The Scottish bagpipers who escorted Wayne Gretzky down a red carpet and into the Hall of Fame building for his induction ceremony last month were supposed to be festive, but to the thousands of fans who had gathered to watch him from the street, the music couldn't help but sound tender and raw. Gretzky had left the ice in April after a 21-year career, but on that night, his transition to ex-player became official, his departure absolute. As the people stood on the cement, watching Gretzky's back disappear behind the Hall's large steel door, the obvious question floated over the lingering strains of the pipes.
What are we supposed to do now?
It's an uncertainty the league itself has been wrestling with for the last six months. Before Gretzky, the NHL was almost like a child among men in the U.S. professional sports scene--wild and fun and full of energy, but smaller than football or baseball or basketball, less powerful and, to many, inherently less important. It seemed impossible that a slight, fair-haired boy from a small town in Ontario could change all that, yet he did, using his skills on the ice and his grace off it to goad the league into an adolescence that included an enormous growth spurt and a deeper, more resonant voice. Though still not quite considered an equal, the NHL has certainly reached young adulthood.
But now that Gretzky is gone, there is concern that all of the progress the league has made could slip away. Without the man who took it forward, can the NHL only slide backward, slowly sinking into a morass of shrinking television ratings and player obscurity?
Richie Woodworth, the marketing guru who turned Greg Norman's clothing company into a $100 million operation, was hired by the NHL in September to prevent that very slide. The new president of NHL Enterprises, Woodworth has been poring over everything from local television broadcasts to box scores to try to find someone or something else the league can hook itself to.
"Certainly when Wayne was here, there was a figurehead who was very symbolic of what the league represented as a whole," Woodworth said. "He was someone you could point to, be inspired by and someone who really represented what the NHL brand was. Now that he's walked away, what we're talking about from a branding standpoint is, 'How do we develop the next great sort of gifted front people or superstars?'
"The American public responds to heroes--the research says that in a very loud way. So do we need to create them? In a way, yes."
Woodworth has created a short list to work from, starting with Pittsburgh Penguins captain Jaromir Jagr and including Paul Kariya, Teemu Selanne, Eric Lindros and Mike Modano. He is eager to explain just how much better Jagr, who is from the Czech Republic, has gotten at speaking English, or how telegenic he finds Modano, the Dallas Stars standout who grew up in Michigan.
But even Woodworth understands that to the average American, the name Jaromir Jagr could just as easily represent a new model of a European car as it could a hockey player. With four Stanley Cup rings, 61 NHL records and a glamorous actress wife in Janet Jones, Gretzky had a kind of name recognition that no one on Woodworth's list can replicate. After all, when the league traveled to Nagano for the Olympics in 1998, it was only for Gretzky that throngs of locals from that rural section of Japan clogged the train station like a mass of 1960s Beatles fanatics.
All over the world, people knew who Wayne Gretzky was, and they knew he played hockey.
"Gretzky had the highest awareness of any hockey player out there, so that was the easiest way for people to go 'oh yeah, hockey,' " said Rick Burton, director of the sports marketing program at the University of Oregon. "Even with him gone, the game is still what it is--an incredibly powerful experience for people who are fans of it. But if you get a headline in a newspaper somewhere that says, 'Jagr Scores Three,' it just doesn't have the same impact to someone leafing through the pages as 'Gretzky Scores Three.'
"With Gretzky gone, it doesn't change the needs of the game, and it hasn't made people who are fans leave the game. It just gives the game a slightly lower profile."
Just how problematic that will be is still unclear. Over and over again last spring, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman credited Gretzky's star power for the league's massive expansion into the southern United States. Gretzky's stint as a member of the Los Angeles Kings not only jammed him firmly into the American consciousness, but also proved that hockey could work in warm-weather climates, as long as you had an attraction that would get people into the building.
As the NHL opened franchises in cities from Miami to Phoenix, games in which Gretzky was playing for the opponent often drew the largest crowds, and Gretzky--in a display of why he was an even better ambassador than a hockey player--would milk the opportunity to make fans out of the people in the seats. When his New York Rangers visited the expansion Nashville Predators last year, Gretzky put on a show, racking up five of the more artful assists seen around the league all season. Just a month earlier, at the all-star game in Tampa Bay, he had been equally fluid, grabbing the game's most valuable player award.
This season, the Rangers' record has plummeted without Gretzky--despite the NHL's highest payroll--and the crowds he drew in other cities are no longer coming out to see his former teammates. A Rangers-Washington Capitals game at MCI Center drew 14,404 last season; this season it drew 12,339. In Chicago last year, a game against the Rangers drew 18,330; this year, it drew 15,386. Attendance was also down in Montreal, Boston and Florida when New York has visited this season.
To Canadian author Roy MacGregor, one of the sport's influential literary voices, the newer NHL cities might be the places where Gretzky is missed most.
"I think it's extraordinarily serious," MacGregor said. "That's your link to all the attendance and ratings and problems you're going to have over the next few years. They're quick to say that Gretzky created the NHL in the Sun Belt, so isn't it equally true then, that there will be problems there once he leaves?
"It's a wonderful, wonderful game, but it needs a Gretzky. For a long time, we believed the game could sell itself, but it never did to Americans because it didn't feed into that love of star quality. Gretzky changed that because he was this sexy, charming, well-spoken, highly athletic person. Now they're back to the game selling itself, and you can't have that."
Of course, even the game itself has suffered without Gretzky. Separate from issues such as marketability and franchise stabilization is the certain grace and everyday brilliance that Gretzky brought to the league, the leadership he displayed on the bench and the confidence he inspired in the locker room. Everyone looked a little better in his reflection, former teammates say, and everyone's game has suffered somewhat from his loss.
"Any time you have the greatest player ever in hockey on your team and around, you can learn so much from him," said Kings defenseman Rob Blake. "The way he handles the press and the way he handles winning and losing--he was exceptional at that, as much as he was an exceptional athlete. I think hockey, in general, misses his talent and his presence every night."
In this way, however, Gretzky might be the most replaceable, despite his status as the greatest ever to play the game. Before there was Gretzky, it was thought that no one would ever play better than Bobby Orr, and before Orr, it was inconceivable that anyone could top Gordie Howe.
While the NHL might not have an heir apparent to Gretzky on the ice right now, somebody will certainly come along someday.
Even Gretzky knows this, although his inherently humble nature hasn't allowed him to see just how big a void he has left or how hard it will be for the league he loves to mature without him.
"I miss the game more than the game misses Wayne Gretzky," he said just before his Hall of Fame induction. "I wish I could come back and play again like I did when I was 20."
So does the NHL.
CAPTION: Wayne Gretzky, who won four Stanley Cups in Edmonton, raised hockey's visibility throughout the U.S.
CAPTION: Penguins forward Jaromir Jagr, one of NHL's top players, lacks the celebrity Gretzky enjoyed.
CAPTION: Wayne Gretzky says he misses hockey more than hockey misses him--an unlikely scenario.