Roenick's persona irked some, but his commitment was unparalleled
Jeremy Roenick retired Wednesday after 20 seasons with five different clubs
Critics said his outspoken personality and 'star' lifestyle took away from his play
Roenick would probably get a chuckle out of the NHL's troubles with Phoenix
After all, controversy, like misery, loves a bit of company now and then. And Roenick, who Wednesday announced his retirement from the National Hockey League after a 20-year run through Chicago, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Jose, had plenty of both including two stints with the terminally distressed Coyotes.
I'll get to that farther down, but it needs to be said that the mouth that so often roared -- even through a broken jaw or some other painful hockey ailment -- could easily speak volumes about how good a hockey player he truly was.
Not a lot of people, including a lot of people inside of hockey, are willing to sing Roenick's praises. Simply put, he ticked people off. People inside the game and people outside the game often felt he was just a little too outspoken and sometimes displayed something of a "hey look at me" personality. You know the type, these days pretty much your everyday National Football League player.
Roenick never played a down in the "da, da, da dum" league, though he certainly had the physical size and strength to perform in that circus. Instead his commitment was to the NHL, to hockey in general, and, in many ways, to American hockey in particular.
That part was always real.
The Boston-area native was drafted eighth overall in 1988 by the Chicago Blackhawks and entered the league in '89 with some reasonably high expectations. He didn't disappoint.
In his time with the Hawks, he registered two 50-goal seasons, three 100-point campaigns and once, along with goalie Ed Belfour and coach Mike Keenan, carried the franchise to the Stanley Cup finals.
Career-wide, Roenick made a noteworthy nine All-Star Game appearances, played in two Olympic tournaments, had a hand in leading Team USA to a breakthrough victory vs. Canada in the World Cup of Hockey and had one memorable appearance in the gone-but-not-forgotten Canada Cup series, a world best-on-best affair.
In saying goodbye, Roenick leaves as the 39th-best point producer in NHL history (513 goals, 1,216 points). Those numbers also make him the league's third-most prolific American-born scorer in both goals and points.
His detractors -- and there have been times in my writing career when I would list myself as being in that camp -- are quick to point out that Roenick never won a Stanley Cup and that somehow that's a reflection on his character. But I would always draw the line on that one. I didn't always like or agree with what Roenick had to say, but I could never question his ability and, with one exception, his commitment to playing the game.
In that regard, Roenick was always an All-Star and deserves consideration for the Hall.
Looking back over 20 years, it's fair to say that Roenick was a fierce competitor who sometimes sought the spotlight a bit too often. He had more than his share of well-documented tilts with coaches regarding lifestyle issues and his appearances with starlets, models, media personalities and, while with the Kings at least, the L.A. lifestyle. That brush with celebrity-style fame did from time to time seem to take something away from his play.
But those were blips in an overall steady stream of tough, physical play and a never-back-down attitude that allowed him certain latitude when speaking out about what was wrong with the game, especially when it came to treating players like disposable chattel (or perhaps a better word would be cattle).
Lest people forget, it was Roenick, often speaking out through the wires of a broken jaw or the pain of mashed shoulders, wrists and knee ligaments who made an issue of hits from behind and the overall level of physical mayhem in the game at a time when to do so was neither popular nor accepted.
Roenick also didn't just rail for the sake of making a name for himself, he challenged then-NHLPA boss Bob Goodenow almost as often as he took on league commissioner Gary Bettman. He was one of the few -- and sometimes the only NHL player -- who felt the Players' Association should be looking out for the physical well-being of the players regarding the way the game was both played and officiated.
His now legendary "wake up NHL" comment, a speech uttered through a mangled face after being run into the boards from behind, was in many ways a groundbreaking event; a clarion call from a player with a reputation for hard but clean play to the NHL to back away from the senseless violence in the game. Roenick was also one of the first and one of the few to openly criticize the NHL's deadly dull style of play in the years before the lockout and rule tinkering that changed the game.
In comments made to USA Today and picked up around the hockey world, Roenick argued that the game itself was great but it was being run by "Neanderthal people" who needed to learn how to "run the game right" before they ran it into the ground.
The criticism on both fronts was both stinging and stunning, doubly so given that it came from a quality performer who came into the game at a time when criticism directed at higher-ups -- be they coaches, administrators or commissioners -- typically fell on deaf ears.
It wasn't to everyone's liking and it wasn't always on the mark, but it was revolutionary for its time and it helped change the game. The subjects of his rants are loathe to admit it, but he did help change the way the game was played and the way the players were treated.
In many ways that was a contribution every bit as important as anything Roenick did on the ice and he should be remembered for it.
Roenick's two stints in Phoenix were a clear indication of his dual personality. In his first, he energized a team and a fan base donning a face shield to come back and play with a broken jaw in one of the Coyotes rare playoff appearances, a memorable seven-game battle with the St. Louis Blues in the spring of 1997.
