Lord of the Rink
After 18 seasons in the NHL, Wayne Gretzky still plays hockey with passion and drive.
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Putting his name on foods has worked as well. For nine years Gretzky endorsed Pro*Stars Cereal for General Mills in Canada. He was also the first human to appear on a Campbell's soup label. His image adorned 55 million cans in the United States; somewhere, Warhol regrets missing that particular confluence of product and athlete. But the artist would have been confused by the a little byline on each label that read: "Check out the Great One on the Internet at www.gretzky.com." Gretzky's virtual reality Web site recently went on line with a company called Sportsline USA.
Speaking of food, the Official All Star Cafe is another Gretzky venture. Gretzky, Ken Griffey Jr., Andre Agassi, Joe Montana, Shaquille O'Neal and Monica Seles are equal partners with Robert Earl, founder of Planet Hollywood. Marry Planet Hollywood to a sports restaurant and the offspring is the All Star Cafe, a 33,000-square-foot place as gargantuan as Macy's. The Cafe opened in Times Square in December 1995. "There are 40-plus Planet Hollywoods," says Gretzky agent Barnett, "and the plan is to build that many All-Star Cafes." In 1996, a second opened in Cancún, Mexico, and a third in Las Vegas. Others are planned this year for Chicago (what will Jordan say?) and Atlantic City. The stock for the Cafe came onto the market at $18, after a few days topped at $31 and was skating along at $24 in December.
If you think that the Cafe is a large enough venture to keep tabs on, think again. Gretzky is also partners with a group in San Diego that is building Wayne Gretzky Roller Hockey Centers, each of which are $4 million projects. Hockey rinks, mini-rinks and bleachers, target areas for shooting, a retail store and a McDonald's--all will co-exist under one dome. Construction of the first center in Irvine, California, was scheduled to be completed in January.
California is a logical choice. Gretzky's arrival in 1988 to play for the Kings changed the entire West Coast's view of the game. There are hockey franchises in Anaheim and San Jose where there were none before. A Minnesota-based-company, First Team Sports, was in the early development stages of in-line skating and was a pioneer in in-line boots and skates. Gretzky went with the firm at the time hockey mania in California was just beginning. First Team Sports' stock went from $1.12 to $18 on NASDAQ and split twice.
The topper came recently when Gretzky got to appear with his children in three Sharp View Cam commercials, just as he and his father once appeared together in a Coke commercial, and he and his mother in a cereal spot.
Gone is the age when athletes limp toward retirement. "He has been around this league a long time and won," says sports analyst Davidson. "Yet he still has a burning desire to continue to play well. He doesn't have to. He's financially set; he doesn't have to do what he does. But he still does." And he still does it well.
In a recent game against Philadelphia, Gretzky slid a blind pass between his legs toward a wide-open teammate. Late in the game he stationed himself near the enemy goal, causing a Flyers player shadowing him to take a penalty. "He is still the best passer in the league," says Norman MacLean, who covers hockey for Reuters and has written for such publications as The Hockey News since 1955. ["Pitts-burgh's] Sergei Zubov is second. But Zubov hesitates too long and always tries to pass; Gretzky kind of knows when to shoot." And is he the best ever? "Oh, yeah," MacLean responds in about the time it took Gretzky to whip that blind pass. "He's first, Howe is second.
"He's not what he was; his reflexes are probably a hair off. But he really has peripheral vision and knows where everybody is. Not where they should be but where they are. There's a difference."
Gretzky is now 36, not 25, and no longer smears old record books with Wite-Out every year. But he's still one of the game's most gifted players, and he has been more responsible than any single player for bringing hockey to the prominence it enjoys in the 1990s.
In law, there's something called the burden of proof. In hockey, that burden falls on any future player who wants to challenge the Gretzky legacy. Those who love the game can only hope that someone comes close.
Kenneth Shouler, a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado from White Plains, New York, is the author of The Experts Pick Basketball's Best 50 Players in the Last 50 Years (All Sports Books, 1997).