It's the last day of August, the opening game of the 1991 Canada Cup, Team USA against Team Sweden. The Swedes, the reigning world champions, control play in the early minutes. The Americans are out of synch, emotionally spent and mentally adrift from the news that their coach, Bob Johnson, is in critical condition in Pittsburgh's Mercy Hospital, having undergone emergency surgery the day before to remove a brain tumor. The U.S. players want to win this game for Johnson, and the team is desperately in need of a lift.
Impact players step forward at such times. Jeremy Roenick, a 21-year-old center from Marshfield, Mass., who plays for the Chicago Blackhawks, takes a breakout pass at center ice and shifts into a higher gear. He is a fine skater, quick and sure on his skates, difficult to knock off balance.
As he approaches Swedish defenseman Peter Andersson, Roenick dips his right shoulder as if to take the puck wide, along the boards, then snakes it between the defenseman's skates and darts inside. In an instant the defense-man is beaten. It is a pure move that seldom works at this level of play, a clean one-on-one fake out that requires both slick stickhandling and speed. Roenick is flying as he picks the puck up on his forehand and then, with Andersson clutching at his back, feints again as he nears the net. Swedish goalie Rolf Ridderwall drops to his knees, and Roenick completes the spectacular rush by tucking a backhander into the open left side of the goal to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead.
High above the ice, the ribbing starts. Bob Pulford, senior vice-president of the Blackhawks and co-general manager of Team USA, is sitting with the rest of Team USA's top brass: co-general manager Craig Patrick, assistant general managers Larry Pleau and Art Berglund, and goalie coach Joe Bertagna. "That'll cost you, Pully," one says. "Big time."
October 6, 1991
Pulford has a meeting scheduled with Roenick's agent, Neil Abbott, after the game to discuss the terms of a new contract. Roenick, who scored 41 goals and 94 points for the Hawks last year and was a team-leading plus 38 in the plus-minus ratings, is looking for something on the order of $1 million a year—heady numbers for a third-year pro. Pulford, who appreciates Roenick as much as the next guy, has a lower figure in mind. He smiles nervously at his Team USA cohorts and refuses to accept the bait.
On Roenick's next shift the news gets worse for Pulford. Busting to the side of the net, Roenick takes a cross-ice pass from linemate Mike Modano and waiting until Ridderwall commits, roofs a shot into the top of the goal from a low angle to make the score 2-0. "That kid loves to play hockey like a fat man loves to eat," says Berglund.
As the players celebrate at ice level, Pulford begins catching heat from his peers. The ante is rising, he is told. Pully had better find Roenick's agent, drop to his hands and knees and, begging forgiveness, sign the damn kid to a contract before Roenick scores again.
Pulford's tortured response is directed toward the U.S. bench: "Will you get that kid off the ice!"
Perhaps coincidentally, Pulford catches the first flight out of Pittsburgh after the game, a 6-3 win for Team USA, skipping his meeting with Abbott. Roenick, known as J.R. by his friends, doesn't complete his hat trick, but he has been a force, throwing his relatively slight (6 feet, 170 pounds) body at Swedish defensemen with abandon, taking swipes at players with his gloves, working opposing ankles with his stick and exhorting his U.S. teammates from the bench. Roenick is an anomaly—the highly skilled hockey gadfly. He is one of the first Americans to play the game like a certain Canadian kid who is now in hockey's Hall of Fame—dare we compare them?—Bobby Clarke.
Roenick's not there yet. But it's easy to imagine Clarke behaving exactly as Roenick did following that Team USA win, when he sat sipping a beer with his father, Wally, in the bar of the club's hotel. Roenick was not celebrating the win, but killing time, waiting for the team bus, twitching like a kid in a new wool suit. "This waiting around drives me crazy," he said to his father. "I wish we could play another game tonight."
Wally smiled, accustomed to his son's intensity. "What would your legs have to say about that?"
"Screw my legs," J.R. replied. "Let's go. Drop the puck."
Step aside and let the fat man eat.
Jeremy Roenick is a throwback. Respectful of his elders, modest to the extreme, this tough, talented former preppie, for heaven's sake, emerged last season as one of the top centermen in the game. He is a total team player; if he could trade stitches for powerplay minutes, he would. He has. If his coach declared he was not giving enough of his body and soul in a particular game or practice, he would give some more.
