The man was never a complex being, only stating his intentions and thoughts with various hues and arrays. And yet, it could not be more complicated to invoke a sentence, painting or photo that would singularly encompass the character and persona of Jeremy Roenick.
Splatter a paint ball on canvas, however, and it might be a closer portrayal.
But taking the number of video montages done in homage of his extensive career, we’ll notice most of his on-air memorabilia are from side projects, spontaneous dance routines and segments of verbal jousting.
From his cameo as a desk sergeant on the show Hack to his rendition of Enrique Iglesias, the public – not necessarily hockey supporters – stood witness to the Roenick effect. The clothing lines and entrepreneurial engagements simply added to his ubiquity.
Then, when it came to addressing the NHL during the lockout of 2004-2005 and the more serious issue of resuming the next season, he got right into the face of the head-honchos. The last thing JR was going to do was ease off the pedal, and he delivered his thought with deadpan accuracy.
“Our sport still is great. It’s just ruled by Neanderthal people, that’s all. Our sport is awesome, it’s the best sport,” a transparent Roenick told USA today in 2004. “We just have to learn how to run it right.”
Roenick always had his stinger primed for a target. His mantra – that of the truthful and honest, profanity and controversy be damned – is one many colleges and former teammates hold in high-esteem. It did turn off some fans, who will undoubtedly indict him for being haughty and focused on fulfilling selfish aspirations.
But the most credible account isn’t founded on that jaded perception.
“When you’re around J.R., there is never a dull moment,” former teammate Tony Amonte, who first encountered Roenick as an 11-year-old, told NHL.com. “He’s got people everywhere, friends in every city, and that electric personality. It doesn’t matter where you go, people are drawn to him. He made himself a star.”
He’s been quite the philanthropist for young hockey fans as well, as he revealed in his inspiration during his retirement press conference last week.
“Once, when I was seven years old, Gordie Howe got a bunch of snow on his stick, and dumped it on my head. I thought that was the coolest thing that has ever happened in my whole life,” he explained in earnest.
“Then he skated around a little more, and he looked at me again, and he winked. For three seconds it was just me and Gordie Howe … it took nothing out of his time. But it resonated my whole life.”
That particular attitude has been reflected in a whole host of ways, whether it was a concession of post-game souvenirs to crowd members or a personal meeting with a gawk-eyed child.
Reverting to his on-ice capabilities, though, we see the foundation of what would have been granted a certain Hall of Fame permit to Roenick if he had captured the elusive Stanley Cup.
Despite that, he stilled managed to tie Larry Murphy at the 39th position in all-time scoring and coincidentally became the third-most prolific American in NHL history. At 1,216 points and 513 goals, he caused just as much damage to the back of the opponents’ net as he did to the opponents themselves.
Because lest we forget, his mouth wasn’t the only way he was scoring points on the collective consciousness of the nation’s radar.
Add the fact that he recorded two 50-goal seasons and three 100-point campaigns, that he was a nine-time all-star and a component of two Olympic squads, maybe the absence of a Stanley Cup isn’t a gaping hole in his HOF resume; or one requiring filling.
He also provided moments of clutch and resilient performance, as seen during the 1989 conference semifinals against the St. Louis Blues. Reacting to a vicious slash to the teeth by Blue defenseman Glen Featherstone, Roenick approached referee Kerry Fraser with a bloody mouth, pleading in every which way he could to express his fury.
“Your first instinct is to spit [teeth fragments] out,” Roenick said to the post-game scrum. “But I kept them on my tongue so I could show them to Kerry Fraser.”
Featherstone was assessed a five-minute major while Roenick, seemingly from his argument, landed a two-minute trip to the penalty box.
Blood still cupped in his mouth – “All they need is a couple of caps,” Roenick nonchalantly chirped in response to his chipped teeth – it was the 19-year-old rookie who scored a power-play goal that would prove to be the game and series clincher.
Moments like these have been seldom mentioned when defining Roenick and how he affected the spirit of the game solely on the engine of his determination.
And despite travelling to five different cities for employment – after his eight-year stint with the Blackhawks, he joined the Phoenix Coyotes, Philadelphia Flyers, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks – his stay in the Windy City carries the heaviest impression on Roenick’s hockey lifespan.
If time won’t indicate that, former coach Mike Keenan made sure he would.
“I remember Mike Keenan grabbing me around the throat and threatening me to play a certain way when I didn’t think I could,” Roenick recalled in an interview with ESPN. “He taught me the mental toughness and the ability to overcome adversity when you don’t think you can. I learned a lot as a young player.”
The saddening aspect of his retirement is that Roenick is of a dying breed – a rare one at that. A player with a high penchant for goal scoring and mouth-flapping – and one who is able to balance it proportionately, to walk the line and not cross it – is something of the needle-in-the-haystack variety.
Especially now, in a post-lockout league concerned with salary cap adherence and the precious accumulation of prospects with a specific skill set, it will be difficult to see someone fill Roenick’s void.
“He talks without a script and he played without a script,” Columbus Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock said to NHL.com.
But Hitchcock doesn’t believe the factories are done producing players like Roenick.
“I think there is a lot of room for guys like that in the NHL. How he feels is how he’s going to perform. He doesn’t read from a pamphlet or a teleprompter. Whatever he feels he says.”
If there is ample room for modeled players to step in after Roenick’s departure, there’s no one checking in at the moment.
Alex Ovechkin could be thought of as the headliner, but he lacks the extraordinary flair – and the provocative vitriol – that Roenick so idiosyncratically possessed.
Sean Avery could be invited, though his PR image is contaminated by an established premise of villainy and undignified behaviour, a pending change in attitude notwithstanding.
Since more and more skilful players like Sidney Crosby are being marketed, however, the position for someone of Roenick’s stature may not even be there to seize. Ambassadors are exponentially selected on skill, on being modest and politically correct rather than direct and politically just.
Crosby, in no slight against him, is a very stern and focused individual, yet he helped pique the interest of many newcomers to the sport during the Pittsburgh Penguins’ seven-game playoff series with Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.
That only emphasizes the rare crop Roenick was extracted from. The thing with him is that he never insulted anyone who didn’t warrant an affront, because he maintained his unyielding compassion for the health of the sport, by any means necessary. He was gallant in his diatribes, hilarious in his off-ice exploits, and brave in tackling banner issues.
If there was an enduring ambassador for the game, he was it. Roenick plastered his image on numerous endorsements, but he didn’t just lure popular culture into the game.
He was a loyal servant. Through jaw fractures and concussions, he spoke. And a vote to the HOF will suggest it wasn’t in vain.