A Childhood Icon and a Christmas Gift

Kerry Trotter meets former Chicago Blackhawks player Jeremy Roenick at a fan event in 1992. (Courtesy photograph)

Kerry Trotter meets former Chicago Blackhawks player Jeremy Roenick at a fan event in 1992. (Courtesy photograph)

A dusty photo album in our house offers a revealing glimpse into the childhood heart of my wife, Kerry.

The album is titled, “Horses are the Best,” and its first half features pictures of horses, galloping and trotting and otherwise looking magnificent.

But midway through, things get interesting. With no real editorial explanation, the second half is all newspaper clippings of a former hockey player for the Chicago Blackhawks named Jeremy Roenick. Apparently, this Roenick fellow skated his way into young Kerry’s consciousness and, so abruptly, horses were on the outs.

Like many Americans, I grew up barely aware of hockey. In my defense, it’s not real big in South Carolina. But upon further research, I learned Roenick played with speed, toughness and electrifying abandon, scoring goals with gusto. He was a fan favorite, Wikipedia tells me.

So imagine my excitement when I learned Roenick was signing copies of his new book in Winnetka, a town on Chicago’s North Shore halfway between my office on Chicago’s Loop and my home in Highwood, Ill.

I had found the perfect Christmas gift for Kerry.

6:45 p.m.

My plan was to pop in on my commute home, have the guy sign something funny/poignant to her and then catch the next northbound train home.

At the bookstore counter, I purchased the book, titled J.R. — My Life as the Most Outspoken, Fearless and Hard-Hitting Man in Hockey.

My high spirits were first checked against the boards when the harried clerk gave me the number 95, representing my spot in the signing line. Looking around, there were indeed more than 100 people, adoring jersey-wearing, hockey stick-wielding fans, jammed between book cases and waiting.

7:05 p.m.

Roenick walked out to greet his crowd.

For the first time, I took stock of my wife’s hero.

Profoundly tanned (he now lives in Arizona), his longish blond hair styled straight back, Roenick opted for some ripped jeans on this special night. He wore an untucked striped shirt with the sleeves rolled up and the top couple buttons undone, revealing at the base of his neck some sort of silver medallion. I couldn’t really see it well from the children’s section.

His face was still handsome in its beat-up way, scars and a flattened nose telling of past brawls on the ice. Having retired in 2009, Roenick now provides television commentary, when there’s hockey being played and when he’s not writing memoirs. He reminded the crowd he has lots of opinions on things, eliciting a warm chuckle.

He spoke with some nostalgia about the good old days when players drank beer instead of “power shakes” and had no discernible ab muscles.

Players today are faster and stronger, Roenick admitted. By his tone, it was hard to tell if he respected that about them, but the very first sentence of his book’s introduction provided a clue.

“In 2007, I was watching Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby being interviewed … and I wanted to reach through the television and grab Crosby by the (expletive) throat,” Roenick begins.

Prompted by one fan, he launched into a story about playing golf with Michael Jordan, just a couple of Chicago sports icons having it out on the fairways.

As Roenick remembered it, he beat Jordan twice over 36 holes. On the second 18, they drank “a bag of beers” along the way. (“He wasn’t drunk, but he wasn’t … normal,” Roenick said of Jordan.) On whole, he won about $1,000 from Jordan, which Jordan won back, in a subsequent bet, later that same night when the Bulls won by double digits, with Jordan scoring 52, according to Roenick.

There was a lesson for the kids in there somewhere.

7:55 p.m.

The doubt began to creep in. What if Kerry had outgrown her childhood crush? What if she preferred a pair of earrings for Christmas to a signed Roenick memoir?

Still waiting my turn, I shuffled around skimming novels, eventually ending up in the poetry section, the only place with any elbow room. I read and re-read the back cover of his book: “When you are an athlete and someone asks what you intend to do to win a game, you need to CHALLENGE YOURSELF … you need to SHOW SOME BALLS.”

It was a difficult cover not to judge.

And yet, I wanted Kerry to still care about this guy. There was something very sweet about the thought of her watching the games with her dad, a lifelong hockey enthusiast, pulling for the wild man Roenick.

Besides, Roenick was looking pretty good next to some of my own heroes. As a lifelong fan of the Oakland A’s, I rooted heartily back in the late 1980s for the “Bash Brothers,” Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, the sluggers who have long since been disgraced by the steroid scandal.

McGwire now quietly plies his trade as a hitting coach for the Dodgers. Canseco’s downward trajectory has been more spectacular, with stops along the way including reality TV shows and disastrous mixed martial arts contests. He holds forth on Twitter, where he has more than 485,000 followers, casually tossing out gems like: “Aliens need love, too.”

8:45 p.m.

When I finally made it to Roenick, it was a joyless exchange. We were both tired.

“My wife’s a big fan,” I said flatly.

He grunted something in reply and signed: “Kerry, Best wishes, (signature).”

He was nice enough, though. We shook hands and I trudged out the door with my Christmas gift.

I figure Kerry will understand the gesture. These heroes of ours capture our young imaginations. They skate magnificently, slashing through defenses, scoring goals like the script was written just for them. They swing effortlessly for the fences, unhitched, unhinged, as graceful as birds taking flight.

Should they grow old and foolish and altogether human in front of our very eyes, well, that’s all just part of this journey we take together.

As I waited for the train, I thought I saw Roenick walking down the street, freed from the masses, looking like any other guy in the pale glow of the streetlamps. But maybe I was just seeing things, wishing that for him.

Greg and Kerry Trotter are both former reporters for the Valley News. They now live on Chicago’s North Shore with their daughter, June.