Devils center Kevin Rooney has done his best to stay motivated, optimistic and in shape after returning home to see if the NHL season resumes.
Kevin Rooney had it a little easier than many. He packed up a few things, hopped in his car, and had made it from his in-season home near Newark, New Jersey, to his parents’ place in Canton in a matter of hours.
Rooney, like almost everyone, is now hunkered down, doing what he can to help contain the spread of the coronavirus. There is, however, no way for him to work from home.
“We have an app that we use, where our strength coach puts all the workouts we can do,” said Rooney, the 26-year-old center from Canton who plays for the New Jersey Devils. “But some of it’s hard to do if you don’t have equipment.
“We have a good area in our garage where I’ve done some stickhandling. I’ve gone for some runs. You just do what you can.”
Rooney, whose first full NHL season has been on hold since the league paused the 2019-20 schedule on March 12, has returned to Canton each off-season since he turned pro late in the 2015-16 season, after completing a four-year career at Providence College. He always had time to plan the move, though, whether from AHL Albany, where he spent much of his first three seasons, or New Jersey, where he completed last year.
Like most NHLers, though, Rooney came home quickly once the NHL notified players on March 16 that it was permitted. As the league waits to see if it can resume activity at some point, players have been advised to remain in self quarantine through April 4. He has been in touch with teammates since, but hasn’t seen any of them since March 12, when the Devils were scheduled to host the Hurricanes.
“We were getting ready to go out for morning skate, but then we were told not to go on the ice,” Rooney said. “We kind of knew at that point that we probably weren’t playing that night.
“Everyone had gone home after the morning skate, and we found out around 1 o’clock that the season was being put on hold. I didn’t see anybody after that. The team was being really careful; they told us to stay away from each other right from that point.”
The Devils, who opened the season with high expectations after adding former Norris Trophy-winning defenseman P.K. Subban, power forward Wayne Simmonds and No. 1 overall draft choice Jack Hughes, have instead undergone a challenging year. A slow recovery from an 0-4-2 start resulted in general manager Ray Shero firing head coach John Hynes on Dec. 3, then trading star center Taylor Hall, an unrestricted free agent-to-be, to the Coyotes on Dec. 16. Shero was fired on Jan. 12.
Rooney was dealing with the remnants of a broken hand through much of that chaos. He only took seven games off from Nov. 13 through 30, and his quick return coincided with assistant Alain Nasreddine being elevated to head coach.
“I wanted to play in front of (Nasreddine), but I didn’t feel great at all,” Rooney said. “I kind of went in and out of the lineup for a while after that, but once I was really healed up around Christmas, I never came back out. Once I felt closer to 100 percent, I started to play a lot better.”
An outstanding defensive center and penalty-killer, Rooney went 3-4–7 over a 10-game stretch once healed, and was the Devils’ plus-minus leader (plus-8) at the time of the pause. New Jersey, 19-16-8 under Nasreddine, went 6-2-2 in its last 10 games and, while effectively out of the Eastern Conference playoff race, had hopes of using more of its last 13 games to try out new players and combinations for next season; Rooney could use more games to secure the next in a series of hard-earned contracts.
A leader on Canton High’s 2009-10 Div. 2 state championship team, then an NCAA champion at Providence (2014-15), Rooney has taken the undrafted free agent route to the NHL. He started on a one-year AHL contract in 2016-17, earned a one-year, two-way deal from the Devils for the next season, then signed a two-year contract that ends when this season does. The 2019-20 season is his first on a one-way contract.
“Early in the season, I was probably thinking about that more than I should have,” Rooney said. “But I worked with a sports psychologist … and I started really focusing on playing, showing the Devils what kind of player I can be, so I could (re-sign) and continue to be a Devil.
“Now, with so much uncertainty, it’s definitely on my mind a little more.”
But Rooney is continuing to maintain the best condition he can, enjoying unexpected time with his parents and his girlfriend, Tara Turcotte, a California-bred player on New England College’s women’s team who is staying with the Rooney family, and staying motivated.
“(Nasreddine) has reached out to us a couple times, to see how we’re doing,” Rooney said. “He’s said he’s going about his business as if we’re going to play at some point, and that he hopes we’re doing the same.
“There’s still a lot of uncertainty, but there’s still some hope we’ll play.”