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Roenick retires with a flourish

by Eric Stephens
SAN JOSE -- Did you really think Jeremy Roenick would just ride off quietly into the sunset?

Thursday's news conference inside the HP Pavilion restaurant to announce his retirement was vintage Roenick in action. There was plenty of laughter and plenty of stories with a few strong opinions and a couple of eyebrow-raising statements mixed in. As he said to open the proceedings, "Everybody be prepared because you know I like to talk."

But there was also something you don't see too often from the man virtually everyone calls "J.R." -- tears.

Try as he might -- and, to be truthful, he didn't try very hard -- the 39-year-old couldn't keep his emotions in check. It was at a point when Dallas Stars icon Mike Modano, through the magic of technology, spoke about the many battles he had with the colorful center and the friendship they share to this day that Roenick's quivering voice finally cracked.

"You made me a better hockey player," said Roenick, who called Modano the best American-born player of all time. "You were who I tried to be."

While there undoubtedly have been some young American hockey players who grew up watching Roenick and wanting to be like him, that won't be easy -- because there may not be another one quite like J.R.

He's got the numbers -- 513 goals, 703 assists, 1,216 points -- that give him a solid argument for induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame when he's eligible in 2012. He ranks third among U.S.-born players in goals and points and sixth in assists. Roenick simply is one of the greatest players this country has produced.

But it was the way in which Roenick went about achieving stardom that made him unique. He was brash, in your face and didn't hold anything back, whether he was in front of the net or in front of a microphone.

For two decades, Roenick was a go-to guy for his teammates and the media that covered him. Few subjects were off-limits, and no one person or entity was spared.

"As unfiltered as J.R. can be sometimes, it comes from the heart and he always backed it up on the ice," said Doug Wilson, the San Jose Sharks' general manager and former roommate of Roenick when the two played in Chicago.
It was Wilson who, in 2007, gave Roenick an opportunity to end his career on his terms after short failed stints with Los Angeles and Phoenix. Roenick had already sent out text messages saying he was going to retire -- but Wilson, a good friend, called to see whether he still had some hockey left in him.

"Sometimes in your life, you have friends that come and save you," Roenick said, choking up with each word. "Just when I thought it was all over. A great career. A career I was proud of. I was leaving and I wasn't able to say goodbye to it. And then Doug Wilson called me.

"I was at a golf tournament and Doug asked me to come down to San Jose. I was a little bit overweight … by about 20 pounds. I remember he said, 'You think you can still play this game.' I said, 'Doug, I know I can still play this game.'

"Doug Wilson and the San Jose Sharks gave me my life back. I can sit here and make my own decision to hang them up and move on."

Roenick gave the Sharks two productive seasons in which he took on the role of a checking center without any hesitance, something Wilson noted during the news conference. Two of his finest moments toward the end came in 2007-08 when he scored his 500th goal and his two-goal, two-assist performance against Calgary in Game 7 that gave the Sharks a first-round playoff win.

In the audience sat young players such Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi, whom Roenick tried to mentor whenever he could. Pavelski said the nine-time All-Star was much more than his outspoken image.

"Towards the end, we heard a lot of bad things about him coming to us," Pavelski said. "People would ask, 'Why are you signing him?' We didn't have an answer for it right away. After that first day, you could tell he was committed. We saw that during his time here.

"People know that your last impression sticks as well as your first one. Like he said, everyone tends to see him a little differently when you meet him in person."
Roenick became one of the NHL's biggest stars in Chicago, where he topped 50 goals twice, bettered 100 points three times and led the Blackhawks to the 1992 Stanley Cup Final. On Thursday, he spoke about how Blackhawks like Wilson, Dirk Graham, Chris Chelios and Denis Savard taught him how to be a pro and how he got to tear up the NHL with Tony Amonte, a high school teammate.

It was also the place where he played for -- and had his share of run-ins with -- coach Mike Keenan. Recalling the man and that time provided another emotional moment for Roenick.

"Mike Keenan is one of the craziest son of a bitches I've ever known," he said. "I've told this story many times. One time he scared me so bad that he said if I didn't hit the next guy I saw, I would never play another game in the National Hockey League. If you saw his eyes, you believed every word that Mike Keenan said.

"I really believe that because of him, he's why I played the game the way I played it."

Tough. Fearless. Those were adjectives that many people used in feting Roenick. Modano recalled how he always had to keep his head up because he knew that, friend or not, Roenick would try to knock it off.
"He's not just one of the greatest American hockey players. He's one of the great hockey players to play this game." -- San Jose GM Doug Wilson, on Jeremy Roenick

"Yeah, I absolutely came after you," Roenick said. "Because I never wanted you to beat me. To measure myself was to try to beat the best. Since you were 15 years old, you were always the best."

Those attributes, along with the shenanigans and off-the-cuff remarks, made him a fan favorite in Chicago, Phoenix, Philadelphia and San Jose, where a number of them stood outside HP Pavilion to get their last glimpse of No. 27.

Roenick learned how important it was to interact with fans early on when he would watch Gordie Howe and his sons, Mark and Marty, work out with the Hartford Whalers while growing up in Connecticut.

"I had my head over the glass, watching these guys in awe," he said. "Gordie Howe picked up a bunch of snow on his stick, skated over and dumped it on my head. I thought it was the coolest thing that happened in my whole life.

"He skated around a little more, then looked at me and winked. For those three seconds, it was me and Gordie Howe and nobody else. That moment stuck in me for years and years and years. It was a small thing that took nothing from him and his time and but it resonated with me my whole life.

"I try to do little things that make the same impression on a young child that Gordie Howe made on me. I made sure that I did that every day. Because without the fans and their support, the NHL would be nothing. The NFL would be nothing. Basketball, baseball, right down the line."

It's hard to quantify all that Roenick has given back to hockey, particularly in the United States. But Wilson did his best to sum up the man.

"He's not just one of the greatest American hockey players," he said. "He's one of the great hockey players to play this game."

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