Author’s note: with the Chicago Blackhawks locked in to the No. 8 pick for the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, we’ve shifted the focus of our weekly “Former Blackhawk of the Week” series to players the franchise previously selected with that eighth pick. This week, it’s current NBC Sports analyst Jeremy Roenick.
Accurately detailing the importance of Jeremy Roenick to the Chicago Blackhawks in the late 1980s and early 1990s requires an explanation longer than this medium allows, but let’s try to make it happen, anyway. Because Roenick’s stint in Chicago was the perfect sports union. It was the right player, on the right team, in the right building, and among the right fans to cause all parties involved to fall head over heels for each other in a manner that only seems to happen in professional sports.
Roenick was drafted out of high school by the Hawks in 1988 and made his NHL debut on October 6 of that year. He didn’t score his first goal until February 1989 but still managed 18 points (9 goals, 9 assists) in the 20 games he played.
That postseason, the first on an endless list of Roenick moments occurred when he was crosschecked in the mouth by St. Louis Blues defenseman Glen Featherstone. The hit broke several of Roenick’s teeth and he skated over to referee Kerry Fraser while sticking out his tongue to show Fraser the damage done by Featherstone. Roenick later scored a power play goal as the Hawks won that series and reached the conference final.
By the 1991-92 season, Roenick was a legitimate star, posting a career-high 53 goals while leading the Hawks to a Stanley Cup Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins that they would lose in four games. It was the first of three straight 100-point seasons for Roenick.
But it wasn’t just those points that endeared Roenick to the fans at Chicago Stadium. There was an edge to Roenick’s game, a fearlessness to his demeanor that made him just as likely to throw a few haymakers as he was to throw a puck on net — he averaged 103 penalty minutes in those three 100-point seasons. Roenick was the type of player who epitomized that era of the NHL, when games often descended into on-ice mayhem, often met with roaring approval from the fans in the building — especially at Chicago Stadium.
Roenick played for eight seasons in Chicago, scoring 267 goals (ninth in franchise history) with 329 assists for 596 points (10th). It’s quite fitting that he scored the final goal at Chicago Stadium, an overtime winner against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
There are too many signature moments from Roenick’s time too detail in this post, but feel free to dive deep into a YouTube vortex of any moments featuring JR wearing Chicago’s colors. In spite of him having eight seasons with the Hawks, it ended too quickly.
After the 1995-96 NHL season, Roenick was due for a new contract in Chicago. But the owner of the franchise at that time, Bill Wirtz, was notorious for his penny-pinching ways (and that’s probably generous). Contract negotations between Roenick’s camp never worked out and Roenick was traded to the then-Phoenix Coyotes for Alex Zhamnov, Craig Mills and a first-round pick that became first-round bust Ty Jones.
Betrayal isn’t a strong enough word to explain the feeling in the Blackhawks fan base when that trade happened. An adequate descriptor may not exist in the English language. This was taking the heart and soul and guts and everything else of the franchise and sending it to a literal desert for a decently-skilled (aka nowhere near Roenick’s level) yet seemingly emotionless Zhamnov and two other players who would score as many NHL goals as the author of this article.
Roenick never played in a Stanley Cup Final after leaving Chicago. He made to the Eastern Conference Final with the 2003-04 Philadelphia Flyers, losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning. His career ended in 2009 with 513 goals and 703 assists tallied in 1,363 games.
In 2010, Roenick become a TV analyst for the NBC family of networks. Although recent years have seen Roenick devolve into something that has fans of his playing days pretending it’s someone else onscreen, a moment from that first season with NBC is a perfect avenue for a final look at the bond formed between Roenick and the Blackhawks.
He was in the house the night that Patrick Kane scored the game-winning goal to give the Hawks their first Stanley Cup since 1961, the title that Roenick undoubtedly dreamed of delivering to the city that had embraced him so completely during the prime of his career in the 1990s.
And when the camera shifted to Roenick and it was his turn to speak, the words initially flowed as fast as always but were then interrupted by stammers and later joined by noticeable tears welling in the eyes of someone who watched another group of players live out the dream the had once had.
“I’ve been there. I know what it’s like. This is an emotional thing for me ... for the kid who was there in 1992 who was crying when I came off the ice after we lost Game 4 in Chicago Stadium, you waited 18 years. I hope you have a big smile on your face.”
When Dan Patrick pointed out Roenick’s emotional reaction to what was happening, Roenick struggled to find these words:
“It’s the Chicago Blackhawks, man. I didn’t get to do that. It’s pretty unbelievable.”