Remembering JR

10Jul07

It’s kinda funny how Jeremy Roenick‘s retirement got announced. You’d think JR Superstar would have bought network time and thrown himself a career retrospective or something instead of a brief message to a reporter saying, “I’m retired.” After all, this is the guy who did the opening act for Luc Robitaille‘s encore last skate around Staples Center by dancing around the ice.

That’s kind of the thing with JR, though. You just never really knew what to expect.

I remember when Wayne Gretzky retired, the NHL on Fox broadcast ran a nice montage set to Sarah McLachlan’s I Will Remember You. As the sappy music started to roll, I turned to my friend and said, “Geez, he’s not dying, he’s retiring. Can’t we celebrate a little?” When I think of JR’s career — and the way his career affected my own fandom — I’m thinking more of a montage of David Lee Roth-era Van Halen. Running With The Devil, Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love, Jump, something along those lines all seems a fitting soundtrack to a highlight reel of JR hits, dekes, and goals.

Put it simply, Jeremy Roenick was my favorite player for a long, long time, starting when I was in high school and pretty much every year after that; even in the dwindling twilight of his career, I still had a soft spot for JR. It was pretty damn hard not to love his style when he was in his prime — he ran over people with no fear, he could dance with the puck like no one’s business, and he scored sweet goals at clutch times. There’s a reason why his NHL 93 likeness was a pixelated demi-god immortalized in Swingers; at that time, he was everything you’d want a player to be.

With the Blackhawks, JR showed up as a skinny, cocky Boston kid with a ton of skill. Through those years — and with the help of people like Mike Keenan, Dirk Graham, Darryl Sutter, and Doug Wilson — JR was still flashy, still dazzling, but put it all together with an intensity that made him a true gamer and a true Chicago hero. There’s a reason why even today Roenick will say he felt he should have been a Blackhawk for life.

One of my favorite Roenick memories isn’t a single game, but a stretch of time during the 95-96 season when Darryl Sutter put together a line of Bernie Nicholls, Roenick, and JR’s buddy Tony Amonte. The line had it all: speed, size, skill, and flash from Roenick and Nicholls (the good ol’ Pumper-Nicholl goal celebration) to really be the coolest line in hockey at the time. Roenick was 26 at that point and still in the prime of his career before concussions and knee problems slowed him down. When I reflect on Roenick’s career, that’s the image I want to hold on to — #27 with the storied Hawk sweater barreling through a defenseman, stealing the puck, and scoring on a sweet deke.

Incidentally, when Roenick and Amonte were reunited in Philly, they had a bit of that same chemistry, and it was really fun watching how they instinctively knew where the other one was.

It’s hard to talk about JR’s career and not focus on what took him out of Chicago: money, or lack thereof from Chicago management. While Roenick is still near and dear to plenty of Blackhawk fans, his move signals the destruction of what could have been a dominant team and the ripping apart of a loyal fan base. Bill Wirtz and Bob Pulford infamously told Hawks fans to go enjoy their summer and not worry about JR; a few weeks later, you had Alexei Zhamnov pulling on a #26 sweater saying he was “One better than Jeremy Roenick.” It was the first domino to fall in a line that included Chris Chelios, Ed Belfour, Gary Suter, and Tony Amonte, and as a Hawks fan growing up, the way the whole thing was handled helped sever my ties to the franchise.

Roenick’s time in Phoenix never quite lived up to the hype; sure, he had some good seasons, but he never potted 40 goals again. There were stretches, especially when Roenick played on a line with Keith Tkachuk and Dallas Drake, when he looked like the JR of old, but during that period, a combination of a defensive-minded NHL and lingering injuries started to slow him down. Still, many Coyotes fans embraced his showman style and he did his part to help make inroads for the NHL in the desert. I don’t think any Coyote fan will ever forget his remarkable game 7 comeback after getting jaw smashed apart by a Derian Hatcher elbow several weeks earlier. He was relatively ineffective in the 1-0 OT loss, but seeing him skate with a football-style helmet to protect his healing jaw showed his competitive fire, even if his body didn’t always want to obey.

