• Fred

Wayne Gretzky: Hockey Ambassador


I remember watching the LA Kings featuring Wayne Gretzky play an exhibition NHL game at the Richfield Coliseum when I was a young man. Even though Gretzky was around 30, Wayne didn't sit, fans came out to see The Great One and he showed up. I do know that he played, at least, through the first period. As I recall, he had 2 assists and his passing was spot on. I don't remember him taking a shot. Because it was an exhibition game, I was unable to locate the exact box score of the game.

The point is, Wayne Gretzky, besides being the greatest hockey player of all time, (you could argue and you'd be wrong) considered himself to be an ambassador of the Sport.

Why do I bring this up? This week LeBron James was under scrutiny for resting on a nationally televised Saturday night game this past week. Now you might argue that it wasn't James' decision (c'mon now) and that he needed the rest....

But this is where I turn into the "Get off my Lawn" Guy. Athletes today don't have second jobs. They fly first class, usually on their team's private plane. They have their own chefs, PR departments, conditioning coaches, and on down the line. No one will say it, but the truth is that LeBron James is not Basketball's Ambassador, he's Nike's Ambassador.

Now I'm wrongfully singling out LeBron because he seems to be taking the brunt of the criticism this week, but it doesn't make my point any less valid. LeBron and the Cavs organization all chirp about the sports science of resting, especially on games scheduled on back to back nights. How about this? Instead of taking game days off, how about making 1 less commercial? How about taking 1 less shoe consultation? How about 1 less off day with your Pizza Business? Of course that's being absurd, because athletes today worry about their brand as much as winning games.

LeBron would angrily deny my allegations, he's been to the NBA Finals the last 6 years in a row, but again, when I say LeBron, with the exception of the resume, I am speaking generically of the NBA superstar mentality. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry, Dwayne Wade or Klay Thompson's name could all be substituted for LeBron's name.

Now if you're Stephen A. Smith, you're probably screaming at the monitor "I think Fred Hunt has a problem with young brothers taking control of their destinies." Hmmm, let's explore that possibility for a moment....

First let's try the NFL. If I asked the question: Who is the NFL's greatest current ambassador? I would assume most people would say Tom Brady. Maybe a few votes for Cam Newton, Odell Beckham, or even Von Miller. What would happen if any of those players, pick any one, said they needed a rest day to be fresh for the playoffs. In week 8? Yeah, that's not gonna go over too well, even for Tom Brady.

Now how about MLB. Most superstars already get a day off here or there. When was the last time a baseball team rested 3 of their best players in the same day? I've seen it happen: At a double-header. When was the last NBA day-night double-header that you've seen? Yeah that's what I thought.

And finally back to hockey. 82 games, same as the NBA. To me the face of the NHL today is Alex Ovechkin, but I'm in the minority and I think most casual fans would say it's Sidney Crosby. Either way, hockey players barely rest, even when they're hurt. No hockey player today even approaches the transcendent nature of Gretzky in his prime, yet you don't hear any 'rest' issues crop up in hockey.

Which circles us back to the NBA. About 75% of the players are African-American, but it's not that statistically far off from the NFL with a 70% African-American player rate. Now despite similar ratios of players, the NFL rosters sit at 53 players whereas the NBA rosters are at 14. Because so few players are on the NBA roster, they wield exponentially more power than their football counterparts. I believe it is common knowledge that the owners in the NFL have the power, whereas the players have the power in the NBA.

I would contend that color is, in fact, a factor when debating with angry fans. And that color would be GREEN. Those NBA'ers with the guaranteed money have the leverage. And thusly those who have the monetary leverage have the power.

How do you explain to the young LA Clippers fan that only went to the game last week to see LeBron that the statistical analysis of the divergent matrixes correctly dictated that he sits for a night? And therein lays your problem. At least the TV viewers were able to make their own choice, making Saturday night's ABC telecast the lowest rated Primetime Basketball game in 20 years.

And I'm sorry to keep bringing up LeBron. Kyrie and Kevin Love sat out for that game, too. Part of me may simply be jealous. If you love the game, and you want to market the game that you love, it would make common sense that you'd treat A GAME like the Apostle Paul treated the words of Jesus in the first century of the Christian Church.

p.s. Not even Wayne Gretzky was perfect. His association with Bruce McNall was problematic and his tenure as coach of Phoenix Coyotes was mediocre at best. And don't forget, Wayne played for 4 different teams. Playing word association, though, when you think of Gretzky, do you think of hockey player---or brand?

(You remember his few weeks as a member of the St. Louis Blues, right?)


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