- George Johnson, NHL
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Waiting at home in Phoenix over the summer, Jeremy Roenick steadied himself for the worst.
"I'd come to terms with my career probably being over," he recently admitted. "It bothered my wife, though. She kept saying 'You can't go out like this.' I was OK with it, even if I was just five goals away from 500. I had done a lot over the years.
"I don't know how I would've felt when the season rolled around, but, at that time, I was handling the possibility. But then I started receiving lots of e-mails and calls from players and friends telling me to hang in there. For example, Craig Conroy text-messaged me saying: 'Don't give up!' That meant a lot. All the encouragement did.
"And then Doug called."
That would be Doug Wilson, Roenick's first NHL roomie in Chicago. Now, as general manager, Wilson is the man in charge of finally putting the Sharks over the top.
The desert is an arid place, a place where a backyard pool is considered an identifiable water mass; but Wilson tossed the drowning J.R. a life preserver and the veteran forward frantically latched onto it.
"When Doug called," Roenick said, "he gave me my life back. I'd do anything for Doug Wilson. He's a great person. A lot of people in this game had given up on me. I just feel so fortunate, so blessed."
And now, he's on the cusp of 500 goals. Just two away. Taking into account the frisky way the old fella has started the season, and the fact that Joe Thornton and his Downy-soft hands are around to put the puck on Roenick's tape, no one anticipates the countdown will take too long.
At least, no one hopes so.
"No. 500 can often start to become a burden," Sharks coach Ron Wilson said. "As a milestone like that gets closer, sometimes a player starts to press. J.R. should just relax and let it happen. I mean, he's already scored 498 goals. Two more shouldn't be that big a deal.
"It's just a number."
During a recent game against the Flames at the Pengrowth Saddledome, there would no goals, but J.R., the master showman, made his presence felt nonetheless. In the first period, Roenick was momentarily wobbled by a check near the Calgary blue line from the rather robust Robyn Regehr. He stopped dead in his tracks, apparently out on his feet. Play was halted. After taking a couple minutes to remember his name, but under his own power, Roenick slowly made his way to the San Jose bench, to a deafening crescendo of boos.
("As long as they're booing you," he'd confided earlier, "you know you're doing something right.")
He slowed down en route for a sarcastic wave-salute to each end of the Calgary crowd. The boos intensified. This was a man very much in his element. Oh, he'd also assist on two goals before the night was done in a 4-1 San Jose win.
By any standard, Roenick has been a great early-season story, considering the last meaningful hockey he played was in 2004 as part of the Philadelphia Flyers team that reached the Eastern Conference finals only to lose in seven to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
Then came the lockout, an entire season yanked out from underneath an aging star. Roenick was outspoken -- now there's a shocker -- in defense of his players' association brethren. He put on weight, up to 210 pounds from an ideal 185. He got cranky. A lot of the fun seemed to seep out of him.
There followed a lost season in Los Angeles, followed by a worse campaign in Phoenix, where he started being relegated to a healthy scratch by coach Wayne Gretzky. It was a big, flashing warning sign that The End was near.
By the time I got to L.A., 'The Show' had kind of taken over. And Phoenix ... I don't know what I was doing there, except maybe to sell tickets for a struggling franchise.
"He'd become a caricature of himself," Ron Wilson said. "He'd started talking about himself in the third person. When you do that, you're a caricature. He seemed lost in this ... fog."
Nearing 38, it looked like the jig was up after 18 NHL seasons, 495 goals and 1,170 regular-season points.
"By the time I got to L.A., 'The Show' had kind of taken over," Roenick admitted. "And Phoenix ... I don't know what I was doing there, except maybe to sell tickets for a struggling franchise."
In San Jose, he's expected to contribute.
"It was always in the back of my mind there would be nights J.R. could step up," Ron Wilson said. "He might not be as fast as he once was, although he's still pretty quick, but he can still think the game. You don't lose that.
"The two games he's missed because of bumps and bruises, we've missed him. J.R. has lots of gas left in the tank. He's fit in nicely."
Roenick received a one-year, $500,000 contract in San Jose. There were no guarantees. Any sign of showboating, and the deal was done. Handed a final chance out of the blue by a team with the equipment to make an authentic Stanley Cup charge, Roenick has made the most of it. He has five points in seven starts, is a plus player and, according to his coach, he no longer cares about the stature of his linemates, the size of his pay packet or the amount of his ice time. He just burns to go out in style.
"In the modern NHL, with all the skating, you just can't carry any extra weight," the coach said. "It's not the bump-and-grind game it was when J.R. was in Chicago. He's down to 195 pounds, and sinking. He feels a lot better physically."
The only extra weight Roenick is lugging around these days is the unfinished business of netting Nos. 499 and 500.
"Right now, I just want to get it over with," he said. "Something like that is an achievement you can cherish, for sure. And you celebrate it when it happens. Have a ball. But it's really something you can only reflect on, you can only truly enjoy, you can only fully appreciate, when you're finished."
He stopped and looked around him at the virtually empty seats inside the arena, his place of business for almost two decades now, with game time only eight hours away.
"And, as you can see, I'm not quite finished yet."
George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.