ounce of Jeremy Roenick I have in me," he said. "My motivation has always been to win a Stanley Cup. That hasn't changed. Now ... I don't think I have ever been a team on a roll like this in my career.

"Our team is extremely confident and I'm hungry for the competition. I'm hungry for the drama that's ahead of us."

For Jeremy Roenick, it's his first playoff action since 2004 when he was in Philadelphia. But this whole comeback has never been about statistics, remembering what he's done in other cities or proving that this evolution is not just about proving others wrong about it. For J.R., it's always been about proving he's a winner ... and wanting to lift that Stanley Cup in celebration.

And if that path happens to begin with beating his old friend Mike Keenan, so be it.
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