In his second stint there, he's remembered best for leaving the building to gets some "wings and beers" after being declared a healthy scratch. It was a direct affront to his coach -- and likely designed to be exactly that -- but it showed a side of Roenick where critics maintained he put himself ahead of his team.
In a development likely stunning to everyone but Jim Balsillie and his lead attorney, Richard Rodier, a judge in a Phoenix bankruptcy court has ruled that Balsillie can be a part of an upcoming auction to determine the fate of the Coyotes in Phoenix.
It's a major blow to the NHL, which had attempted to close Balsillie out by bringing other bidders to the process. But those bidders -- Jerry Reinsdorf of Chicago baseball and basketball fame and a loosely organized group called Ice Edge LLC that has yet to show the court even a hint of the necessary financing -- have yet to win the favor of the court. That keeps Balsillie's bid to buy the team -- and relocate it to Hamilton, Ontario, and into the marketplace of both the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Buffalo Sabres -- in play.
It's almost impossible to overstate the importance to Balsillie -- and the dismay of the NHL -- that Balsillie's bid, a cash offer that trumps any presented or rumored to be presented to the bankruptcy court by some $63 million, is still alive.
I've said from the beginning that I had no idea which side would win this battle, but that it would clearly be a battle to the death for either the co-founder of Research in Motion (the makers of the popular Blackberry device) and Bettman, the NHL commissioner, and that still appears to be the case.
Balsillie's bid is still alive and there is reason to at least suspect that both the laws of bankruptcy and the laws of economics are on his side.
That's detestable to an NHL that has already disapproved Balsillie as an owner even though his bid would do more to satisfy the many creditors of the Coyotes -- even if it does come with the qualifier that the team would be moved.
And in a stunning admission (not of defeat, but at least addressing the fact that the league has a tenacious competitor on its legal hands), NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an e-mail statement to reporters that Reinsdorf may actually abandon his quest because of the tenacious court battle waged by Balsillie, Rodier and Coyotes owner of record, Jerry Moyes, the man who put the franchise into bankruptcy in the first place.
"I think from time to time, he's become very frustrated with the process," Daly told reporters a few days ago. "He (Reinsdorf) feels like he's being fought at every turn, and he's already invested a lot of money in this. At some point, we're concerned that he may just reach a decision that it's not worth all the time and money and effort when he's getting resisted as strongly as he is by Mr. Moyes and Mr. Balsillie."
That's not an admission that the NHL is seeking to abandon its fight to keep the franchise in a market where it has failed to the tune of some $30 million in red ink per season, but it is a strong indication that the league's best and seemingly only hope of finding someone who would operate the money-losing operation in that city, is now an at-risk player.
Part of the reason for that is the legally ground, clever and tenacious battle that the opposition has put forth. In the latest round the Moyes-Balsillie effort may have even given Reinsdorf and the NHL a well placed elbow to its legal head posting what was claimed to be confidential information regarding Reinsdorf's request for lease concessions and a "voluntary tax" which would make the good citizens of Phoenix liable for most of the risk and seemingly all the costs associated with keeping the franchise in the nearby suburb of Glendale.
So outraged were the league parties that they asked that Moyes be held in contempt of court (a request the judge considered but then delayed and may well dismiss). Instead the Judge ruled that the auction for the franchise would be held at a date of his choosing and that Balsillie's bid would be allowed into play.
This comes despite the fact that the league has ruled Balsillie to be persona non grata in a Board of Governors vote initially announced as unanimous but later revealed to be with three abstentions and one absent. While that ruling likely has no standing in a bankruptcy proceeding it is chilling nonetheless and at some point it will have to be resolved.
So among the many things still on the table is a situation where the judge could accept a bid and present ownership to a man (Balsillie) that the league has already rejected as ownership material for what it claims is a "deficit of character."
This would be laughable if not for the seriousness of it all. A league that has seen a great many of its individual team owners and wannabe owners go off to jail for a bevy of white collar crimes over the years, scratching a line in the ice to keep out a billionaire who has never seen a day behind bars and who could gain control of a team via the most unusual of circumstances: a court order predicated on a matter of law.
It is impossible to project how this will end, but one can say with some degree of certainty that the Balsillie-Moyes-Rodier line is playing a game much like the one the NHL bemoans in public but endorses and even aids and abets in private.
The trio plays hard, hits hard and is not above (or below) playing just on the edge or even outside the rules (thus the call for a contempt citation).
The NHL has never been above looking the other way when it comes to a blindside hit, a well-placed elbow to the head or a flat out rule-busting crackback shot into the boards regarding play on the ice, especially when it comes in the playoffs when teams do everything within and sometimes outside the rules in an effort to win. One could argue that it's playing by a certain sense of non-rules itself what with arguing that lease negotiations involving taxpayer money be kept confidential.
But who knew they would one day be on the receiving end of just those kinds of plays -- and in a court of law no less.
Even Jeremy Roenick has to be getting a bit of a chuckle out of that.