In Philadelphia, Roenick quickly endeared himself to the tough Flyers faithful, and he’ll probably be remembered best for scoring the OT winner in game 6 against the Maple Leafs. For me, I’ll always appreciate his blunt honesty about his trade from Philly to LA, which was essentially a cap move so the Flyers could sign Peter Forsberg: “I wouldn’t stand in the way of them getting the best player in the world.”

Out west, JR seemed made for Hollywood, but his game simply didn’t follow him on the trip. He tallied on the scoresheet early on, but then began a dismal stretch that started the death knell of his career. An insignificant season in LA (except for some post-game dancing which irked some old-school fans) and an extremely difficult season back in Phoenix put Roenick’s career to an end, five goals short of 500. The final line: 1252 games, 495 goals, 675 assists, countless quotable moments, thunderous hits, and plenty of controversy.

Some other random JR notes:

-Many people associate Roenick with the 96 World Cup team that featured Tony Amonte, Brian Leetch, Bill Guerin, and Mike Modano. However, Roenick actually opted to sit out that tournament due to his lack of contract at the time.

-While many people think of Roenick and Tkachuk with Phoenix, the two didn’t actually play on a line together until the 1998-1999 season. Until then, Tkachuk’s preferred center was playmaker Craig Janney.

-Does anyone else remember the spearing/high-sticking incidents that took place between Roenick and Amonte across two games between the Blackhawks and Coyotes? The rumor mill at the time churned with suggestions that the two had a personal falling out related to a situation similar to the Chris Pronger rumors in Edmonton. Apparently, everything was patched up by the time they both pulled on Flyers sweaters.

-Roenick was taken #8 overall in the 1988 draft. The #1 pick that year? Fellow American future Hall-of-Famer Mike Modano. In between Roenick and Modano were Trevor Linden, Curtis Leschyshyn, Darrin Shannon, Daniel Dore, Scott Pearson, and Martin Gelinas.

-In a really, really pathetic testimony to the Blackhawks’ scouting staff, Roenick and Eric Daze are the only Blackhawks draft picks to hit the 30 goal mark in the past twenty years. Ouch.

Is now the time to cue up the sappy music while we reflect on the career of Jeremy Roenick? Not a chance — we haven’t seen the last of JR Superstar. With Brett Hull leaving the NBC broadcast to take on more responsibilities with the Dallas Stars, it seems only natural for Roenick to sit in on the broadcast team. Nah, we’ll get plenty of JR’s attitude in some form or another in the coming years; for now, just cue up your favorite Van Halen song and remember Jeremy Roenick at his best: wearing the #27 Blackhawk sweater, hitting people without fear, deking defensemen out of their skates, and scoring big-time goals — and celebrating with a razzle-dazzle that we don’t see enough in the NHL.

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3 Responses to “Remembering JR”

  1. 1 PB

    Mike –

    Nice tribute to Roenick. I saw him play with the Flyers while I lived in Florida (including the Stanley Cup playoffs against the Lightning) and I’m glad I saw him when he still had his skills.

    He was a character, both in terms of good and bad, but his impact on the game and what he brought to it will never be taken away. He’ll make the hall of fame; I have no doubt.

    Philly appreciated him far more than L.A. and Phoenix, which is most likely why he sent the text message to the Inquirer and not like the L.A. Times or the AZ Republic.

    I was critical of his second tour here, and I did think to ignore the news of his retirement. However 16 of those 18 years were good to him and those years he was good to the game.

  2. 2 Steve (Newark)

    If JR shows up anywhere, it’ll be VERSUS or TSN.

    NBC is looking more closely at Mike Milbury.

  3. 3 Steven

    Mike, nice but tribute to JR. (Don’t forget the Hawks [i.e. Pulford/Wirtz] and Roenick’s agent did not like one another.) It wasn’t only about the money. Actually, J.R. took less from Phx, than the Hawks originally offered him.)


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