This is character week in the schools of the southern New Jersey
community of Haddonfield, which makes it a natural for the
biggest character in hockey to address J.F. Tatem Elementary.
Whether you are one of the millions of Olympic viewers, 19,523
crazies at the First Union Center across the river in
Philadelphia or 320 munchkins in Flyers orange-and-black sitting
on a gymnasium floor, Jeremy Roenick is there for your
He trots out his A stuff for the A-B-C crowd. He talks up
teamwork, plays math games by using the number of stitches in his
face ("Can you guys in the back tell me what four times 30 is?")
and makes what constitutes a politically incorrect comment in New
Jersey by saying he prefers Michael Jackson to Bruce Springsteen,
moonwalking a half-dozen steps in nimble testament.
Roenick asks how many kids don't like hockey. About 30 hands
"Why?" Roenick demands of a stocky third-grader.
"Dunno," the boy mumbles.
"Because you haven't seen me play."
After 25 minutes the moderator whispers to Roenick that he has
more than fulfilled his obligation--basically she's saying,
"Iconoclast, dismissed"--but she is going to have to pry the
microphone from his hands. "Toughest goalie for me to score on?"
Roenick says, even though no one asked. "Curtis Joseph. Dominik
Hasek, too, but sometimes I get one by Dom. I can't ever seem to
do that with Curtis."
Three hours after his high-shticking--he did everything but
recommend the lunch lady's Salisbury steak--Roenick is slumped on
the couch in his recreation room, telling a story. As a boy in
Glastonbury, Conn., he and his buddies would lean over the glass
to get a better view when the New England Whalers of the WHA
practiced at the town rink. One day Gordie Howe skated by and
flicked ice shavings onto Roenick with his stick. "Greatest thing
ever," Roenick says, a smile spreading over his face. "He
acknowledged me. We had a special moment." Roenick sets his jaw.
"I realize now I can do that for others every night."
So this is J.R.'s pledge to you, the hockey consumer: There will
be no towhead untousled, no scrap of paper unautographed, no
interview request unfulfilled. He will make a difference, whether
that means stripping Alexei Kovalev of the puck to set up the
tying goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins (as he did in a 3-2
overtime win last week), delivering a crushing bodycheck on the
Buffalo Sabres' Alexei Zhitnik in the usually timid All-Star Game
last Saturday or tickling a Tatem second-grader who said she
wasn't having fun.
Every game night is Saturday night for the Flyers. After the team
meeting, about 5:40 p.m., the lights are switched off, the disco
ball above Roenick's stall is flicked on, and for 15 minutes the
dressing room becomes Studio 97. (Roenick has worn number 97
since his days with the Phoenix Coyotes.) Disco music
blares--Roenick seized control of the team stereo in a bloodless
coup on his first day in Philly--and he dances to The Gap Band's
Party Train. Todd Fedoruk, a fourth-line winger, often plays his
stick like a guitar in accompaniment. Maybe a third of the
players will abandon Studio 97 to stretch, another third will
join the party, and another third will watch in amusement.
"Exactly the breath of fresh air we needed," goalie Brian Boucher
says of the 32-year-old Roenick. "For years it seemed like
everybody on this team was the same type of quiet, serious guy.
Almost like we were robots, clones. Now J.R. comes in, the room's
loose, happy. We're feeding off it."
By signing Roenick as a free agent last summer for $37,500,000.02
over five years--he always sticks his two cents in--the Flyers
found their No. 1 center, their leading scorer (sixth in the NHL
at week's end) and their smile. Roenick has flung open the
windows of a musty franchise and aired out even the lingering
stench of the Eric Lindros unpleasantness.
A few days before the oft-concussed Lindros made his Jan. 12
return to Philadelphia with the New York Rangers, Roenick
repeated to reporters the common wisdom being bandied about by
first-time callers, long-time listeners: One hit could make any
Flyer a Philly folk hero. The Rangers were not amused. When a TV
reporter told him that New York enforcer Sandy McCarthy had vowed
retribution if anyone so much as looked cross-eyed at Lindros,
Roenick gazed into the camera and said, "To quote a famous line
from the movie Stripes, 'Ooooooooh.'"
"I guess," Roenick says, "I like to be in the middle of
Roenick, who got his 1,000th NHL point last week, is the
fourth-most-productive American-born player in league history
(behind Phil Housley, Joe Mullen and Pat LaFontaine), but he's
wasted on the sports pages. He is the kind of character Walter
Winchell should have written about, a conceit that appeals to
him. In the 1950s, Roenick figures, he would have been the guy at
the best table in the Copacabana, squiring the flashiest blonde
in the joint. In the 1970s he would have had the widest
bell-bottoms, the biggest butterfly collar and the best Travolta
strut. "I am flamboyant," he says. "I drive nice cars [a white
Mercedes CL 600 with a license plate that reads STYLES], have a
big house, dress wild."