The coach, in Roenick's case, is Mike Keenan, the successful, tyrannical drill-master who has left a trail of bruised psyches and broken wills in Philadelphia and Chicago. Roenick is Keenan's type of guy. "He has the skills, the drive, the intensity, and is determined to be one of the best," says the Blackhawks' coach. "I think he plays a lot like the old-time players. In the playoffs a couple of years ago, we were playing St. Louis. Jeremy had his front teeth knocked out [actually they were badly chipped] by a high stick [from then Blues defenseman Glen Featherstone]. That meant a major penalty. To ensure that a major penalty was called, Jeremy kept the teeth [chips] on his tongue and skated over to show the referee. Then he came to the bench, and as a 19-year-old, he came back as a leader. He said to the players, 'Let's get the job done.' "
The ending of the story is that Roenick, who already had taken eight stitches in the face that game to mend a gash by a skate blade, scored the subsequent power-play goal against the Blues, and the Hawks went on to eliminate St. Louis. "It's kind of like the old school on our team," Roenick says. "If you get hit, you get hit. You get sewn up and come back and play. If you get beat up, you come back for more."
"He still won't get his teeth fixed," says Wally, a district coordinator for Mobil Oil in New England. "He says, 'The hell with it, they'd just knock them out again.' "
Considering the players that Roenick has tangled with in the past, not fixing his teeth is probably a prudent move. His adversaries read like a who's who of NHL thugs. Featherstone, Detroit's Gerard Gallant, Toronto's Craig Berube, Los Angeles's Marty McSorley. "He took on McSorley right in front of our bench," recalls Keenan with pride. "Marty was so surprised. He's standing there, and Jeremy drops his gloves. Before they could get going, the linesmen jumped in, but Jeremy never backed down."
"I try to get guys off their game by chirping at them," Roenick admits, recalling the time that he baited Gallant, while the referee was watching, until Gallant punched him in the face with his glove. Gallant received a roughing penalty, and the Blackhawks scored on the power play. Next time Gallant came within earshot, Roenick needled, "Hey, want to do that again? We really had good success when you hit me last time."
What's a nice young Thayer Academy grad doing in a league like this? Roenick's road to the NHL has to be one of the most unusual in hockey. He started skating in Mil ford, Conn., when he was four years old, at the urging of the parents of a playmate, who had moved from Minnesota and wanted their child to have company in the local hockey program. Wally was often transferred around the Northeast, and in each new stop—Glastonbury, Conn., Rochester, N.Y., Ridgefield, Conn.—J.R. joined a hockey program. When he was 12, the family moved to Fairfax, Va., outside Washington, D.C.—not exactly a hockey hotbed. Still, Roenick joined the Washington Metros, a travel team whose closest opponent was based in Philadelphia. The team played in Long Island, Providence, Boston, Chicago, Quebec City, and Roenick, who once scored 350 points in a season as a Squirt (when he was 11), impressed enough people that the next year he was asked to join a Bantam team in Totowa, N.J., called the New Jersey Rockets, who won back-to-back national championships in 1984-85 and '85-86.
That's when the real craziness started. At age 14, J.R. would fly People Express every Friday night during the season from Dulles to Newark, where he was met at the airport by a teammate's father. In the next day and a half, the Rockets would play three games against various East Coast opponents, then he would reboard a plane Sunday night and fly home. "Jeremy's been on the road his whole life," his father says. "Everyone talks about how hard the travel is in the NHL. Tough travel is getting home at five in the morning when you're 14. But we always believed that he should play against the top competition in his age group we could find."
Asked if he or his wife, Jo, had ever harbored regrets for having allowed their eldest boy to continue such a hectic schedule, Wally says, "We got him involved in competitive sports so he could learn a winning attitude, develop confidence, learn to compete and succeed instead of getting sucked into all the——like drugs. That was the motivation. Once he had that to build on, he could be a success in business or anything else in life."
