If Great One goes, who helps NHL stay? HOCKEY

June 11, 1993|By Frank Brown | Frank Brown,New York Daily News

California is used to earthquakes, and Wayne Gretzky's retirement tremors Wednesday night may have registered on Richter scales out west. Now we all brace for the aftershock, which will hit within two weeks.

The Great One -- gone?

That could be The Big One that California has been dreading. Gretzky has spent all these seasons building hockey's power base like a house on a fault line.

Now, one goodbye wave of his hand might send it tumbling into the sea.

California has made exceptional strides in hockey interest these five Gretzky years. While there are some successful ice rinks and lots of leagues, roller hockey has become enormously popular there. There is plenty of pavement, and chasing a puck or a ball on it provides greater diversion than simply skimming the blacktop while grooving to a CD. It threatens to pass the ice game.

At least as provocative, the Great Western Forum, where the Kings have played since 1967, now is no better than the third-best NHL facility in California. It would rank lower, but for now there only are three NHL teams in a state that did not have one until 26 years ago.

The beauty of the Anaheim Arena, to be known as The Pond on game nights, is enough to leave you slack-jawed. A coral and teal exterior. Marble everywhere. Brass fixtures. Marvelous sightlines. Two decks of luxury boxes. Hockey seats starting at $16, which is about the best you're going to do. It is a site with a future, a site of the future.

The rink in San Jose, where the Sharks will move at long last after two years in a barn, also will be state of the art -- spacious, lovely, promising. A sign of things to come.

Then there is the Forum, a sign of things that should go. The place virtually has nothing to recommend itself other than a decent sheet of ice. There are no luxury boxes, there is no opulence to the building that demands you visit it. The opulence, the jewel in the Kings' crown, is Gretzky.

Or should we say, was Gretzky?

Something is going on with him.

It could be burnout, which would be perfectly understandable. One week of being Wayne Gretzky is remarkably demanding; 14 seasons of being Wayne Gretzky is beyond reasonable human endurance. Of course there is adulation and adoration. There are people who want to give him things and spoil his kids. But there are uncommon, strange things as well.

"During the Toronto series, a woman asked me for an autograph and another woman was standing nearby," Gretzky recalled a few days ago. "The other woman said, 'You can't sign that. She's American.' I said, 'Excuse me, ma'm. My children are American. Is there a problem?' "

Fourteen years of that might make a person edgy.

It could be some type of mid-life hockey crisis. He has seen it all, done it all, won it all. He has been the game's Johnny Appleseed, sprinkling futures in Anaheim and San Jose, to name just two sites. He has been the role model for so many players; now he thinks of getting out before they pass him by. He doesn't want to be the Great Western Forum.

So he is wondering what will bring the freshness back. I think he still loves to play the game; if that was all there was to being Wayne Gretzky, he would stay around. He has never stopped giving to the game, never stopped behaving properly and saying the right things and never bringing a hint of a shadow to his sport's small section of the spotlight.

Now the game should ask, "How can we repay you?" except Gretzky simply does not seem to know the answer.

He will take a little time and try to think of one, so it will be a very long time until our next breath. You don't think of the game without Gretzky; you don't want to.

Who becomes Mr. Hockey if Gretzky leaves? Who fills the void?

Who would want to?

Somebody better want to. The NHL has come so far in so few months; if he leaves now, nothing can keep it from stepping backward. At the same time, that isn't a good enough reason for him to stay. He owes the game nothing. Gretzky essentially invented hockey in Edmonton and revived it in Los Angeles. If he hadn't sparked the interest in California, the buildings in Anaheim and San Jose would be girders and rock and empty.

If he stays, on his terms, the game will be the better. If he leaves, on his terms, we owe him thanks for giving the game its class.

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