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Roenick: Penguins' Sullivan good but not enough to sell him on college

Jerry DiPaola
| Monday, June 6, 2016, 8:39 p.m.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan has accomplished wondrous feats over the past six months, but that was nothing compared to what Boston University coach Jack Parker asked him to do in 1987:Convince Jeremy Roenick to go to college.

Sullivan and Roenick, two Massachusetts natives, have known each other since Roenick was 17 and one of the hottest young prospects in hockey and Sullivan was a 19-year-old center on the 1987 BU team.

“When I went on a tour of schools, Mike Sullivan was my guide,” Roenick said Monday evening before going on “NHL on NBC” to serve as a studio analyst for Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Penguins and San Jose Sharks. “I stayed with Mike at BU.”

How close did Sullivan come to leading Roenick onto the Terriers roster? As it turned out, not close at all.

“I found out what a syllabus was,” Roenick said, “and I thought scoring goals was better than trying to keep up with the syllabus. I turned pro.”

But he also established an enduring respect for Sullivan, who has carried the previously underachieving Penguins into the Cup Final after starting the season as a minor league coach.

Earlier this postseason, Roenick stirred the ire of Penguins fans for perceived criticism of Sidney Crosby, but he credits Sullivan for carrying the Penguins this far.

“Too bad he didn't come along in September,” Roenick said. “He'd probably be coach of the year. I would pick him.”

As a collegian and BU captain, Sullivan showed traits that led him into coaching, Roenick said.

“I was very impressed with him,” Roenick said. “So prepared, so proud of his school and his team and so proud of what he was doing.”

A decade later, Roenick had become one of the greats of the game and was in the midst of an 18-year career in which he scored 513 goals, second most by an American-born player. Sullivan was his teammate on the Phoenix Coyotes for three seasons from 1998-2001.

“He was one of those guys who always analyzed the game, talked about the game, what happened and why it happened,” Roenick said. “Very opinionated, a smart, smart, smart hockey player. That's one of the reasons he was so good at the game.”

Asked for a specific memory of Sullivan as a player, Roenick couldn't recall one.

“But that's what Mike Sullivan was all about,” he said. “He did a lot of things really well. Nothing off-the-charts great.

“He was a very good defensive player, good offensively, not great offensively but definitely dependable, a great penalty killer. That's one thing I remember about Mike. He choked penalties so well because he worked so hard.”

Sullivan didn't block shots such as the Penguins have done throughout these playoffs. But that was a different time.

“He wouldn't be afraid to do it,” Roenick said. “But nobody really blocked shots back then. It's definitely a new trait.”

Sullivan played 10 seasons in the NHL for four teams — he started with the Sharks in 1991 — scoring 54 goals in 709 games. His best season might have been 1995 when he recorded three goals and five assists for the Calgary Flames in seven playoff games.

Roenick hasn't spoken with Sullivan recently but plans to do so soon.

“I leave (the coaches) alone,” he said. “I don't try to dig into their heads too much. I try to analyze what I see and try to stay out of their private time.

“I'm sure I'll catch Mike at some time and tell him how proud I am of him.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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