J.R. aiming to make a Great turn around

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:50 AM ET

DETROIT -- "I thought you were going to play in Canada."

"I was. I was going to Calgary."

"What happened?"

"Gretzky called. That's what happened."

In hockey, when Wayne Gretzky calls, people listen. And so, instead of wearing the bright red of the Calgary Flames, Jeremy Roenick is wearing the muted red of the Phoenix Coyotes.

PLAYING WITH PASSION

And he couldn't be happier. He's playing with passion and the reverence in which he held Gretzky has not abated.

"I love it," he says. "I really love it. I've been in the league 19 years. You think you've seen it all, and nothing impresses you, but every day I come to the rink, and when he speaks, you hang on every word.

"I've played with a lot of great players and been around a lot of great players, but to watch him and see how he handles himself in certain situations and listen to him talk, it's almost like you're trying to learn what he was like, to have the mind he had. That's why I hang on every word he says. You can't take your eyes off the guy."

This is, to say the least, not always the type of relationship JR has had with his coaches over those 19 years.

But before the season began, Gretzky pulled him aside and had a little chat. He told him that he didn't want to muzzle him, but he didn't want any surprises. If JR was going to do or say something outrageous -- which is not outside the realm of possibility -- Gretzky wanted to hear about it first.

On Tuesday, it appeared that there already had been a transgression. Gretzky was on a Toronto radio show when he was asked about an interview Roenick had done with Sportsnet's Christine Simpson. The suggestion was that Roenick had said he might quit in mid-season.

Gretzky, caught off guard, simply said, "Well, that's JR."

But Roenick says he was misunderstood. It may have sounded as if he were talking about the coming season, he said, but he actually was referring to last season in Los Angeles.

"I almost quit then," he said yesterday, "but some of the guys on the Kings talked me out of it."

It's understandable that Roenick was not feeling particularly perky last year. He couldn't score and he didn't look comfortable on the ice.

"It was my skates," he said. Pause. "And injuries." Pause. "And out of shape."

That's quite a litany.

"My trainer and I couldn't see eye to eye on getting my skates right with the sharpening," Roenick said. "I was off balance all the time. I was 18 pounds heavier. Then injuries came into play, and I just never could get into shape."

Like many players coming back off the lockout year, Roenick wasn't really ready to go.

"I was an a------," he said.

"I came into camp way overweight and was spiteful. This year I came in top-notch shape ready to play.

"It was a humbling experience for me last year. It was very humbling. I want to prove to myself that I can play in this league and I'm in the role that it's probably not necessary to put points on the board. But if I can go out there and be dominant at what I do, then I know I still belong here."

The role in question is that of a third-line checker, and Roenick is doing it well. But it's not a role he intends to fulfil forever.

"I'm planning on going up," he said. "I'm not going to stop until he puts me on in the last couple of minutes to win a hockey game and be one of the guys he goes to. I'm going to work hard. I'm not going to complain. I'm not going to complain about ice time. I'm not going to complain about a role.

A HAPPY JR

"I'm really happy where I am. I'm happy with the city that I'm in. I'm happy with the team that I'm on."

On Monday night in Columbus, Gretzky singled out Roenick as the Coyotes' best player.

That coveted promotion may not be far away.


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