But how is that going to have a substantive effect on the sport? Are we to believe, for example, that football fans in Washington, D.C., are going to start buying hockey tickets simply because Gretzky is now conveniently located for Tonight show appearances and commercial shoots?
Listen, no sport has ever gotten a more dramatic and heartwarming boost than hockey did at the 1980 Olympics. Did it have any lasting effect? Except for a few cold pockets in the Midwest and New England, most kids in this country don't grow up playing ice hockey, so they don't identify with the sport. What's more, I don't care if they paint the ice Day-Glo chartreuse and color the puck plaid, you can't see goals being scored on TV. The players look as if they're dressed in diapers, and they brawl all the time. Even if Gretzky is almost as cute as li'l Danny Quayle, hockey is just so tacky.
Under the scenario sketched out by the NHL seers, the 27-year-old Gretzky has about four seasons to turn the nation on to their sport before he's past his prime. The fact is, he can't do it. And the NHL's deal with SportsChannel means games will be telecast only in regions that already have teams.
The geniuses who are assuring us that Gretzky in an L.A. uniform is going to have the same appeal for red-blooded Americans as Willard Scott or Janet Jones and her d�colletage are no different from the Nostradamuses who, in the 1970s, guaranteed us that soccer would soon take its natural place at the top of the American sports ladder. Many kids here grow up playing the sport, but when was the last time you were at a soccer game and a crowd broke out? When Pel� came from his native Brazil to play in the U.S. in 1975, Americans went to see Pel�. When Pel� retired three seasons later, Americans had no interest in soccer games.
There's no evidence that a star such as Pel� can lift an entire sport. Katarina Witt and Debi Thomas drew knockout TV ratings from Calgary in February, but what do you want to bet that the ratings for figure skating will be anemic this winter? If the 1980 U.S. Olympic team couldn't help hockey, how can anyone seriously believe that Gretzky's departure from a championship team in Canada for an abysmal team in California will make a difference?
In fact, once the curiosity honeymoon is over, hockey could face a real problem. Oh, the Kings have been doing better with Gretzky, but most every year before the trade he led the league in scoring, won the MVP award and led the Oilers to the Stanley Cup. Suppose Gretzky doesn't do those things in L.A.? Worse, suppose Edmonton keeps on winning without him? What then?
Well, then, he wouldn't be Wayne Gretzky anymore, would he?