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 entertainment pleasure.
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 shoot up.
"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.