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My Life as the Most Outspoken, Fearless, and Hard-Hitting Man in Hockey
By Jeremy Roenick, Kevin Allen
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2012 Jeremy Roenick
All rights reserved.
Please Come to Boston
When I was an 11-year-old playing peewee hockey in the Washington, D.C., area, I remember backing down from an encounter with an opponent and hearing a voice from the crowd yell, "Get off the ice, you pussy."
Looking into the stands, I realized it was my mother.
In the 1980s, the Roenicks were not like the model American families depicted on a television situation comedy. We were not like Leave It to Beaver, The Cosby Show or Family Ties. There was nothing typical about our American family. The Roenicks would have been a better fit for one of today's reality shows. We could have produced the level of swearing, screaming, angst, drama and unusual storylines necessary to bring viewers back every week. They would have tuned in just to see how many miles we were driving, or how many mountains the Roenicks would be willing to move, to make sure I could play in a good hockey game.
If we were on reality television, directors could have built an entire episode around the time my father, Wally, booted me out of the car and made me walk three miles home in winter conditions because my effort wasn't as strong as it should have been in a hockey game. My family's overzealous pursuit of hockey success for their oldest son probably would have had viewers shaking their heads about the nutty lifestyle we lived to support my ability to play elite-level hockey. We were such a hockey family that my dad tells the story of driving away from our house in Connecticut after it was sold and realizing that one side of the house was black from pucks striking it over and over and over again.
Certainly, there were people around us who considered it bizarre, or maybe even insane, that my mom and dad built their lives around my sports activities. At age 13, I was living in Fairfax, Virginia, and commuting 250 miles each way on weekends to play for a hockey team in Totowa, New Jersey. Every Friday during the hockey season, I had a 3 p.m. reservation on People Express Airlines to fly from Dulles Airport in Virginia to Newark for the weekend. Even with People Express's special fares of $79 or $99 one way, my dad estimated that it cost about $25,000 in total for me to play for the New Jersey Rockets that season. He always joked that my NHL travel schedule was like a walk in the park compared to the miles we logged in my youth hockey days.
"Tough travel is when you are 14 and you get home from a road trip at five in the morning," my dad said. But, as he points out, at least I was able to fly to New Jersey. "The idiots had to drive," he said.
He was referring, of course, to himself and my mother, Jo, who would drive from Virginia to New Jersey. At the time, my dad was an executive for Mobil Oil and he travelled around the country for his work. It was standard procedure for him to land in Virginia after a lengthy work trip and then jump into a car for a drive to New Jersey. Sometimes he would take a red-eye flight directly from the west coast to Newark. As busy as my dad was, he usually found a way to attend my games.
To get an invitation to play for the New Jersey Rockets was an honour for a bantam-age hockey player in that era. The Rockets organization has been around since the 1970s. Joey Mullen, the first American player to reach 500 goals at the NHL level, played for the Rockets. They prided themselves on bringing together the best players from Long Island, New Jersey, Connecticut and the Washington, D.C., area. They recruited me after I had scored 203 goals and produced 485 points for the Washington Metros in my final season of peewee hockey. If it is possible for an 11-year-old to have a hockey reputation, I had one. The NHL is full of players whose first international notice came from the Quebec peewee tournament. I was one of those guys. In one tournament game, I netted eight goals. The tournament record was nine goals, set by some kid named Wayne Gretzky.
The Rockets also recruited my Metros linemate Matt Mallgrave. When my family moved us to Northern Virginia when I was 10, all I heard was that Mallgrave was the best player in the area. I don't know who I was expecting to meet, but I sure didn't expect to meet a player sporting a Mohawk haircut. I remember thinking, "This freak is the best player in the area?" Meanwhile, he told me later that he kept hearing I was going to come into Washington and be the new best player. He was unimpressed when he saw me in street clothes and realized that I weighed 15 pounds less than everyone else. He told me later he was thinking, "This little shit is the guy everyone is talking about?"
Despite our first impressions, we ended up becoming lifelong buddies. Although I didn't recall this, Matt remembers that he was matched up against me in our first scrimmage and I scored six goals against him. He said he knew then that the hockey in Washington, D.C., wasn't quite as strong as the hockey we were playing on the east coast. But Matt was unquestionably a quality player, netting more than 100 goals for the Metros one season. He was also one of the top players for the Rockets.
When Mallgrave decided to play for the Rockets, his father secured a townhouse in New Jersey. The Mallgraves would pick me up at the airport when I landed there on Friday afternoons. My dad would join us later when he drove in from home, or flew in from his latest business trip.
