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Roenick rejuvenated in San Jose

by Larry Wigge

San Jose Sharks' center Jeremy Roenick reacts after scoring his 500th career goal against the Phoenix Coyotes Nov. 10, 2007.
Jeremy Roenick was sitting at his home in Arizona this summer thinking about how and when ... and that didn’t mean how and when he’d score goal his 500th career goal to join Mike Modano and Joe Mullen as the only American-born players in NHL history to reach that plateau. He wasn’t thinking about what team would sign him, but rather when and where he would announce his retirement.

Actually, the 37-year-old center had already told the Philadelphia Inquirer in July that he was retiring. By late summer he was considering life after hockey until a phone call caught him off-guard and changed his plans dramatically.

"J.R., it’s Doug Wilson," the voice said on the other end of the line. "What would you think about coming to San Jose to play for the Sharks?"

At first, Roenick thought his former roommate with the Chicago Blackhawks when he broke into the NHL was playing a joke on him. But Wilson, now the general manager of the Sharks, is all business when he talks about his team. He was serious about getting Roenick into a Sharks uniform. Not for a victory lap. Not to net his 500th goal. But because Wilson thought Roenick still had something left and could help give the Sharks a better chance to win the Stanley Cup.

"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."

Truth be told, Roenick struggled to get just 28 points last season in Phoenix. His 11 goals and 17 assists followed a similar disappointing season in 2005-06, when he had just nine goals and 13 assists for the Los Angeles Kings.

So, while all of the attention thus far this season has been seeing Roenick score five more goals to reach 500 — a mark he reached Nov. 10 against Phoenix — there was actually a more deep-rooted dream behind J.R.’s return.

”I thought I was retired. I was content to finish with 495 career goals," Roenick said outside the Sharks’ locker room at Chicago in early October. "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 I get a phone call from Doug Wilson, a guy that I’ve always respected, and immediately my electricity and energy come back."

Roenick paid tribute to Wilson after scoring his 500th goal, giving him the historic puck.

“He taught me a lot about this game," Roenick said. "It was a way to thank him for giving me this chance. This group and these fans have really accepted me."

Roenick admitted that after four months of not training since his 2006-07 season with Phoenix ended in April, he got off the couch, hit the gym and the ice and began to train for what could be the chance of a lifetime.

"I didn't think I was going to be coming back this year," he admitted. "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."

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.

"Let’s face it, the only reason I am playing this season is because of Doug Wilson," said Roenick, who scored six goals and seven assists in 19 games this season. "He gave me the opportunity to do something I could not accomplish in the first 18 seasons of my NHL career ... win a Stanley Cup. I want to give him and the San Jose Sharks every ounce of Jeremy Roenick that I have in me and try to regain my respectability as a hockey player.

"I might have a lot of people that doubt me, but I think a lot of Jeremy Roenick can be a positive thing."

It didn’t take J.R. more than a couple of breaths to continue his non-retirement speech, when he added; "Think about it, a hance to join a team that has Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Jonathan Cheechoo, Evgeni Nabokov. I had to pinch myself to see if I was dreaming."

Wilson was glad to give his old teammate an opportunity — but not a free ride.

"J.R. said all the things I wanted to hear from him," Wilson recalled. "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.’ "

Roenick isn’t the same kid who broke into the NHL with back-to-back 50-goal seasons, or the player who used to run over defenders on the way to filling the net — he scored 20 or more goals for eight consecutive seasons from 1995-96 through 2002-03. Heck, 20 goals isn’t out of reach in this comeback season for J.R.

The new-age Roenick has even changed his number, from the stratospheric No. 97 he wore in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Phoenix back to the No. 27 he started with in Chicago.

"I didn’t want to stand out — and, to me, that’s what those high numbers stand for," Roenick admitted. "I wanted to bring back those old feelings I had when I just broke into the NHL. I want to just fit in. I want to grab the middle of the rope. Not the front or the back, but the middle."

Roenick has been more than a veteran presence for the Sharks. Though he’s seeing only 12:50 minutes of game of ice time, he’s third on the Sharks with six goals and second to 2005-06 Art Ross winner Joe Thornton with 13 points. His four game-winning goals are tops in the NHL.

J.R. showed doubters that he could still play in just the second game of the season, when he scored two goals in a 3-1 victory over Roberto Luongo and the Vancouver Canucks. He’s been flashing some quickness and speed that seemed to have left his game in recent years — and he’s having fun again.

"I'm really enjoying my role. I really love coming to the rink every day," Roenick said. "I don't know if this has rejuvenated my career. But it has rejuvenated my excitement for the game — whether I'm playing, cheerleading or giving helpful hints to guys, I'm coming to the rink happy and energized."

And ...

"I am not counting myself out for another year," he said. "I am dedicated and motivated to playing this year and making sure Doug Wilson's decision to sign me was not a mistake."

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