by Mike Chen on 08/05/09 at 11:00 AM ET
A few weeks ago, I titled a Joe Sakic retirement post “A Class Act.” Now I’m writing one for Jeremy Roenick—a guy who over my 20 or so years of hockey fandom has pretty much been my favorite player—and I can’t quite say the same thing. It’s not the appropriate description, and it wouldn’t really describe his career best. I’d call him honest, emotional, witty, perhaps impulsive, and passionate, but not always classy. Still, that’s not to knock his character; I think even he’d admit that his journey hasn’t always been a steady one.
I’m guessing there’s a certain segment of readers cringing at the thought of associating “Roenick” and “Favorite.” The guys at LCS Hockey sure gave me grief about it when I appeared on their show, and I’ve had plenty of debate with people over many, many years. To those that can’t stand JR, I ask that you take a step back, look at his stats, think of the way he played in his prime, and see how he changed his entire approach and attitude to become an elder statesman on the Sharks. It’s hard to refute that he was a special talent on the ice.
(Some of those people sent me messages when word of his retirement came out. Perhaps there’s more respect for JR out there than people would like to let on.)
Oh, I know he had his faults. I know why people find him crass, stupid, or annoying. There have been plenty of times when I’ve just had to shake my head at something he did. Still, JR was, in all ways, unique, and he provided me with some of most vivid and favorite memories, both hockey-related and just life in general.
So if you love (or like) JR, here are nine JR memories from a lifelong fan. If you hate him, well, go see my Joe Sakic appreciation post.
Part 1: Introduction to Hockey
You know that old notion that you always have a soft spot for your first love? I guess I’ll always have a soft spot for the player that pretty much drew me into hockey before my town had a team. A heart-on-his-sleeve player with an unfiltered mouth, Roenick was the perfect foil for a kid growing tired of baseball and looking for something new. Back then (this was pre-Internet, pre-Sharks coming to the Bay Area, and before Swingers immortalized him) I really didn’t know too much about what JR said or why he said it. All I knew was that he skated fast, hit hard, and scored lots and lots of goals. For whatever reason, SportsChannel America showed a lot of Blackhawks games, and if you watched Hawks games back then, it was pretty hard not to be transfixed by Roenick.
Soon after, I began skating on in-line skates, all with the intention of playing hockey. My folks had a pretty big backyard and it made for a perfect place to learn the basics of firing a wrist shot and skating crossovers. My older brother, equipped with a goalie stick and his baseball mitt, played goal and I was the constant shooter. Of course, there were no shootouts then, so the situation was always me as Roenick on a breakaway. You do enough of that as a kid and it’s pretty hard not to be attached to a player for life.
Part 2: Still on the Wall
A few years later, we went on a family vacation to visit my uncle in Detroit. He knew nothing about hockey, but he knew that my brother and I were big hockey fans (my brother was a Wings fan because of Sergei Fedorov) so he took us to a few sports stores where we could buy hockey merchandise—something that was unheard of in the Bay Area, even during the Sharks’ early years. To this day, my parents use my old high school bedroom as their makeshift office, but out of laziness or nostalgia, they haven’t changed the decorations. That means that my parents sort out their retirement funds and bank accounts in the shadow of a JR shrine, complete with posters from that Detroit trip next to magazine cutouts and miscellaneous Blackhawks stuff. I asked my dad a while ago why they haven’t taken that stuff down and his answer was simple: “I like JR.”
(That’s on one side of the room. The other side still has a bunch of old alternative/indie rock stuff, including a signed magazine cover by Gail Greenwood and Chris Gorman of Belly I got after I saw them play with Catherine Wheel in 1995.)
Part 3: Jersey Curses
My belief in the Jersey Curse (that is, when you get a player’s jersey, you inevitably curse him for a short period of time) probably started around this time thanks to JR. For my high school graduation, my friends and family got me brand spankin’ new Roenick #27 jersey. Around this time, I’d also discovered the early days of Internet hockey fandom, and I spent way too many hours that summer fretting with people on the Blackhawks Usenet group about whether or not Bill Wirtz would make good on his promise to re-sign Roenick. I remember when I saw the jersey, it was a mix of horror and delight. Here was this thing that I’d been wanting for years, but the voice in the back of my head kept saying, “What if he gets traded?”
