Jeremy Roenick's story about his encounter with Gordie Howe as a seven-year-old boy in Hartford was true gold with the NHL's marketing arm, even if it smacked of old-fashioned values and a simpler world.
In case you missed it yesterday, J.R. ended his retirement speech with a vignette about the time in 1977 he watched Howe, playing with the World Hockey Association's New England Whalers, circle the ice during a practice in Hartford with his two sons, Mark and Marty. Mr. Hockey collected snow on the blade of his stick and dumped it on the head of Roenick as he skated past. On the next lap, Gordie winked at the stunned little boy.
"For those three seconds, it was just me and Gordie Howe and nobody else," Roenick said. “It was little, it was small, it took nothing out of his time, but it resonated my whole life. So as a player, as I got older, I tried to reach out to fans, to reach out to kids.”
How neat is that. Or as J.R. said, how cool is that.
Roenick also passed a message along to ex-teammates and all NHL players. Connect with the fans. Don't miss the opportunity to give up a few seconds in order to provide a lifelong impression. It counts. That special moment is probably a big reason why J.R. turned out to be so gregarious. The game needs more players like him.
I remember the time my then wife-to-be Terri and I were on our way to a Toronto Blue Jays pre-season game back in the mid-1990s. We stopped in at a downtown Toronto pub for a pint and bite to eat and I noticed at the other end of the bar Roenick and teammates Michel Goulet and Dirk Graham were hanging out. They were in town for a Blackhawks game against the Maple Leafs the next day. I implored Terri to just let them be.
On our walk to SkyDome a short while later, my better half noticed the three Hawks were walking in the same direction on the other side of the street. She ran across, introduced herself to Roenick and the two of them spent the next 15 minutes chatting about everything from the final few games at old Chicago Stadium, rooftop parties at Chicago Cubs games, things to do in Chicago, the playoff hurdles for the Blackhawks, etc. Roenick and the others were on their way to the Jays' game as well.
J.R., then 24 and near the end of a 107-point season, was as comfortable and at ease with this stranger as could be. All these years later, I realized it was the Gordie Howe influence. Roenick turned a hockey neophyte into a quasi-hockey fan, or at least a J.R. fan.
"Are all hockey players like that?" Terri asked me at the time.
"Not really," I said. "J.R. is one of the special ones."
Thanks for being who you are, J.R.
Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior special editions editor and a regular contributor to THN.com. You can find his blog each weekend.
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