Jeremy Roenick was destined to be a star from the moment he donned a Chicago Blackhawks sweater. From his time there to his stint in Philadelphia, he was one of the men expected to carry the team.
By the time he arrived in San Jose, the assignment changed. He was more the mentor instead of the money guy (clearly not for his Game 7 performance against Calgary in the 2008 Western Conference Quarterfinals).
Sure, Roenick played on the top line when called upon and saw important power play time when things needed to be shaken up. But the reason Roenick was always popular with his teammates as he was with his legion of fans: his mentoring ability.
From the team’s top scorer in Joe Thornton
to newcomers like Devin Setoguchi, Joe Pavelski
and Torrey Mitchell
(all of whom were in attendance at the retirement media conference), they all benefited from Roenick “passing along the torch.” For Roenick, that torch goes back to those early days in Chicago two decades ago.
When Roenick was dropped into the Blackhawks locker room as a teenager, he was surrounded by one of the most intense, but nurturing teams in all of sports.
“I remember being an 18-year-old, weighing 158 pounds and my agent not letting me get on a scale before the draft,” Roenick said. “When I got to Chicago, they had Steve Larmer, Michel Goulet, Denis Savard, (current Sharks Executive Vice President and General Manager) Doug Wilson and (current Sharks Scout) Dirk Graham.”
Those were the players who looked out for Roenick as he would later do for the younger Sharks players.
“Dirk Graham was one of the best captains,” Roenick said. “He taught you how to be a pro and to handle the good and the bad.”
The Chicago era included some tough love from the head coach, but Roenick even looked back on that with admiration.
“Mike Keenan was the craziest (SOB) you ever saw,” Roenick said. “He grabbed me by my throat in Kalamazoo and said I’d never see the NHL if I didn’t hit someone on my next shift. I believe it’s because of him how I played the game the way I did.”
Including having the guts for a battle with Bob Probert that can be found on YouTube. The guys on the ice are who made Roenick such a great guy off the ice, though.
Roenick was influenced along the way by fellow greats like Chris Chelios, Luc Robitaille and Keith Tkachuk, who were his teammates, and Mike Modano, who he formed a terrific respectable rivalry with.
When Wilson called Roenick about joining San Jose two years ago, the rugged forward has already texted media members that he was retiring. However, the possibility of winning that elusive championship, plus the ability do for others what was done for him was paramount. Roenick knew he wouldn’t be on Thornton’s line, but he also he knew he could still produce in the right situations and help out the next generation.
“Doug and the Sharks gave me my life and passion back,” Roenick said. “Most important, they gave me my respect back and it helped with my family, my wife, my kids and myself.”
And Roenick gave to the Sharks, sitting on the team plane with Thornton and having the duo of Mitchell and Setoguchi over for dinner at least once a week when the team was in town.
“I wanted to teach what Doug, Dirk, Savard and Goulet taught me 20 years ago,” Roenick said.
“I’ve had players say he was the greatest teammate they’ve ever had and they only played with him for two years,” Wilson said. “His fingerprints are all over this team and that’s what hockey is all about.”
When Roenick scored his NHL milestone 500th goal, he made sure to put Setoguchi and Mitchell in the frame for the ceremonial photo.
“I got that picture blown up to almost life size,” Setoguchi said. “He’s the whole package. He’s an ambassador for the game, a good friend and great leader all thrown into one. He’s the best. I’m just glad I got to the NHL soon enough to play with him.
He was not just a great teammate, but a leader even at the age of 39.
“You could tell the first day that he was all in,” said Pavelski, who hopes to follow in Roenick’s Olympic footsteps for Team USA.
One of Roenick’s greatest attributes isn’t mentioned enough: his relationship with the fans. Even at a closed presser at HP Pavilion, a small crowd of fans were looking through the windows of The Grill. Their perseverance was rewarded when Roenick waived to them in the middle of the press conference and when he came out to sign autographs afterwards.
“He’s a fan favorite,” said Andrea Lepley, who waited outside until Roenick visited the fans. “He just signed my jersey. He’s fierce on the ice, fun and has a heart.”
Roenick learned the right way to treat the fans from maybe the greatest hockey player of all time.
“When I was a kid, I would watch the Hartford Whalers practice,” Roenick said. “I was leaning my head over the glass and Gordie Howe put a whole bunch of snow on his stick and dumped it on my head. He skated around again and winked at me when he went by. That moment stuck with me. It’s resonated with me my whole life.”
A little bit of giving back goes a long way. Roenick was always aware of that when it came to the paying public.
“I would always try to throw a puck (into the stands) or reach through the glass and grab some popcorn a kid had,” Roenick said. “I tried to make the same impression Gordie Howe had on me. I tried to do that every day. Without the support of the fans, the NHL is nothing.”
Roenick won’t be playing come October, but hockey won’t be far from him this season.
“I look forward to calling the guys when they aren’t playing well enough and to tell them they’re playing out of this world,” said Roenick, noting he would be attending the Sharks home opener on Oct. 8 against Columbus.
Roenick’s legacy will be about more than just his talent. It will about his passion for the game.
“His heart is as big as a whale,” Chelios said over the phone during the presser.
And the game will be a little less fun without Roenick playing every night.