Wayne Gretzky, hockey's alltime leading scorer, announced last week that a herniated disk in his upper back will keep him out of the Los Angeles Kings' lineup for the foreseeable future, perhaps forever. Every time Gretzky, who is only 31, leaned forward to answer a question at his press conference, he winced from the pain brought on, his doctor suggested, by 13 seasons of pounding by NHL goons.
An aching back seems to be the price of stardom in the NHL these days. Mike Bossy, the leading scorer during the New York Islanders' four-year reign as Stanley Cup champions in the early 1980s, had to retire prematurely in '87 because of a similar injury. And Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins, now the league's dominant player, has been hampered by back problems caused by the same type of hitting Gretzky believes has finally caught up with him.
The NHL enacted a rule last year that allows for the ejection of anyone who commits an illegal hit to an opponent's back. The rule doesn't go far enough. "There should also be suspensions," Lemieux says. "Severe suspensions. Severe enough that guys won't even think about hitting from behind."
Lemieux is calling for the NHL to do a better job of protecting its best players. He's right, for both sporting and economic reasons. As Gretzky said, "If you eliminate the people who sell tickets, you're not helping the game."
Like Magic Johnson, who made his retirement announcement less than a year ago in the same room at the Forum, Gretzky leaves a void that will be impossible for his sport to fill. "This is not a time to drown in my sorrow," he said. It is, however, high time for the NHL to get the superstars off the endangered species list.
It's a little disheartening to note that sports is still considered a suitable refuge for televised Battles of the Sexes, the latest of which was joined in Las Vegas last week by those two venerable gender warriors, 40-year-old Jimmy Connors and 35-year-old Martina Navratilova. It was an event that seemed eerily dislocated in time—here we are eight years from the millennium, and you half expected to see Martina brain Jimmy with her skillet—not least because the crowd in the Caesars Palace parking lot seemed to be comprised mostly of Eva Gabor, Joe Namath and a lot of faded lounge singers. The game they played was only loosely based on tennis, so that when Connors beat Navratilova 7-5, 6-2, no great blows were struck for the sexes. It just seemed sort of purposeless.
The exhibition was a television-conceived pay-per-view extravaganza, and the ones who got the most out of it were Connors and Navratilova, who received guarantees of roughly $650,000 in addition to the $500,000 winner-take-all prize. Connors and Navratilova defended this collaboration, which couldn't strictly be called tennis since Connors was handicapped by being permitted only one try each time he served, while Navratilova was allowed to use half the doubles alleys. "The goal is to put butts in the seats," Connors said, indicating where his mind was. Navratilova said, "It's just a fun event that we made a lot of money out of."
Tempting as it was to compare this match to the historic 1973 Battle of the Sexes between then 29-year-old Billie Jean King and 55-year-old Bobby Riggs, which King won in three straight sets, it wasn't the same, primarily because it lacked about two decades' worth of novelty. And as Navratilova noted, "Then the handicap was Riggs's age. Here, we're both old."