Maybe this is Brooks Brothers by NBA standards, but a guided tour
of his walk-in closet provides a glimpse of a black velour jacket
with complementary gold-speckled pants, turquoise trousers, and a
crimson blazer that once caught the eye of a woman at a movie
theater who asked him which screen was showing Jurassic Park. If
Roenick were as quick-witted as he says, he would have replied,
"Number 4," instead of just telling her he wasn't an usher.
Anyway, dour Old Time Hockey is for dinosaurs. What Roenick calls
J.R. Hockey--"big hits, big goals, big games," he says--is the
future. The man has cheek, which is where he planted a wet one on
winger Mark Recchi last month in Toronto when the Air Canada
Centre scoreboard Kiss Cam focused on the Philadelphia bench.
"Biggest roar all night," says Roenick, who knows where all the
buttons are located and how hard to push them. In a game last
month, after being yanked down with no penalty called, he cracked
up veteran referee Kerry Fraser by moaning, "Do you think I'd
just fall down? I'm the best skater in the NHL."
Roenick has been in an especially giddy mood this season, but he
would probably be less droll if Philadelphia were out of a
playoff spot instead of leading the Eastern Conference by two
points at the All-Star break. He can grate. Roenick caused
friction near the end of his eight seasons in Chicago when he
whined that the Blackhawks were stifling J.R. Hockey. He rattled
cages in Phoenix after star Keith Tkachuk was traded last March
by saying that the Coyotes were banking on him to be a messiah
and wipe out world hunger. Sometimes the question is not Who Shot
J.R.? but which teammate would have liked to.
"No one had the [guts] to say anything directly because I would
have taken a stick and shoved it up his butt," says Roenick. "At
times, though, I sensed that people thought I was a sideshow,
that I was just in it for myself. But this is who I am. I don't
care if anybody thinks I'm an idiot. Maybe somebody thinks J.R.'s
trying to get all the attention. I like attention, but I don't
need it. I need to win. My teammates here know that."
Prodded by hectoring Flyers coaches, Roenick is proving it
nightly. He had what assistant E.J. McGuire calls "Western
Conference-ish" tendencies to swing by checks and stint on grunt
work. Now coach Bill Barber praises Roenick for playing the most
complete hockey of his 14-year career. There's nothing vanilla
about Roenick's game--he can pull a spin-o-rama, like the one he
used to undress Penguins defenseman Josef Melichar and get a
glorious scoring chance in that game against Pittsburgh last
week--but now he is more apt to dump the puck than to push it
between a checker's legs and try to slither by.
He's more mature than he was during the 1998 Olympics, when he
cost the U.S. a goal by skating out of position in pursuit of a
big hit against a Canadian winger. (When he came to the bench,
his explanation to a steamed U.S. coach was, "I have to play J.R.
Hockey.") Roenick doesn't try to win games single-handedly
anymore, although that doesn't stop him from joking about it.
Amid the pregame whoops in the Flyers dressing room, Roenick has
said on more than one occasion, "Big game, boys. Need all 20 guys
going." Then in a stage whisper, he has added, "Only a few of us
can do it by ourselves."
Tracy Roenick met her husband when he was 13. She theorizes that
he embraced the role of hockey entertainer as much because of
circumstance as his own personality. In Chicago he essentially
replaced the dashing Denis Savard and immediately understood what
that role demanded. With all the positive feedback he earned
while with the Blackhawks for three 100-point seasons and a
dervish style, Roenick grew bolder. After being traded to Phoenix
in 1996, Tracy says, her husband knew he had to sell hockey in a
nontraditional market, again making style as important as
The player and the showman are one now, comfortable in their
shared skin. The only shame is that Roenick must perform solo in
a sport in which outrageous means gobbling an After Eight mint at
7:30. When asked what J.R.'s NHL would look like, Roenick
replies, "It'd be: Go with it. Show me what you've got. Show me
how outlandish you can be, within the bounds of good taste. Show
me some controversy. Show me you can do something great with a
fan, like scoring a goal and jumping against the glass and
high-fiving him. Show me something that will make people say,
'Wow, that was cool.' Do that, and when the fans leave, they'll
be asking when the next game is."
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT CUNNINGHAM [T of C]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II
COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA
"He's exactly the breath of fresh air we needed," one of the
Flyers says of Roenick.