That's when the real craziness started. At age 14, J.R. would fly People Express every Friday night during the season from Dulles to Newark, where he was met at the airport by a teammate's father. In the next day and a half, the Rockets would play three games against various East Coast opponents, then he would reboard a plane Sunday night and fly home. "Jeremy's been on the road his whole life," his father says. "Everyone talks about how hard the travel is in the NHL. Tough travel is getting home at five in the morning when you're 14. But we always believed that he should play against the top competition in his age group we could find."
Asked if he or his wife, Jo, had ever harbored regrets for having allowed their eldest boy to continue such a hectic schedule, Wally says, "We got him involved in competitive sports so he could learn a winning attitude, develop confidence, learn to compete and succeed instead of getting sucked into all the——like drugs. That was the motivation. Once he had that to build on, he could be a success in business or anything else in life."
Still, the family decided that one year of jetting to every home game was enough. In 1985 Wally requested a transfer back to Boston so that Jeremy, who had been in four schools in the past five years, could have some stability. Mobil complied, and Jeremy enrolled in Thayer Academy, a private school in Braintree, Mass., with a top-notch hockey program. In the next three years, Roenick led Thayer to two New England prep school titles. His play caught the attention of, among others, Wayne Gretzky, who took Roenick out to breakfast once to try to recruit him to play for the Junior A team the Great One owned in Hull, Que.
NHL scouts projected that Roenick would be drafted in the middle of the first round in 1988. The Blackhawks, who chose eighth, interviewed J.R. at length on the afternoon before the draft. Keenan, who was once likened to Hitler by a Philadelphia Flyer player, was a big plus in Wally Roenick's mind. "I'm intense, too," Wally says. "Why should I worry about Jeremy having an intense coach? If some wimp's coaching him, then I'm concerned. Jeremy's always had the benefit of playing for some very tough, knowledgeable coaches. At Thayer, Arthur Valicenti was a Mike Keenan-type coach. We're talking about learning how to pay the price to win. It's a damn good way to start."
Thayer Academy has about as much in common with Chicago Stadium as Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist had with big Bill Sikes, but Roenick, astoundingly, made the leap inside of a year. After he was drafted, Roenick went to Boston College for a week before playing half the 1988-89 season for Gretzky's Junior A team. Roenick proved he could score at that level, notching 34 goals and 36 assists in just 28 games for Hull. He then led Team USA in scoring in the world junior championships against the best 18-and-under talent in the world. With 20 games left in their season, the Blackhawks called Roenick up.
Roenick immediately impressed Chicago fans with his speed and scoring touch, tallying nine goals and nine assists before the playoffs. But it was his hard-nosed style that won Keenan over, a trait that reminded Keenan of a young star he had had with the Flyers, Rick Tocchet. In 1989-90, Roenick's first full season in the NHL, he scored 26 goals and 40 assists, then led Chicago in goal-scoring (11) during a successful playoffs in which the resurgent Hawks advanced to the Campbell Conference finals. "Our last playoff game was against Edmonton," Keenan recalls, "and it was Duane Sutter's last year. It was quite moving, really. Duane and Jeremy were holding hands on the bench, and it was like passing the torch. They felt they were going to lose, but they were giving each other friendship and support. It was like a kid hanging on and the father saying, 'I'll take you through.' I'm sure Jeremy will never forget that."
It was Roenick's rapid development that enabled Keenan, before the 1990-91 season, to trade flashy, mercurial center Denis Savard, who had had a stormy relationship with the coach, to Montreal for defenseman Chris Chelios, a former Norris Trophy winner. The Savard trade solidified Chicago's defense last year, and the Hawks improved their point total from 88 to 106, tops in the NHL. Roenick, stepping in for Savard between Steve Larmer and Michel Gou-let, was second on the team in scoring with 41 goals and 53 assists, and led Chicago with 10 game-winning goals.
How far Chicago goes this year may depend on whether or not the team has learned anything from its first-round playoff exit last spring at the hands of the Minnesota North Stars, who peppered the Hawks with 15 power-play goals in six games. There is a fine line between playing tough and playing stupid, and last spring the talented Hawks lost their poise, averaging a mind-boggling 46.3 penalty minutes per game in the playoffs. "We had the best record in the regular season," says Roenick, "and we took a deep breath and relished it. We faced a team that had no pressure on them. There's not too much positive you can take from that loss. But I think we still think of ourselves as the team to beat."
They should. Larmer, Chelios and Roenick are three of the premier two-way players in the league, and the team has a wealth of good goaltending. Some NHL observers are waiting to see if the team burns out under Keenan, however, although one player who won't is Roenick. "Keenan's very tough," he admits. "He demands an extreme amount of hard work. He might yell and throw things and scream at times trying to stir the pot. Sometimes you want to punch him in the face like everyone else does, but he always says that negative energy is better than no energy at all. He's the only coach I've ever had in this league, so I don't know any other way. I listen when he screams and try to separate the good things from the other stuff. I keep my mouth shut and try to stay out of trouble."
Small wonder Pulford finally broke down last Friday and signed Roenick to a five-year, $5 million contract. He knows it and Keenan knows it. They don't make them like this kid anymore.