Jeremy Roenick plops into a chair at The Ivy in West Hollywood, where he has a table but not his table. "You have to do something really special to get your own table at The Ivy," he had been saying a half hour earlier as he slalomed his silver Porsche 911 Twin Turbo through freeway traffic. After having scored two goals in his first five minutes as a Los Angeles King and just one since, Roenick, bedeviled by a wonky groin, is the first to say he is not tableworthy. In two months in Los Angeles this is the seventh or eighth time Roenick has dined at this spot, which is famous for being famous, a restaurant where the lobster ravioli comes with a side order of whiplash. The last time he was here, he saw Chris Rock at one table and "the girl from Desperate Housewives, the blonde, just reaming out her boyfriend something fierce" at another, although on this dull Monday afternoon, the sky the color of dirty dishwater, it is apparent from the furtive glances of other diners that Roenick is their Nicolette Sheridan. ¬∂ For many of his 16-plus seasons the irrepressible Roenick, a nine-time All-Star, has been a celebrity hockey player. Now, as the 35-year-old center slips into his anecdotage--no one tells a better story--he has entered the rarely-tread-upon territory of hockey-playing celebrity. Given the man, the market and the new ethos of a league that promises to entertain you until you scream Enough already! Roenick in L.A. in 2005 is the perfect hockey storm.
"This is the first place I can entertain, be myself," Roenick says, two sips into a vodka gimlet. "I can dance on the ice if I want to, sing on the ice. They get it here. They understand the entertainment factor." Roenick is wearing designer jeans and a gray T-shirt that reads everyone's an actor.
Welcome to NHL 90210.
Roenick has always been a lot more entertaining when his team is winning, which the Pacific Division--leading Kings (10-5 after Roenick's shootout goal beat Nashville last Saturday) are doing. For the moment there is no penalty for high-shticking. Roenick, nicknamed Styles, has been selling since his welcome-to-L.A. press conference when he said the Kings would "kick [the] ass" of the rival Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Since then he has danced on the ice during a delay in an exhibition game in Las Vegas, taped a figure skating bit with Jenny McCarthy for her TV show while wearing a unitard and Seinfeldian puffy shirt, appeared quasi-regularly on The Best Damn Sports Show Period and booked himself on Last Call with Carson Daly. At a preseason game at the Staples Center for which he wasn't dressed, Roenick volunteered to schmooze, sign autographs and pose for pictures in the arena lobby; the team happily agreed, stunned by his offer to glad-hand patrons.
Some Kings fans might have been mildly dubious about Roenick, who grabbed the national spotlight in June by saying certain fans could "kiss my ass." (That word, again.) The intemperate remark, directed at any fan who thought players were spoiled, was made at Mario Lemieux's charity golf tournament, part of an interview in which he also declared that "the players have hurt" hockey and "might not have been right" in their stance during the lockout.
That was not his worst public moment of late. In August 2004 The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Roenick had paid tens of thousands of dollars for information from a Florida-based sports-gambling operation raided by the FBI. (Eleven handicappers from National Sports Consultants pleaded guilty to federal gambling charges; Roenick was not targeted in the investigation, nor accused of illegal activity.) When the Inquirer story is raised at lunch, Roenick stops his fork in midair. "No, [the story] wasn't embarrassing," he says. "I was betting football. In Las Vegas. Legally. I was seeking professional consultation, that's all." Although a law-enforcement official told the Inquirer Roenick paid in excess of $100,000 for tips, Roenick said he gave touts just $10,000 and bet no more than $50,000, total. "Why should I be ostracized?" Roenick asks. "I still [bet football] once in a while. It's my money." He pauses. "Look at my face." There are rivulets of small scars. A larger one snakes down the left side of his square jaw, a souvenir from the puck that shattered it in February 2004, when his Philadelphia Flyers were playing the New York Rangers. He says the ovation he received as he left the Madison Square Garden ice, medical people holding his jaw in place, is one of his best hockey moments. "See," he says, finally, "I earned that money."
And Roenick, who's making $4.94 million this year, is going to spread it around. The EVERYONE'S AN ACTOR¬†shirt set him back $110 at Kitson's, down the street from The Ivy. A few days earlier at the salon of celebrity stylist José Eber, also in Beverly Hills, Roenick had had light streaks put into his sandy hair during a four-hour, $300 session of primping and pampering. Now, leaving The Ivy, he is greeted by a security guard, who says, "Good luck on the season, man." Roenick smiles and nods. "L.A. is the place where when they recognize you, you know you're a celebrity," he says outside the store. "I was at the airport on an off day"--Roenick often commutes to and from his suburban Phoenix home, where his wife, Tracy, and two young children, Brandi and Brett, are based during the school year--"and seven kids recognized me: three Asian, two Hispanic, two black. I was floored."