Still, the family decided that one year of jetting to every home game was enough. In 1985 Wally requested a transfer back to Boston so that Jeremy, who had been in four schools in the past five years, could have some stability. Mobil complied, and Jeremy enrolled in Thayer Academy, a private school in Braintree, Mass., with a top-notch hockey program. In the next three years, Roenick led Thayer to two New England prep school titles. His play caught the attention of, among others, Wayne Gretzky, who took Roenick out to breakfast once to try to recruit him to play for the Junior A team the Great One owned in Hull, Que.
NHL scouts projected that Roenick would be drafted in the middle of the first round in 1988. The Blackhawks, who chose eighth, interviewed J.R. at length on the afternoon before the draft. Keenan, who was once likened to Hitler by a Philadelphia Flyer player, was a big plus in Wally Roenick's mind. "I'm intense, too," Wally says. "Why should I worry about Jeremy having an intense coach? If some wimp's coaching him, then I'm concerned. Jeremy's always had the benefit of playing for some very tough, knowledgeable coaches. At Thayer, Arthur Valicenti was a Mike Keenan-type coach. We're talking about learning how to pay the price to win. It's a damn good way to start."
Thayer Academy has about as much in common with Chicago Stadium as Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist had with big Bill Sikes, but Roenick, astoundingly, made the leap inside of a year. After he was drafted, Roenick went to Boston College for a week before playing half the 1988-89 season for Gretzky's Junior A team. Roenick proved he could score at that level, notching 34 goals and 36 assists in just 28 games for Hull. He then led Team USA in scoring in the world junior championships against the best 18-and-under talent in the world. With 20 games left in their season, the Blackhawks called Roenick up.
Roenick immediately impressed Chicago fans with his speed and scoring touch, tallying nine goals and nine assists before the playoffs. But it was his hard-nosed style that won Keenan over, a trait that reminded Keenan of a young star he had had with the Flyers, Rick Tocchet. In 1989-90, Roenick's first full season in the NHL, he scored 26 goals and 40 assists, then led Chicago in goal-scoring (11) during a successful playoffs in which the resurgent Hawks advanced to the Campbell Conference finals. "Our last playoff game was against Edmonton," Keenan recalls, "and it was Duane Sutter's last year. It was quite moving, really. Duane and Jeremy were holding hands on the bench, and it was like passing the torch. They felt they were going to lose, but they were giving each other friendship and support. It was like a kid hanging on and the father saying, 'I'll take you through.' I'm sure Jeremy will never forget that."
It was Roenick's rapid development that enabled Keenan, before the 1990-91 season, to trade flashy, mercurial center Denis Savard, who had had a stormy relationship with the coach, to Montreal for defenseman Chris Chelios, a former Norris Trophy winner. The Savard trade solidified Chicago's defense last year, and the Hawks improved their point total from 88 to 106, tops in the NHL. Roenick, stepping in for Savard between Steve Larmer and Michel Gou-let, was second on the team in scoring with 41 goals and 53 assists, and led Chicago with 10 game-winning goals.
How far Chicago goes this year may depend on whether or not the team has learned anything from its first-round playoff exit last spring at the hands of the Minnesota North Stars, who peppered the Hawks with 15 power-play goals in six games. There is a fine line between playing tough and playing stupid, and last spring the talented Hawks lost their poise, averaging a mind-boggling 46.3 penalty minutes per game in the playoffs. "We had the best record in the regular season," says Roenick, "and we took a deep breath and relished it. We faced a team that had no pressure on them. There's not too much positive you can take from that loss. But I think we still think of ourselves as the team to beat."
They should. Larmer, Chelios and Roenick are three of the premier two-way players in the league, and the team has a wealth of good goaltending. Some NHL observers are waiting to see if the team burns out under Keenan, however, although one player who won't is Roenick. "Keenan's very tough," he admits. "He demands an extreme amount of hard work. He might yell and throw things and scream at times trying to stir the pot. Sometimes you want to punch him in the face like everyone else does, but he always says that negative energy is better than no energy at all. He's the only coach I've ever had in this league, so I don't know any other way. I listen when he screams and try to separate the good things from the other stuff. I keep my mouth shut and try to stay out of trouble."
Small wonder Pulford finally broke down last Friday and signed Roenick to a five-year, $5 million contract. He knows it and Keenan knows it. They don't make them like this kid anymore.