Concussions, Conference Championships and the ThunderDome: Jeremy Roenick’s history in Tampa

The former Blackhawk/Flyer/King/Coyote/Shark chats with Raw Charge

There a lot of people walking around during All-Star Weekend. Some of those people are hockey players. And sometimes they will stop and talk with you.  One of those players was Jeremy Roenick. The nine-time All Star and member of the 500-goal club played in over 1300 games during his 20-year career. Over those years, his path intersected with the Tampa Bay Lightning at a few key moments.  The U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer stepped away from tending the Coors Light Upcycle Bar to talk to Raw Charge about those moments.

On Tampa as a hockey city:

“This city is an amazing hockey city. They don’t get enough credit for not only how good they are with the fans, but how great the fans are for hockey. It’s pretty spectacular.”

It’s amazing how a good owner and success can change the perception of a hockey market. Back in 1999, the team was in turmoil and the hockey world was more than a bit surprised at how well that event turned out.  Flash forward to 2018 and there was nothing surprising about how the All-Star game turned out. Everything was top notch from The Vinik Foundation honoring Willie O’Ree to the fans drowning out Brian Boyle’s on-ice speech with cheers shows that this city deserves to be mentioned with Chicago, Boston, Toronto and the rest of the so-called “hockey cities”.

On playing at the ThunderDome and Expo Hall:

“I remember a lot. It was a long walk when we were over at the ThunderDome. They had half of the ring curtained off. That long walk...The old fairgrounds, remember the old fairgrounds? Playing there and warming up outside, just doing a lot of things outside, calisthenics, just getting ready for the game. With Phil Esposito being a part of it, I’m a big  Phil Esposito fan. Those were good times and it has only grown from there. It’s been a really good history and tradition that Tampa.”

Roenick made a really good point. The Lightning aren’t a “new” team any longer. They aren’t an expansion franchise. They have built a history that is all their own. Sure they aren’t an Original Six team, but they’re two generations into their fan base now. A lot of the people buying tickets (and writing for this website) don’t remember life before the Lightning were in town.

The fairgrounds and it’s quirks along and the ThunderDome are all part of the tapestry that makes up the foundation of the franchise. Hockey in Tampa, Florida isn’t some fad or passing fancy. Maybe it was when Roenick stepped on the ice during the very first game in franchise history as a 22-year old coming off a 50-goal season (he was held pointless in the 7-4 Lightning victory), but its not any longer. Anyone who says it is, is just plain wrong.

The second time Roenick appeared at a major event in Lightning history was the first All-Star Game held at what was then known as the Ice Palace in 1999.

“Lots of memories. It was Gretz’s [Wayne Gretzky] last all star game and being close to him, knowing him, watching what it was like having him being celebrated and Gordie Howe was here. I have a really cool story. Over at the Westin and I was signing autographs for all of the fans and as I’m pulling cards, pulling pictures and signing there was a piece of paper, I went to pull it and sign it. I’m trying to pull it and pulling it, the person wouldn’t let go. So I look up and all of a sudden Gordie Howe lifts his head around and puts his hand through everybody and wouldn’t let me pull it and he started laughing at me. So I had a little fun with Gordie Howe. It just turned out to be the big Wayne Gretzky show which it should have been. That was a celebration of Gretz, a celebration of Gordie and it was a phenomenal time down there.”

The 1999 All-Star Game was most definitely the Wayne Gretzky show. Even at the time, it was widely recognized that it would most likely be his last appearance as an all-star and was celebrated as such. Eric Lindros, despite being listed as the starting center for Team North America, gave up his spot on the ice so that Gretzky could be introduced to a chorus of cheers. He then went on to record a goal and two assists and earned the MVP honors, because that’s what Gretzky does.  The Great One wasn’t the only one honored in 1999. As Roenick mentioned, Gordie Howe was there and participated in the Heroes game skating alongside his sons Mark and Marty. The NHL also unveiled the Maurice Richard Trophy for the first time in Tampa.

There wasn’t much of a celebration of the past at this season’s All-Star game.  In fact, it was more about the future. The oldest players were goalies (Henrik Lundqvist, Mike Smith and Pekka Rinne are all 35) and they are three years younger than Gretzky was in 1999.  The stars of this year’s game were all young players, from Connor McDavid beating Brayden Point in the faster skater to Brock Boeser (and his glorious hair) winning MVP.  There were also no tributes to veterans (or even an old-timers game). The NHL is wise to focus on its future and not its past as there are a ton of young, marketable players in the league right now.

The third intersection of Roenick and Lightning history was the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals. In his words:

“I’ve also been part of another big Tampa experience - the Stanley Cup. I got to the Finals in ‘92 [Roenick’s Blackhawks lost to Pittsburgh] and I was more upset losing in 2004 because I really felt that was the best team that I was ever on, the best chance I ever had of winning a cup was in 2004.

To lose in Game 7 here was crushing for me.  Game 6 I had a major concussion. In overtime, it was me, [Simon] Gagne and [Keith] Primeau on a line. When we scored the goal, I made the pass I think it was Gagne or Primeau that scored [it was Gagne].  But I remember falling to the ice in exhaustion and i couldn’t get up. Physically couldn’t stand up, because of the concussion symptoms, but I played anyway which was probably dumb.

I remember being so exhausted and not in my right mind, literally the guys had to carry me off the ice. Then I turn around play three days later. [He is asked if that could happen in today’s NHL] I don’t think so, no. These guys are way too monitored, you know, the concussion protocol and all that stuff. There’s too many eyes on their safety.”

The league is still struggling with concussions, but it is nowhere near how bad it was during Roenick’s career. He is on record stating that he suffered around 13 concussions during his career. He wasn’t even the only member of that line that was dealing with a concussion - Primeau was struggling through his own issues during the playoffs.

On how a 19-year-old Jeremy Roenick would perform in the NHL in 2017-18:

“I get suspended every week. No question. My game was way too rough, way too hard. I hit too hard and I might’ve complained too much.”