Roenick decides he wants to visit Eber's salon. The megalopolis can be a baffling warren of freeways and neighborhoods, but Roenick never gets lost. There is a Global Positioning System in his brain, not his Porsche. "I've been coming here since I was [a rookie at age] 18," he says. "We almost always had an off day in L.A. We'd rent shiny new Harley-Davidsons. We'd cruise. One time we stopped and bought a map of the stars' houses. We wanted to see if it was real."
Coach Andy Murray is behind his desk in his pin-neat office after a spirited Kings practice. Roenick missed the workout to take treatment on his groin--"JR's icing his tongue," is how one member of the organization explains the absence--but the intense 50 minutes after a loss to Calgary the previous night has reinforced the coach's positive feeling about his team.
Not that he plans to broadcast it. Murray is as buttoned-down as Roenick is flamboyant. On the road he slips a game plan under hotel-room doors late at night. He will include typos, then grill players about the misspellings to make sure they have been reading his work. He is meticulous. Last month in a postgame meeting after a 7-2 win over Dallas, Murray told his team not to give reporters any "bulletin-board material" the Stars might use as motivation. As the coach left, Roenick yelled, "We're going to tell 'em [Dallas's play] was absolutely brutal."
Murray grins as he tells the story. "JR makes me laugh," he says. "I heard his statements during the summer and I see it as entertainment." A fan website has run a guess-the-date contest for the first public spat between a pair that seems as mismatched as Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett, and such a spat is a distinct possibility considering the sometimes fractious relationship Roenick had in Philadelphia with coach Ken Hitchcock, who is basically Murray with a saltier vocabulary. There has been no winning entry yet. And there won't be, Roenick says, as long as the coach treats him with respect.
Amid the outrageousness and verbiage--with Brett Hull's retirement, Roenick indisputably is the NHL's Lord of the Gadflies--it is easy to forget that look-at-me JR really isn't all about JR. He thinks about his fans, his team, his league and his game as much as himself. There is substance to Styles, who makes veteran moves even off the ice. He treated everyone to dinner on the first road trip; instead of taking a single room, as is the right of a player who has played at least 600 NHL games, Roenick asked to bunk with promising young forward, Michael Cammalleri. He invited rookie George Parros to move out of a hotel and into his apartment overlooking the Strand in Manhattan Beach, where Roenick takes 5 p.m. walks in the sand and writes poems like The Shore: The sound of the ocean can calm all my fears/The sight of the sunset can bring me to tears.
O.K., he is jr and not e.e. cummings. But Roenick is nothing if not uninhibited in his new hometown. During a "strip shootout" at a practice last month, he kept missing the net and removing pieces of clothing and equipment. "I'm not sure whether JR wanted the attention or just wasn't scoring that day," Cammalleri says. "The guys guessed he just wanted to get down to his jockstrap."
"Every player you play against, you have an assumption," Kings captain Mattias Norstrom says. "My picture of JR was of a self-centered guy. What a pleasant surprise. When he gets to the rink, it's business. It's about being a team, and he always puts that above his own opinions."
For Roenick, who at week's end had 478 career goals, this might be his last chance to win hearts and change minds. He could be a King for a year; he's in the last season of the contract L.A. inherited from the Flyers. (Philadelphia traded him to create cap space to sign Peter Forsberg.) Though Roenick is undecided about whether he'll return for a 17th NHL season, he says he won't play another year merely to pass Joe Mullen's mark of 502 NHL goals by an American. "I'm not going to jeopardize my health for three goals or whatever," says Roenick, who has had, by his count, 11 concussions.
Roenick has options, of course. If you are the world's only hockey-playing celebrity, life is lousy with TV possibilities, movie scripts and whatever else filters to the famous. "I'm going to be in front of a camera somewhere," Roenick says on the way back to Manhattan Beach. "Without question." He then jerks his Porsche left, into the fast lane.
For more from Michael Farber on the NHL, go to SI.com/hockey.
"When JR gets to the rink, it's business," says Norstrom. "It's about being a team, and he puts that ABOVE HIS OWN OPINIONS."
Photograph by Robert Beck
¬†READY FOR HIS CLOSE-UP
A nine-time NHL All-Star and sometime poet, Roenick says he'll spend his next career in front of a camera.
NOAH GRAHAM/GETTY IMAGES
ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/GETTY IMAGES
¬†MOST VOLUBLE PLAYER
Roenick, a magnet for kids, has delighted Kings officials by offering to chat up fans around the arena.