Ex-Friar Rooney bides his time as NHL waits

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, N.J., to his parents’ place in Canton, Mass., 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 played four years at Providence College and now is with 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 offseason since he turned pro late in the 2015-16 season, after completing a four-year career at PC. He always had time to plan the move, though, whether from AHL Albany, where he spent much of his first three seasons, or Newark,New Jersey, where he competed last year.

Like most NHL players, though, Rooney came home quickly once the league notified players on March 16 that it was permitted. As the league waits to see whether it can resume activity at some point, players have been advised to remain in self-quarantine through April 4. Rooney has been in touch with teammates since but hasn’t been in the presence of 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, instead have had a challenging year. A slow recovery from an 0-4-2 start resulted in general manager Ray Shero firing head coach John Hynes, of Warwick, on Dec. 3. The team then traded star center Taylor Hall, an unrestricted free agent-to-be, to the Arizona Coyotes on Dec. 16. Shero was fired on Jan. 12.

Rooney was dealing with the aftermath of a broken hand through much of that chaos. He missed seven games, from Nov. 13 through 30, and his quick return coincided with the elevation to head coach of assistant Alain Nasreddine.

“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%, I started to play a lot better.”

An outstanding defensive center and penalty-killer, Rooney had three goals and four assists for seven points over a 10-game stretch once healed, and was the Devils’ plus-minus leader at 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 its last 13 games to try out new players and combinations for next season.

A leader on Canton High’s 2009-2010 Division 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 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 of times to see how we’re doing,” he 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.”

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