In my youth hockey days, my dad was heavily invested in my career. My playing style in those days came from the many talks I had with him about how the game should be played. He believed in teamwork, and if he thought I was selfish on the ice, he would holler at me on the car ride home.
The impression that everyone had in those days was that my dad was more intense than I was. Most of my teammates considered me laid-back. What everyone also remembers about my dad was that he was a chain smoker. When he coached my peewee team, the kids thought it was hilarious when smoke would come out of his mouth when he was barking instructions at us.
In looking back at our weekends in New Jersey, Mallgrave always recalls my dad with a cigarette in his hand. "Over a weekend, I swear he must have smoked 170 cigarettes," Mallgrave recalls.
The Rockets won back-to-back U.S. national bantam championships when Matt and I played for them in 1983 and 1984. In my first season with the Rockets, the only team we couldn't beat consistently was the Chicago Young Americans, a team that boasted Justin Duberman, who ended up playing college hockey at North Dakota, plus a few games for the Pittsburgh Penguins; Joe Suk, who would become a quality scorer in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League; and Rick Olczyk, who is an assistant general manager of the Edmonton Oilers. He is also the brother of former NHL standout Eddie Olczyk, who is also an NBC analyst. The Rockets always ended up playing against Chicago in the finals of tournaments, and I believe we only beat them twice all season. But one of our wins came in a 3–2 quadruple-overtime national championship game in Buffalo. I played in that game with a separated shoulder, courtesy of a check by Duberman in our preliminary loss to the Young Americans. In the title contest, I exacted my revenge with two goals and an assist.
Mike Ross, who went on to be a top college player at Brown University, scored the game-winner after a giveaway by Olczyk. In 1996–97, Ross scored 50 goals for the East Coast Hockey League's South Carolina Stingrays. He was a smooth, smart fucking player in the style of Craig Janney. He was probably faster than Janney.
Interesting, Duberman ended up playing with the Rockets the following year. We went all the way to the finals again —this time in Madison, Wisconsin, where we downed Detroit Compuware 3–2. Future NHL player Denny Felsner played on that team, as did Mike Boback. At that time, some people argued that Boback was the top American player in our age group.
At the peewee and bantam age, it's impossible to project who has NHL potential and who has not. But even when I was a peewee, everyone in the hockey world knew who the best players in the country were. Mike Modano was in Detroit's Little Caesars organization, and my rivalry with him started when we were 10 or 11 years old. At every tournament over the next few years, I measured myself against what Modano was accomplishing. That didn't stop when we reached the NHL.
The funny thing is that many in the hockey world thought Boback — who, like Modano, was from Michigan — was Modano's equal. Boback seemed to be more physically mature than Modano. Both of them seemed like they were extra large.
Boback was a quality college player at Providence and a solid minor-league player. But he never made the NHL. In my era, Michigan had another top player in Neil Carnes, who ended up playing in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League when I was there. But he was killed in a motorcycle accident. Rick Olczyk played for Brown University but never played professional hockey. If there was one story that has defined the Roenick family during my childhood, it is my father's decision to take a significant demotion — and a dramatic cut in pay — from Mobil Oil to move the family from Virginia to Massachusetts when I was ready to enter high school. My dad has said the move was about "quality of life" as well as hockey. "But hockey was a big part of it," he says.
My dad worked 40 years for Mobil and says his career chart looks like "the point of an arrow." He had a steep rise to the top and then a quick fall after he moved to Massachusetts. He was a marketing projects manager when we lived in Northern Virginia; he was an entry-level territory manager after going to Massachusetts. My dad won't say how much money he lost in the change of venue, but it has been my impression that his pay was cut in half.
The backstory behind our move to Massachusetts was my parents' weariness and concern about all of the moving the family had endured until that point. Because of my dad's position, we had moved 10 times in 15 years. If my dad had continued on his career path as a projects manager, he knew he would continue to move every couple of years. He noted that other executives moving that often had children who were in trouble. He didn't want that to happen to his two sons. Based on where my dad knew his career was heading, he expected that his next move could be to Florida, or Los Angeles, Dallas or Louisiana. This was the mid-1980s and those areas didn't have the hockey presence they have today. Because hockey was a big part of our life, he didn't want to risk going someplace where we couldn't find quality competition. My parents wanted to put down roots in Massachusetts and stay there.
We were a dedicated hockey family. Thanksgiving tradition for us meant having a turkey dinner at four o'clock on Wednesday and then my mom and younger brother, Trevor, climbing into the car for a drive to Buffalo for a tournament. When they arrived there, they would call my dad to make sure he knew they'd arrived safely. And then my father and I would board a plane for Detroit, where I had a tournament. The family would be reunited at nine o'clock Sunday night to resume our lives. When I was a peewee, we would have Christmas dinner and then we would pick up Mallgrave and his father and drive all night from Maryland to Ottawa, Ontario, for a tournament.