About two weeks after I got that jersey, JR was traded for Alexei Zhamnov and change despite Bill Wirtz’s public denials. To this day, I remember reading a quote from Zhamnov where he joked about taking #26 because he was “one better than Jeremy Roenick.” I hated him ever since, and my friends still get me random Zhamnov stuff as joke gifts. That was the beginning of my ugly divorce from the Blackhawks, something I’m sure any longtime Hawks fans can understand.
Part 4: JR vs. Stevie Y
In college, our apartment brought four pretty different people together, and one of the huge ways we bonded was through a mutual love of hockey—a rarity for a school near Sacramento. While we all supported the Sharks out of geography, we each had our own favorite players and teams. In my Joe Sakic post, I mentioned my roommate who was a Wings fan and worshiped at the alter of Steve Yzerman. During our battles for video game hockey supremacy, it always wound up being JR’s team versus Stevie Y’s team. It was a friendly rivalry, of course, and one that spilled into boasts and debates about their real-life exploits. Even when Roenick blew away his team on the computer, he always had the one retort I could never shoot down:
“Hey Mike, how many times has JR done this?” (Raises invisible Stanley Cup over his head.)
I hated that. However, I’m sure a lot of people reading this will appreciate that.
Part 5: Asian Roenick Fans
This all came full circle when JR signed with the Sharks. In the 10+ years after JR’s trade from Phoenix, Bill Wirtz’s penny-pinching mismanagement of a dynamic team disgruntled me to the point where I almost wished that the Hawks would lose so Wirtz would lose money. Instead, my hometown Sharks went from my #2-out-of-local-obligation team to my #1 team, and I always joked that if I were Sharks GM, I’d get JR. During that time, I watched JR come back from a broken jaw in Game 7 against St. Louis, a Roenick/Tony Amonte reunion in Philadelphia (for people that don’t remember, their late-90s feud was very pro wrestling in nature), an awful year in LA, and a just plain head-scratching return to Phoenix. During those past two seasons, people questioned JR’s commitment and conditioning, and his performance on and off the ice seemed to back that up.
I also graduated college during that stretch, and one of my hockey-loving roommates (not Stevie Y guy; this guy was a Dominik Hasek fanatic) moved back to the Bay Area with me. He started telling me about how he worked with a bunch of sports geeks, and in particular, one guy who is obsessed with hockey.
This fellow – who is now a contributor over at Battle of California blogging under the name of Cheechew – was originally introduced to me by our mutual friend simply as “This guy likes JR too.” We jokingly called ourselves Asian Roenick Fans, a term that’s stuck around even to this day.
After the lockout, from JR’s “kiss my ass” comment to his sleepwalking in LA, Cheechew told me that he was withdrawing as an Asian Roenick Fan. His reason? Since JR’s time in Philly, JR turned into more of a sideshow than anything else.
Part 6: Family Peacemaker
True, those years made it pretty hard to stay loyal to the guy, and when he signed with the Sharks, I didn’t know what to think. The moment I found out, though, was an awesome instance of father-son bonding in the face of conflict. It was the week before my wedding, and my dad called to say that I needed to make room for a relative who failed to RSVP. I argued that this was messed up on principle and that said relative didn’t respond to my emails or phone calls, so why should he get to just push his way in there? Pre-wedding stress was already getting to pretty much everyone, and we had a fairly healthy yelling contest about this.
As this happened, the IM window on my computer started blinking. I’d ignored it for a few minutes while we debated but I finally clicked on it while my dad talked. There were multiple messages, all from my hockey buddies, telling me that Roenick was a Shark—no joke. I stopped my dad in mid-rant, telling him to hold on for a second before I told him the news.
He paused, and with all of the frustration gone from his voice, he simply said, “Really?” The conversation suddenly shifted to what line JR would play on, whether or not he had another year in him, and if he could score 20 goals shifting to Joe Thornton’s wing. Of course, that conversation ended and the other one eventually resumed. Despite the conflict of that call, I still look back at that moment quite fondly. Here we were, father and son, yelling at each other over the absurdity that comes with family and weddings and money, and through all of it, Jeremy Roenick gave us a much-needed truce.
Part 7: Hate Crime?
