HARTFORD, Conn. -- Hartford Whalers assistant coach Jay Leach is right. The first thing you notice about Jeremy Roenick is the handshake.
It is firm, resolute. No dead fish in the palm.
"I've got a pretty big mitt, but the first time we shook hands he nearly cracked a bone," Leach said.
The second thing you notice about Roenick is the self-assurance. Ask him a question and you get a direct answer. Before the Chicago Blackhawks drafted him eighth overall in the first round in 1988, the report on the strawberry-blond center out of Thayer Academy in Braintree, Mass., was that he could be a little cocky, a little selfish.
"It's not that I have a big head," Roenick, 20, once said, "it's just that I'm sure of myself."
Not long after Mike Keenan added the general manager title to his coaching duties, the Blackhawks were sure enough about Roenick to trade center Denis Savard to the Montreal Canadiens for defenseman Chris Chelios. And what was once perceived by some as Roenick's adolescent bluster is now seen as the seeds of leadership for the next decade.
Savard, only 175 pounds, was Sir Spin-O-Rama. With his amazing variety of 360-degree spins, moonwalks on ice and waves of his magical stick, Savard was part Michael Jordan, part Michael Jackson and all excitement. And, oh yes, he was a part-time tenant in Keenan's doghouse.
Roenick has bundles of offensive talent, too, and he's plenty fast. Two days before Roenick was drafted, former Whalers scout Dave McNab said: "He's the best skater in the draft. Pierre Dorion of Central Scouting said the only two better skaters in North America are Brian Orser and Brian Boitano."
The headline under McNab's assessment in The Hartford Courant that morning was: "[Bob] Murdoch Is Fired, Replaced By Keenan." It would be the infamous run-ins between Savard and Keenan and Roenick's emergence that would lead to the blockbuster summer trade.
As one of the greatest players in New England high school history, two questions seemed to follow every point he amassed: Will he fill out? And how will he handle the physical aspect of the pro game? Roenick filled out from 158 to 175 pounds. And after being sent to Hull of the Quebec juniors after 20 games in Chicago two seasons ago, Roenick decided he would begin dishing out as much abuse as he took. Roenick gets more involved in the rough going than Savard.
"I didn't want to be called a wimp," Roenick once told Inside Hockey magazine.
So, Roenick fought Marty McSorley of Los Angeles.
And he fought Craig Berube of Philadelphia.
He won big marks for bravery. Small marks for self-preservation.
"The kid has lightning quickness," said Leach, who once coached Roenick at the summer Hockey Night In Boston league. "He knew what he wanted in life. And his family made sacrifices to give him a chance to play.
"Jeremy is a tremendous athlete, fast, strong for his size. And he's certainly not afraid. I think the league saw that when [St. Louis'] Glen Featherstone cleaned out his teeth with a stick in the playoffs two springs ago."
Roenick simply spit his chipped teeth into his hand, showed them to referee Kerry Fraser and stuck around long enough to score one of the three-power play goals in the five-minute penalty.
He had arrived in the NHL.
Roenick is so resilient he even likes Keenan's demanding coaching style.
"It's a great team. Mike's as tough as ever, but we're winning hockey games," Roenick said. "And you don't argue with winning hockey games. He probably runs sharper pregame skates than most teams run practices. You've got to be in top physical condition for this guy. But it makes us that much better."
Roenick had a rocky first few games, but he piled up six goals and 17 points in 17 games. Linemate Steve Larmer, recently called by Doug Wilson the best all-around winger in hockey "bar none," is playing excellent hockey. And besides lining up with Larmer, Roenick says a recent phone call from Savard in which he gave him a pep talk helped.
"This is only my second full year and they've already put me in a big situation," Roenick said. "I like it. It's a big challenge. It's not going to make me a bad player. It's going to make be a better player. But I can't make the mistake of taking it all too fast. I've got to grow into it. I can't jump into it.
"I'm not replacing Denis Savard. I'm not replacing anybody. Everybody's filling his shoes. I'm going along and trying to jell with Steve Larmer. He's so low-key. He doesn't like much publicity. He comes to work, plays, and goes home. He doesn't complain. But he has done a great job."
As a Mobil executive, Roenick's father, Wally, moved his family at various times between 1974 and 1982 to Glastonbury, Danbury and Seymour, Conn.
"I used to watch Gordie Howe practice at the old Glastonbury rink," Roenick said. "Then they turned the rink into a chicken coop."
When Roenick was 13, he would take a flight from Dulles Airport outside of Washington each weekend for Newark, N.J., to play for the New Jersey Rockets bantams. Then he would take a flight home for a soccer game. Hockey, soccer, football, scratch golfer . . . Roenick is not hurting for a special gift.
"I remember out on Cape Cod one summer there was a league for pros," Whalers general manager Ed Johnston said. "One day, they were short a player. His dad was there. Jeremy was next door at the movies. So he fetched the kid. Didn't look out of place, either. I think he was 13. He's a natural."
The day before the draft, Roenick, rated No. 12 by Central Scouting, said he'd love to be drafted by the Whalers 11th. Only two players have said that: Craig Janney and Roenick. Unfortunately for Whalers fans, neither wears green.
"I always wanted to play in New England," Roenick said. "It's my favorite part of the country. I feel it's my home wherever I am. But I'm really happy in Chicago. It couldn't have worked out better for me."
When Roenick was 14, Wally, at the expense of his own corporate advancement, left Fairfax, Va., to move back to Marshfield, Mass. The move at least in part was to help Jeremy.
Roenick was expecting a group of 15 to watch him play Tuesday at the Civic Center, including his parents, his girlfriend Traci Vazza and her parents, and his agent, Neil Abbott.
"They usually have a sign hung for me," Roenick said.
Although he has established his hockey independence in the past year with his family, Roenick doesn't buy into any media innuendo about his father being too pushy a hockey parent:
"I'm really close to my family and Traci's family," Roenick said. "My dad's very protective. He just wants the best for his son. If I hadd to do it all over again, I wouldn't change it. He taught me to be the fighter I am."