The telecast of today’s NHL All-Star game will begin with Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe and Mario Lemieux walking over a hill and down a path to a frozen pond, where Jaromir Jagr, Pavel Bure, Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya are skating in the crisp, cold air.
Howe, Lemieux and Gretzky walk to the edge of the pond, where Lindros sees them and passes the puck to Gretzky. The NHL’s career scoring leader picks up a stick, passes the puck to Jagr and says, “It’s your turn now.”
The message is clear. With the Great One retired, it’s time for the Next One--or Ones--to take over.
Today’s All-Star game will be the NHL’s first without Gretzky since 1978. And although the league knew this day would come, it is still pondering how to fill the void left by the departure of the greatest player and spokesman the sport has ever known.
“There’s never going to be another Gretzky. The timing for him, everything fit with Wayne, especially Wayne getting traded to LA. It couldn’t have worked out better for the league,” said Kariya, the Mighty Duck left wing who will start for the North American team opposite Jagr, of the World team and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“You can’t designate one person or specific people to succeed him. You can’t force it. These things work themselves out. As long as the game continues to grow and it’s healthy, that’s the main thing.”
Ten months after his retirement Gretzky remains the game’s most recognizable player. In his native Canada, he’s everywhere: He writes a column for the National Post and endorses a pain reliever, tires and beer. The only other NHL player in a current national TV commercial in the United States is Vancouver center Mark Messier, Gretzky’s former teammate. New York Ranger goalie Mike Richter appeared in ads for a hamburger chain, but none of the players on that frozen pond has achieved that status.
“There’s no next Gretzky, in the same way there’s no next [Michael] Jordan. He transcended the sport,” said Mark Quenzel, vice president of programming for ESPN’s networks. “He wasn’t just a player, he was an ambassador, a presence. We’d be making a huge mistake if we tried to anoint someone to follow him. Even if we tried, I don’t think anyone would succeed.
“It’s a mixed blessing. No one wants Gretzky to leave. As we’ve seen with Jordan, he casts such a great shadow over players like Jagr, Bure, [Jeremy] Roenick and Kariya. And I’m really excited about [New Jersey rookie] Scott Gomez. . . . These players are out there and they have to be more than a great presence on the ice. That’s the challenge for the NHL, to make the effort off the ice to grow their presence.”
Jagr, perhaps the most skilled of his generation, seems the least comfortable with suggestions he can fill Gretzky’s skates. “I didn’t say that. You guys [reporters] did. I’m just a player,” Jagr said Saturday.
Bure, who leads the NHL with 37 goals, is dynamic and cherubic looking. But the Florida Panthers’ right wing has a history of knee injuries and he shies away from being considered Gretzky’s successor.
“You don’t really think about that. You just go and play,” he said. “With Wayne, I don’t think anybody else can be even close.”
If Jagr and Bure’s marketability is limited by their accents--Jagr is Czech and Bure is Russian--there’s no limit for Lindros, a Canadian. A prototypical power forward at 6 feet 4 and 238 pounds, he has superb skills and is accustomed to media scrutiny in Philadelphia and throughout Canada.
However, he’s not sure he agrees with ABC’s torch-passing theme. “I don’t know. We’ve got a responsibility to play hockey and do it well,” he said.
Gomez is a marketer’s dream. Born in Alaska and the first Latino in the NHL--his mother is Colombian and his father was born in California to Mexican immigrants--he leads rookie scorers with 46 points. “In compiling a clip package, we found the pile of clips on Scott Gomez since the beginning of the season is bigger than any other hockey player,” said Bernadette Mansur, NHL group vice president for communications. “We can’t fulfill all the requests for Scott.
“The genuineness he has, the affection between him and his dad, hugging his dad every time he comes off the ice, is great. It’s capturing another audience and showing the diversity of the league.”
Gomez is still in the “gee whiz” stage, and he acknowledged being nervous skating beside Messier Saturday during the North American practice. But he happily did countless interviews, knowing he has a duty to fulfill.
“Whatever helps the game, I’ll do,” he said. “The NHL has already done enough for me and I’ve been here only a half year.”
Kariya has lost much of his early shyness, although he’s not as easy in front of cameras and microphones as Gretzky. He’s learning the value of promoting the game--not in dollars but in building loyalty and winning new fans.
“Everyone has to take responsibility, especially the so-called stars of the league. We have to be accessible to the media and just be a good person in general,” Kariya said. “I don’t think we have to do anything out of the ordinary.”
Quenzel plans to feature all of these young players on ESPN, as sister network ABC will. However, he also plans to emphasize education over gimmicks and technology.
“Growing the stars only works if people like and understand the game. You can have the biggest star in the world but the audience won’t care,” he said. “I’m not a soccer fan. The biggest stars in the world are soccer players, but they don’t mean anything here.
“We’re going back to the core game. We’re working with the NHL at the grass roots level, with our cable affiliates, and we have worked hard to educate viewers. . . You can’t make the star step until you make the education step.”
ESPN is planning another “NHL Rules” telecast, in which it will focus on explaining basic rules and strategy. The first telecast drew widespread attention and generated more than 15,000 e-mails.
“The NHL does very well in markets where it has teams. Where the NHL loses is neutral places,” Quenzel said. “There are Dallas Cowboys fans everywhere, but there are no Dallas Stars fans in Iowa.
"[The new TV contract] is a five-year deal and based on the strategy we have now, we don’t expect colossal growth in ratings in the first year. One thing we need is some luck in the playoffs. That’s where you bring in casual fans. Not just the Stanley Cup [finals] but leading up to that. That’s what builds anticipation. You need a couple of good playoff years.”
Mansur agrees with Quenzel’s philosophy. “You need to educate people to get fans on a national basis,” she said. “We are very strong in ratings and every indicator on a regional and national basis except for our player recognition. You go to Philadelphia, and number one is Eric Lindros. In Texas these days, it’s Mike Modano. Go on a national basis, and it’s not the same because hockey has yet to make a national footprint. That’s where we need to educate.”
Mansur also said the NHL isn’t clinging to Gretzky as its pitchman and neglecting future stars.
“In the U.S. he is the best-known hockey player and that’s going to last a while,” she said. “You pay attention to your stars. You nurture them. You see Scott has the right combination, Pavel, Mike [Modano] and Paul and more people are getting aware of it.”