Arguably the greatest American-born hockey player retired about three weeks ago, and there are two reasons I have not spoken on this sooner:
1. I am adjusting to a new job, and lack the time and energy to do enough writing.
2. It is so hard to figure out what to say about a player of his magnitude.
When Roenick first broke into the league, I was not following the NHL. The professional team in my area was the Milwaukee Admirals, who remained the highest-drawing minor league team as recently as a couple years ago.
But the nearest NHL team was the Chicago Blackhawks. Roenick’s immediate impact on that team (nine goals, nine assists in 20 games) made enough waves to radiate to my life more than 100 miles away, even though I was only following college hockey at the time.
By the following year’s playoffs, Roenick was among the leaders on the top line of that spring. Unfortunately for him, it was the closest he would get to hockey’s Holy Grail.
JR was always my kind of player. He had a scorer’s touch, sure, but he played with reckless abandon on both ends and is tough enough to endure some injuries that would make most players with his skill level wilt. I do not think there was anyone left who could have questioned the man’s moxie after he had his jaw broken as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers just before the lockout.
Unfortunately for JR, he shares one of my unattractive qualities—speaking his mind without a filter. One must use discretion when making public statements, and he was famously quoted as saying regarding the lockout that if fans thought the players were spoiled, they could kiss his posterior.
The reality is that Roenick has always been fan-friendly. He signs autographs, he does charity work, he plays hard and he is always there for a great soundbite. Unfortunately, that one soundbite overrode all of his other work for a couple years.
JR has also never lacked for confidence and felt slighted by Phoenix Coyote coach Wayne Gretzky for not getting enough playing time. Naturally, the transparent JR did not hide this, and it created some stir. There was the perception that he was becoming a malcontent, as well as losing his value on the ice.
He spent the entire post-lockout in obscurity with the Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings before being all but forced into retirement. Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson, a former teammate of JR’s in Chicago, took a chance on the grizzled vet and convinced him to come out.
JR provided the Sharks everything they needed and more. He was a leader on the ice, in practice, in the locker room, and even with the media. He swallowed his pride and gladly took on a role-playing spot on the team’s fourth line.
He was there in the clutch, scoring 10 of his 14 goals for game-winners (including the 500th of his career) and getting four more winners in the shootout. His two-goal, two-assist performance in Game Seven of the first round led the Sharks to the second round.
Unfortunately, the Sharks let JR down because they lacked his characteristic grit from top-to-bottom in the lineup, and it showed every spring. Despite having a better record over those two years than any other team in the NHL, they won only one series in the two seasons he was with the team.
With his production and body in decline (he missed about half the 2008-09 season with injuries and scored just 13 points), it was clear that JR was not going to be able to help the team on the ice anymore. Maybe fellow top-notch American forward Mike Modano can give him the Stanley Cup ring JR deserves and Modano does not (Brett Hull was absolutely in the crease!).