Perhaps the best aspect of my move to Massachusetts was my decision to play at Thayer Academy, where I met my wife, Tracy, and my lifelong friend Tony Amonte. Tony and I lit it up at Thayer in terms of offensive production. Our game was built on speed, and there weren't many defences that could keep up with us.
It is anybody's guess whether Tony or I was the faster skater, but I'm going to say it was Tony because of the bizarre story of his broken leg. As a Thayer freshman, he had broken his leg during a game. The break was severe enough that there was concern about whether he would still be the same player. It was broken badly enough that he missed a month and a half of school. People wondered whether his skating would be the same. It wasn't; it was better. After the injury, he became an amazing skater. He was a powerful strider. No one should have been surprised because he was such a hard worker.
It was costly to attend Thayer Academy, and Tony and his brother Rocco had their own landscaping business to raise their own money. When Tony wasn't playing hockey, he was working. Rocco also played college hockey at Lowell. Tony wasn't the best athlete in the Amonte family. His sister Kelly was an unbelievable lacrosse player, and today she coaches at Northwestern.
On the ice, Tony and I had great fucking chemistry. As a sophomore, I played 24 games and had 31 goals and 34 assists for 65 points. Tony had 57 points on 25 goals and 32 assists. As a junior, I played 24 games and had 34 goals and 50 assists for 84 points. Tony had 68 points on 30 goals and 38 assists. The third man on our line was Danny Green, a quality high school player who is now an attorney.
But what I remember most about our days at Thayer is how much fun we had off the ice. Tony and I had our version of mild hazing for the rookie players when we were there. We held naked cookie races. In the dressing room, the freshmen had to place a cookie between their ass cheeks and scoot across the floor without dropping the cookie. The loser had to eat the cookies. It was a lot more fun than it sounds in writing.
Today, I'm a guy who thinks he has a fashion sense. But when I was in high school, I was the worst fucking dresser in Massachusetts. I regularly wore this ugly pink, fuzzy sweater that looked like something Dr. Huxtable would have worn on The Cosby Show. The sweater had threads hanging off it like split ends. Mallgrave attended St. Paul's Academy, and he was always razzing me that my entire wardrobe came from the Sears catalogue. Everyone always kidded me about my sweater.
One day at practice, Tony was using a blowtorch to work on his hockey stick. He turned to talk to me as I entered the room, and the flame of his blowtorch reached the threads of my sweater, and suddenly they were on fire. The flames climbed up my sweater and singed my eyebrows before they fucking leaped over my head and evaporated. The threads were like wicks, and the flames went out as soon as they burned down.
Although it seems like a scary situation, the two of us just fucking laughed hysterically for a very long time.
Tony has the most infectious laugh you will ever witness. When he laughs, it seems as if he is out of control. His laughter makes you laugh. Our laughfest over my singed eyebrows didn't come close to matching Tony's greatest cascade of laughter. That would occur a few years later, when we were teammates on the Chicago Blackhawks. We decided to see the movie Dumb and Dumber. Early in that flick, Tony started laughing and couldn't stop. His laughter became so outrageously loud and funny that everyone in the theatre was laughing at him, instead of at the movie. I was in stitches.
Tony was also with me when I got my first tattoo, of the Tasmanian Devil holding a hockey stick. We were 16 at the time, way too young for me to be getting ink on my body.
Although Mallgrave and I went to different schools, we remained friends because he would stay with us in the summer — we played hockey together in the summer leagues. He would play on a line with Amonte and me. One of our favourite memories is of the time I tried to fix up Mallgrave with Tracy Vazza, the woman who would eventually become my wife. I've known Tracy since I was about 14, but I initially didn't view her as a potential soulmate. At the time, she seemed out of my league. I wasn't the most confident person on the planet when I was in prep school. She was a grade ahead of me, and she was far more socially active than I was. She was into fashion, and the only fashion I was concerned about was how I looked in a hockey jersey.
At the time, I was trying to date Tracy's friend, Martine Sifakis. It seemed it would be in my best interest if I could get Tracy and Matt together.
We were driving on Route 3 in Massachusetts en route to the arena for a game, and I told him, "Matt, I'm going to hook you up with this hot, awesome girl named Tracy." Just as I said this, a Porsche flew past us at about 90 miles per hour, coming back from Cape Cod. It was Tracy, behind the wheel of her mom's car. "That's her," I said as the sports car zoomed ahead.
Excerpted from J. R. by Jeremy Roenick, Kevin Allen. Copyright © 2012 Jeremy Roenick. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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