It's the last day of August, the opening game of the 1991 Canada Cup, Team USA against Team Sweden. The Swedes, the reigning world champions, control play in the early minutes. The Americans are out of synch, emotionally spent and mentally adrift from the news that their coach, Bob Johnson, is in critical condition in Pittsburgh's Mercy Hospital, having undergone emergency surgery the day before to remove a brain tumor. The U.S. players want to win this game for Johnson, and the team is desperately in need of a lift.
Impact players step forward at such times. Jeremy Roenick, a 21-year-old center from Marshfield, Mass., who plays for the Chicago Blackhawks, takes a breakout pass at center ice and shifts into a higher gear. He is a fine skater, quick and sure on his skates, difficult to knock off balance.
As he approaches Swedish defenseman Peter Andersson, Roenick dips his right shoulder as if to take the puck wide, along the boards, then snakes it between the defenseman's skates and darts inside. In an instant the defense-man is beaten. It is a pure move that seldom works at this level of play, a clean one-on-one fake out that requires both slick stickhandling and speed. Roenick is flying as he picks the puck up on his forehand and then, with Andersson clutching at his back, feints again as he nears the net. Swedish goalie Rolf Ridderwall drops to his knees, and Roenick completes the spectacular rush by tucking a backhander into the open left side of the goal to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead.
High above the ice, the ribbing starts. Bob Pulford, senior vice-president of the Blackhawks and co-general manager of Team USA, is sitting with the rest of Team USA's top brass: co-general manager Craig Patrick, assistant general managers Larry Pleau and Art Berglund, and goalie coach Joe Bertagna. "That'll cost you, Pully," one says. "Big time."
Pulford has a meeting scheduled with Roenick's agent, Neil Abbott, after the game to discuss the terms of a new contract. Roenick, who scored 41 goals and 94 points for the Hawks last year and was a team-leading plus 38 in the plus-minus ratings, is looking for something on the order of $1 million a year—heady numbers for a third-year pro. Pulford, who appreciates Roenick as much as the next guy, has a lower figure in mind. He smiles nervously at his Team USA cohorts and refuses to accept the bait.
On Roenick's next shift the news gets worse for Pulford. Busting to the side of the net, Roenick takes a cross-ice pass from linemate Mike Modano and waiting until Ridderwall commits, roofs a shot into the top of the goal from a low angle to make the score 2-0. "That kid loves to play hockey like a fat man loves to eat," says Berglund.
As the players celebrate at ice level, Pulford begins catching heat from his peers. The ante is rising, he is told. Pully had better find Roenick's agent, drop to his hands and knees and, begging forgiveness, sign the damn kid to a contract before Roenick scores again.
Pulford's tortured response is directed toward the U.S. bench: "Will you get that kid off the ice!"
Perhaps coincidentally, Pulford catches the first flight out of Pittsburgh after the game, a 6-3 win for Team USA, skipping his meeting with Abbott. Roenick, known as J.R. by his friends, doesn't complete his hat trick, but he has been a force, throwing his relatively slight (6 feet, 170 pounds) body at Swedish defensemen with abandon, taking swipes at players with his gloves, working opposing ankles with his stick and exhorting his U.S. teammates from the bench. Roenick is an anomaly—the highly skilled hockey gadfly. He is one of the first Americans to play the game like a certain Canadian kid who is now in hockey's Hall of Fame—dare we compare them?—Bobby Clarke.
Roenick's not there yet. But it's easy to imagine Clarke behaving exactly as Roenick did following that Team USA win, when he sat sipping a beer with his father, Wally, in the bar of the club's hotel. Roenick was not celebrating the win, but killing time, waiting for the team bus, twitching like a kid in a new wool suit. "This waiting around drives me crazy," he said to his father. "I wish we could play another game tonight."