Two big cities, known more for grit than for glamour, with long histories of ethnic voting and machine-style politics. Two of a bare handful of U.S. markets where the NHL enjoys strong roots and proud tradition.
"Similar? Oh, my God, they're almost identical," Jeremy Roenick, never one to equivocate, said yesterday as he ordered lunch in Pasadena, Calif., before flying to Chicago. Roenick, who starred for both the Blackhawks and the Flyers during his eventful 18-year NHL career, will analyze the Cup finals for NBC, starting tonight.
"Both cities have ridiculously passionate fans, for one," said Roenick, who came up with Chicago, where he played from 1988-96. Roenick was a Flyer from 2001-05. "The fans are a little different. I think Philly fans are a little more blue collar, wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve. They'll let you know what they think of you. Chicago, very, very passionate, but a little more forgiving. Definitely two of the biggest fan bases in the league . . . That's a great, great scenario for the National Hockey League, and for TV."
Roenick, now 40, was the Blackhawks' young gun in 1992, their most recent Stanley Cup finals appearance. He is thrilled to see the way team chairman Rocky Wirtz has brought the Original Six franchise back to prominence, since succeeding his tradition-bound father, Bill Wirtz, who died in 2007. Bill Wirtz rejected most modern marketing ideas; he believed, for example, that televising home games was unfair to ticketholders.
"You couldn't talk to Bill Wirtz," Roenick said. "He had his way of doing business, and that was it. If you didn't like it, too bad. That was his perogative; he owned the team. I am glad that Rocky went away from that mentality, and proved to everybody, and hopefully proved to Bill 'up there,' that even though it's shown on TV, they still sell out that building. Not only that, but attract more fans [by being televised]."
Like the cities, Roenick said he believes the teams meeting for the Cup are similar, particularly with goalies Michael Leighton and Antii Niemi ascending to their roles late, then playing tremendously in the postseason.
"I think Philly's got a little age and leadership [edge], but I think Chicago might have a little more talent," he said.
The guy playing the role Roenick played in '92 is Patrick Kane, the forward Chicago took first overall in 2007. JR scored 53 goals and added 50 assists in '92, a significantly higher goal total than Kane (30 goals, 58 assists) managed playing with a deeper scoring cast.
"He's got a lot more talent than I had, but I had a lot more grit and tenacity than he has," Rosenick said. "I was tougher; I hit harder, I fought. I did a lot of things he doesn't do, but he is definitely more talented than I was."
Roenick didn't play in a final with the Flyers, but the 2004 team he played on, its defense decimated by injuries, was eliminated in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final by eventual champion Tampa Bay. Somebody like Chris Pronger almost certainly would have put that team over the top, as Pronger might very well do for the current Flyers.
"Chris Pronger is definitely one of the most irritating defensemen in the National Hockey League," Roenick said. "Very, very smart. Very talented, very big, very strong, very mean. You put all of those things together and you have a world-class defenseman, like he's been for a long time.
"Chris doesn't leave anything on the ice. He plays hard every single game. He's very gritty, and he works as hard as anybody on the ice. You don't see that sometimes from a big guy like that. I hated playing against him."
Roenick, who lives in Arizona, speaks regularly with Danny Briere, his former Phoenix teammate. When it comes to predicting a winner, Roenick said he can't go against the fact that Chicago was among the league's elite all season, and the Flyers weren't.
"How can you not think that Chicago is going to go? But they still have to win," Roenick said. "The Flyers have been on a roll. They have played some unbelievable hockey . . . Probably the favorite going in [to the playoffs] was the Washington Capitals and they [lost in the first round]. Anybody can beat anybody."