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Tuesday, June 28, 2005
Updated: June 29, 8:40 AM ET
Roenick's sound-bite puts NHL in the news

By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com

Would the NHL be happy if the Flyers' Jeremy Roenick had draped a towel around his neck and said in monotone: "When we're playing again, we have to give it 110 percent, finish our checks, take it one game at a time, and hope we don't run into a hot goaltender"?

Of course.

Because that's the NHL way, a mind-numbing, yawn-inducing phenomenon we grouse about all the time, yet encourage when we – public, media members and hockey insiders – overreact to isolated candor.

Roenick put his skate in his mouth and they're still counting the number of stitches needed to close the wound. His subsequent protestations about being quoted out of context are almost irrelevant. Roenick is media-savvy enough to know that in this era of sound-bite quotation journalism, even in print and online, he can't have 500-word prefaces or epilogues around his most pithy quotes.

But beyond that, what's the big deal?

Judging from the reaction, you'd think the film "The Ugly American" should revise the plot and star Adam Sandler as a Massachusetts-born hockey player.

At Mario Lemieux's celebrity golf tournament last weekend, Roenick said what he thought, much like he did as a refreshingly different television commentator during the World Cup telecasts last fall.

We have come to expect that sort of outspokenness from Roenick, and I'll take that over the game's traditional, peer pressure-enforced blandness any day of the week.

If you take the time to think about what he said, his points – as I interpret it, anyway – are:

1. The NHL Players' Association will end up signing off on huge salary cuts;

2. The players lost money that they never will make up, lost an entire season of play and ended up with a deal worse than they could have made last season;

3. The players felt they were taking a principled stand by believing in their union, and did not do this with the sole intention of maximizing their salaries. Those who don't understand this are being unfair.

Roenick's frustration showed. He ripped nearly everyone involved in this mess.

Granted, saying the fans who don't sympathize with the players can essentially go to hell, rather than an arena, wasn't exactly brilliant. The post-settlement NHL needs to be a partnership committed to embracing and expanding the fan pool.

Yet Roenick is just one player, albeit high-profile, who voiced his frustration and used the term "we." He was not speaking for teammates, fellow union members or anyone else. He was speaking for himself, and it's off base to interpret his remarks as the players' universal opinion or the league's across-the-board position.

Contrast this to the NBA's situation. The NBA averted a lockout, and the specter of NHL players without paychecks – at least in North America – helped speed the settlement. In this case, the NBA's more individualistic, what's-in-it-for-me approach encouraged a sensible compromise. In hockey, it came down to a traditional "one-for-all" rallying cry – particularly against the backdrop of the league's stubborn position.

But you know what? That sort of analysis of Roenick's remarks, which might even be putting words into his mouth, might be pointless.

The point is, one of the NHL's problems is that it's so rare to hear a high-profile player, or any player at all, saying what he truly thinks. That attitude helped get the NHL in this fix in the first place, not in a direct cause-and-effect way but as part of an overall mind-set that has helped prevent the sport from gaining a deeper foothold in the mainstream sporting consciousness, especially south of the U.S.-Canadian border.

I'm not saying that the NHL should embrace WWE smackdown absurdity or that hockey players shouldn't be held accountable if what they say is patently offensive. I'm not saying the NHL should do a 180-degree turn and adopt the "me-me-me" approach common in other sports.

Writers, broadcasters and the public want to hear what NHL players really think more often. It doesn't have to be incendiary madness or egocentric silliness. Often, it's only admitting the obvious. Draw further attention to the NHL as a sport where the players are generally good guys who are reflective and trust their sport and fans enough to offer up the truth. Or at least what they believe to be the truth at that moment.

Roenick is part of one example that lives on in Stanley Cup playoff lore – and on the highlight videos. In 1996, Colorado defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh tripped him from behind on an overtime breakaway in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals in Chicago. The Blackhawks led the series 2-1. If referee Andy van Hellemond had called either a penalty, or for a penalty shot (which by all rights he should have done), history could have changed.

Instead, he swallowed the whistle, Colorado won the game, the series and went on to win the Stanley Cup.

After the game, Roy said he would have stopped Roenick on the penalty shot, anyway.

Roenick said he found that funny, because he had scored on a breakaway in Game 3 – when, he claimed, Roy's jock had ended up in the rafters.

Roy responded by saying he couldn't hear Roenick because his two Stanley Cup rings were plugging his ears.

That pointed exchange was funny gamesmanship and the fact is, it's as much remembered as anything else that happened in the 1996 playoffs.

There is a line to player's comments, whether about the game itself or the business. It's imaginary, intuitive and maybe everyone will draw it in a different spot. It's arguable that Roenick might have crossed it. But he didn't cross it to such an extent that he should be censored, spindled, mutilated and muzzled.

So when the NHL does come back, I hope there is enough of a sense of a partnership and a new start that the league finally encourages more candor.

Even if it's stupid.

And yes, I say that while fully acknowledging that the brouhaha over Roenick's remarks illustrates that we sometimes can handle neither truth nor candor.

We live in a society in which it is increasingly popular or even necessary to crank up the outrageousness level or stake out a polar position to get any attention at all. Turn on the television. Chances are, you will find someone yelling – staking out a fringe position or debating with another panelist. Heck, the next thing we're likely to see on the Food Channel is Emeril Legasse and Mario Batali screaming and tossing spatulas as they debate about what is best to use in marinara.

In that context, what's the big deal about what Roenick said?

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."