During our wedding reception, Cheechew and a few other friends decorated our honeymoon car with that window paint, including “Asian Roenick Fan” in big, bold letters. We kept all of the decorations on the car as we roadtripped down the California coast, and when we stopped for gas, the woman next to us gasped. She asked if we were victims of hate crime. Dumbfounded, we said no, and she pointed to the Asian Roenick Fan (which looked more like Asian Rxxxx Fxx at that point) and we had to explain that it was an inside joke.
A week later, we get home and try to wash the window paint off…but a week in the California sun had baked some of it on pretty tough. After scrubbing it off (on a black rental car, no less), you could still see the dim outline of Asian Roenick Fan at certain angles. So if you go to the San Jose airport and rent a black hybrid car, put it under the lights and see if a JR memory is still there.
Part 8: 50 Goals Again?
I’ve met Roenick once in my life: at a Sharks season ticket holder event immediately after my honeymoon – as in, we pulled into the house, unloaded our stuff, and I jumped in the other car to head down to HP Pavilion, Roenick jersey in hand. As far as I could tell, I was the only person there wearing a Blackhawks jersey, and that got some funny looks until people saw the name on the back. I’m usually not a big sucker for autograph events, and interviewing players over the years has taken some of the mystique out of the whole thing, but I felt pretty giddy getting in line to get JR to sign stuff.
The usher, who knew little about hockey, was pretty oblivious about who JR was, what his impact on the game or American hockey was, or what a pedigree he came with. She just saw my Hawks jersey and jokingly said, “That doesn’t belong here.”
I pointed to the back of it and she just gave me a confused look. I explained that he’d been my favorite player for years, and she started quizzing me about his history. I started rattling off all sorts of random facts, from his draft position to his friend/enemy/friend relationship with Tony Amonte. I think I scared her with my attention to detail, and she was seemingly relieved when the line moved.
I took the jersey off when I got close to the table so that he could sign the number on the back. As I approached him, I said, “I’ve got something old school for you” and held up the #27 jersey.
He took it and held it up, giving it a once over. “Haven’t seen this in a long time.”
Half-jokingly, I blurt out, “So, you think you can do one more 50-goal year?”
The question seemed to catch Roenick off guard, and he looked at me quizzically before he replied. “Only if Ronnie puts me on Joe’s line.” JR handed the jersey over, then looked at the usher who was trying to push people along. With the usher looking the other way, he motioned me over. “Give me your hat.”
Because I’m a big doofus, I reply with “Oh, I thought you could only sign one thing.”
JR, being the consummate showman, nodded over to the distracted usher and winked. I handed over my Sharks hat (one of the few nice-looking freebies that ever came out of these events) and he quickly signed the bill. I offered him a handshake and wished him luck for the season before getting pushed out of the queue by the usher.
Part 9: Acceptance
The beginning of JR’s time in San Jose came with a lot of skepticism. For my inner hockey circle – my college roommates, Cheechew, my wife, and the guys I go to the games with – the default “JR sucks” rib was a pretty constant thing.
I couldn’t really blame them. Even after Roenick’s first few games with the Sharks, I questioned whether he had any juice left. After a few weeks, though, JR really managed to find his stride. He wasn’t JR Superstar of the past, and he certainly didn’t come close to my 50-goal challenge, but he picked his spots appropriately – a big hit there, a timely goal there, and loads of hustle. Word also came out of the media that JR was a locker room mentor to all the young Shark players, especially Devin Setoguchi and Torrey Mitchell.
I can’t say when it exactly happened, but sometime midway through the season, the sight of Roenick jerseys in HP Pavilion became a common thing. Sharks fans didn’t just like JR, they loved him, adopted him as one of their own with an affection normally saved for Joe Thornton or Evgeni Nabokov. My final vindication as a lifelong JR fan? During one of our usual post-game meet-ups, my old roommate (the Hasek one, not the Yzerman one) pulled me aside and said, “You know, I really hate to say this…but JR is awesome.”
Since that moment, not a single bad thing has been said about Roenick in my hockey circle. If you want a testament to what kind of player Roenick was, all you have to do is see how his combination of hustle, grit, passion, and skill overcame 10+ years of mockery from my hockey buddies to turn him into a favorite son in San Jose.
Fare thee well, JR. It hasn’t always been smooth, but you’ve earned your rest. I just wish San Jose could have given you the ending you deserved.
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