As a member of the San Jose Sharks, obviously the only way Jeremy Roenick(notes) was going to grab some spotlight in the conference finals was to insinuate that a Stanley Cup-winning coach hates Americans, because that coach chooses not to play a 47-year-old defenseman in the playoffs.
Which is what Roenick, a one-time Chicago Blackhawks star, did yesterday on "The Monsters in the Morning" show on Comcast Sportsnet in Chicago: defending his friend Chris Chelios(notes) against the tyranny of Detroit Red Wings Coach Mike Babcock.
"The coach just doesn't like him for some ungodly-known reason," said Roenick. "I think he's got a grudge against American players. But he does not like Cheli at all."
Courtesy of Comcast Sportsnet in Chicago, here's the video of Roenick's phone interview, in which he speaks about Chelios and Babcock:
We love Roenick because (a) he's the greatest athlete in hockey video game history and (b) he has a complete inability to self-edit and avoid Joe Biden-level verbal candidness like "Mike Babcock hates American people" (to paraphrase in a quasi-Kanye way).
But he stepped in it this time, and the backlash has been palpable; from Babcock, from Red Wings players and from Chelios himself.
First, Roenick's statements from The Monsters of the Morning program, in which he dances around the notion that Babcock hates Chelios:
"I will say this, and I talk to Cheli [who is] one of the greatest friends I've made in the game. If you would know some of the things that Babcock says to Chris Chelios, it would make your stomach churn. Just total disrespect for not even just one of the best Americans, but one of the best defensemen to ever play the game. The way he is talked to is just unacceptable. I wish I could elaborate, but that's not proper. It's just disrespectful ...
"There is an underlying ... I don't know if it's a hatred, because hate is a very strong word. There's some underlying issue there that I don't understand. You know, Babcock is the coach. You have to respect him for his decisions on who he plays. And that is all well and good. Sometimes, it's just the verbal stuff that goes back and forth from what I understand. Cheli will never complain. He is the ultimate professional. And we will do whatever the team needs."
Quite the complements for Chelios, eh? And how did the veteran defenseman repay Roenick? Why, by brushing aside his comments and speculating that Roenick is in cahoots with radio host Mike North to distract the Red Wings before Game 3 of their series against Chicago tonight. Chelios, to the MLive.com:
"I don't know what J.R. is talking about. Mike North and J.R. are buddies, so they're trying to dig up something against the Red Wings,'' Chelios said. "I don't know anything about it, so I'm not going to comment. I'll call J.R. and ask him what he said, but he probably won't even remember.''
Chelios said he last spoke to Roenick two weeks ago, not about hockey, but about a charity event in Las Vegas this summer.
"Mike North is very controversial,'' Chelios said. "He's the same guy that kept bringing up that I hate Detroit when I said I'd never play for them (in the '90s). Mike North is pulling out all the stops. He's a Chicago fan.''
Ansar Khan of MLive.com also asked Babcock for reaction to Roenick's comments, and was told:
"Two of my kids are American, so I think that kind of takes out the (grudge against) Americans thing,'' Babcock said. "Plus, I've made my living down here for 16 years, kind of enjoy it. The people in Michigan treat me real good.
"As far as Cheli goes, I actually think Cheli and I got a pretty good relationship. I don't think there's one player I ever coached that wasn't in the lineup who was thrilled about it. I bet you Cheli's the same.''
The fact that Chelios continues to return to a Babcock-coached Wings team year after year doesn't help Roenick's argument. And while the Wings have a grand total of three Americans on their roster, there's been nothing in Babcock's history to indicate a bias against American-born players. It's not like Brian Rafalski's(notes) only playing five minutes a night or anything.
One assumes there's some truth to what Roenick said about the Chelios/Babcock relationship, although his theory about the factors behind it seem outlandish.
Reached via text message by ESPN.com on Thursday evening, Roenick was more diplomatic.
"My loyalty is to the Sharks," Roenick told ESPN.com. "I'm not really interested in other people's relationships. Chelly is a true professional in every sense of the word."
Obviously, Roenick's honest thoughts are now being muffled by the pile on top of him. At least we didn't get some faux-apology.
The bottom line on this strangely-timed verbal sparring match: Would someone get Jeremy Roenick on an American television hockey broadcast already! God-forbid any studio show covering the NHL is this unpredictable and derisive.