Jeremy Roenick's been waiting 40 years for his close-up. Now that he's finally in the tight focus of Mr. DeMille - okay, NBC TV - the garrulous Roenick is saying, "I am big. It's hockey that's gotten small." It promises to be a bumptious ride.
Roenick fills the former-player quotient on NBC's Sunday afternoon NHL hockey intermissions. Along with Mike Milbury and Pierre McGuire, it's promising to be the liveliest network TV panel around this season. Canadians know Milbury and McGuire, of course. Milbury is the highly entertaining spokesman for hockey's antediluvian element, Don Cherry without the pandering. McGuire is the sport's Beeker, a hockey technocrat prone to loud bursts of enthusiasm between team benches.
But Roenick promises to be the agitator, the rabble rouser, the shift disturber on the panel. Last Sunday, Roenick played the Yankee patriot, tweaking Cherry in a way that we never see in this country. Feeding off Cherry's bitter comments about the U.S. beating a depleted Canadian squad at the world junior championship, Roenick needled and bragged and otherwise played up the U.S. win and the chances for an upset of Canada at next month's Olympics.
Looking into the camera with mock gravity, Roenick ratcheted up the pressure for the boys wearing the maple leaf, talking about the disaster that would unfold should Canada not win the gold medal on home ice before a waiting nation. Pierre McGuire, a guy who bleeds Canadian red, declined a full-on debate with J.R., preferring to compliment the development of American hockey talent after a long dry spell.
Most of the banter was in good humour, but there was enough edge beneath the surface - always the key in a good Cherry segment - to keep the viewer waiting to see what Roenick would say next. None of which surprises any of those who covered Roenick for many years. There's was always plenty of underlying soap opera in the future Hall of Famer to fill a column or a TV segment.
Usual Suspects is not sure if NBC has any money left after paying off Conan O'Brien, but TV fans are hoping they save enough to pay Roenick to work the Olympics.
Roenick's performance was the only bright spot for NBC last Sunday as they were swallowed by the NFL playoff tsunami. Despite a one-sided Minnesota-Dallas game opposite, the Chicago-Detroit game - typically about the best matchup possible for U.S. ratings - drew a minuscule 0.8 overnight rating. That's off 27 per cent from last year's Rangers-Penguins contest in the same slot. (By comparison, the Cowboys-Vikings game drew a robust 23.9.)
More worrisome was the 10-per-cent drop-off in ratings for this year's Winter Classic on New Year's Day. NHL voices hasten to add that last year's Rangers-Penguins game did not air directly opposite an NFL playoff game. As Carl Spackler was wont to say, "At least they have that going for them."
Speaking of hockey in America, Bob Smizik of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is something less than breathless with anticipation about the Olympics: "Trust me on this," he writes in his blog. "The NHL participates in the Olympics because it is desperate for attention. Patriotism has nothing to do with it. It is, in fact, a real swipe at the league that it shuts down for the Olympics. In effect, it is saying the Olympics are more important than the NHL.
"No other sport would do that. If basketball were moved to the Winter Olympics, the NBA would not participate. When baseball was part of the Summer Olympics, MLB did not participate. If Olympics tennis ever went up against one of the four major tournaments, none of the top players would participate.
"In this quest for attention, the NHL is only demeaning itself. ... The most coveted award an NHL player should seek is the Stanley Cup championship, not the Olympics gold medal. The league realizes that and will withdraw from the Olympics after this year. And when that happens, the hockey Taliban, the very same people who proudly support the NHL participation in the Olympics, will loudly proclaim a great decision it was." Hockey Taliban? Don't tell Gary Bettman or he might put an expansion team there.