Thursday, August 6, 2009

My car ride with Jeremy Roenick

The best hockey in the world – the World Junior championships – came to Anchorage in 1989 and I missed very little of the 28-game, eight nation contest. It’s always a treat to watch the youngest, most ambitious stars from the globe’s best hockey nations play with intensity and style, and in 1989 the talent line-up was especially wonderful.

In the course of that tourney I got to watch future NHL stars like Pavel Bure, Alexander Mogilny, Teemu Selänne, Rod Brind’Amour, Martin Gelinas, Sergei Zubov, Sergei Federov and Reg Savage play on young, swift legs in an all-out attempt to prove themselves. There were also a couple of noteworthy Americans on the team that finished a disappointing fifth in the tournament: Jeremey Roenick and Mike Modano, who finished 1-2 in tourney scoring.

I think they were both 18 at the time and had been signed to NHL contracts. I know Modano had, because his bonus had made headlines in the hockey world, a high price tag for a young American skater. He proved himself worth it over a substantial career, much of it with the North Stars.

But the pick of the litter was Roenick, in my view. His statistics will prove Hall Of Fame worthy, in my opinion, but they don’t describe his full worth. Roenick was fast, tough and a fierce competitor, applying back-checks Modano would never dream of. Over the course of a 20-year professional career he always elevated the level of his teams, giving whatever it took, whether throwing down his gloves or leaving defensemen alone and embarrassed after rushing from blueline to blueline to score.

Perhaps most appealing was his irrepressible personality and joie de vivre. Very few hockey players break through to pop culture stardom in the U.S., but Roenick managed. There’s a good retrospective online here.

On the occasion of his retirement, I want to tip my hat in appreciation by sharing a recollection of the time I drove Roenick and Modano around Anchorage. I’m sure neither of them will remember it, and sure I will never forget.

It came during that World Junior tourney at the Sullivan Arena in Anchorage. At an afternoon match not involving the U.S. one day I spotted several American players in the stands, watching and scouting. I joined them, and not long after got into a conversation with Roenick, comparing impressions of the other players and talking briefly about Alaska.

At some point they mentioned that they had to find their way back to the hotel, so I offered a ride. I was excited at the notion of driving around talking hockey with two of the brightest young stars in the country.

At the time I was driving a new red Saab Turbo with butterscotch leather seats, and from the moment the doors opened that’s all they wanted to talk about. How fast would it go? Did I like the front-wheel drive for snow? Could I turn up the stereo and show them how it worked?

I realized then that they were teenage boys, and while their interests certainly included hockey, it was probably third or fourth on the list. I’d guess girls, beer and cars all outranked it.

I dropped them off and probably went back to watch a Finland-Czechoslovakia game or something. Later I’d got to cover one game for the paper (I was the editor, and made the sports department let me) that turned out to be interesting in its own right when an extra puck mysteriously appeared on the ice after Sweden scored against the USSR and nullified the goal. The USSR went on to win the game 3-2 and later the championship, as well.

The whole nine-day tournament is firmly embedded in my memory as the best sporting event I’ve ever watched. A lot of it revolves around Jeremy Roenick, who’s retiring now and “hanging up the ax,” as they said in Slapshot. He’s leaving the rink, bjut I hope he stays in the game.

Thanks, Jeremy.

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