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Hockey will always have superstars, but it will never, ever again have a Gretzky

Wayne Gretzky was so dominant and popular in his day that he hosted Saturday Night Live and transcended the sport altogether.

Did your wide-eyed childhood hockey fan years land in the 1980s and 1990s? If you’re nostalgic for Blades of Steel and Rock ’Em Sock ’Em VHS tapes, you also probably remember one magical Saturday night in May 1989. Wayne Gretzky was the greatest hockey player alive, but his L.A. Kings had been swept by the Calgary Flames in Round 2 of the playoffs. With his schedule clear, he was available to host Saturday Night Live.

Gretzky’s one and only SNL appearance will never be confused with a Steve Martin or Alec Baldwin gig. Gretzky gets credit for effort and courage, but many of the skits cheesily shoehorned in hockey themes, seemingly in an effort make him more comfortable. But his performance didn’t really matter. This was still an NHL player hosting a major national TV show in a role typically reserved for actors and rock stars. It was a watershed moment for hockey’s exposure. Anyone who watched still probably remembers the great Wayne’s World dream-sequence sketch in which Gretzky and Mike Myers play 1-on-1 hockey to win the heart of Wayne’s wife, Janet.

It will be 30 years next spring since that show aired, but it feels more like 100. The idea of an NHL player transcending his sport enough to wind up on SNL seems laughably foreign. Don’t expect to see Connor McDavid awkwardly reading cue cards beside Kate McKinnon any time soon. But why is this hockey’s reality? In theory, players have more avenues for attention than ever. Gretzky’s in-game highlights couldn’t be replayed all over social media seconds after they happened, like McDavid’s are today. Gretzky couldn’t attract hordes of fans with funny tweets like Roberto Luongo’s or Instagram posts like P.K. Subban’s. So why does it feel like Gretzky’s global reach in his heyday dwarfs that of any player since?

The main reason: hockey has seen superstars since Gretzky, but none of his caliber. Relative to his competition, he’s arguably the most cartoonishly dominant team-sport athlete of all-time. He won his 10 scoring crowns by an average of 52 points, and he won by 70 or more points five times. Imagine LeBron James scoring, say, 50 points per game and winning eight straight MVPs, and you get an approximation of Gretzky’s annihilation of the record books. He was so good that word of his exploits spread like a Paul Bunyanesque urban legend. Even non-hockey fans couldn’t help but pay attention to what he accomplished.

The other reason Gretzky scored SNL, not to mention Pro Stars, a 1991 Saturday morning cartoon featuring him, Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson: Gretzky was early in the process of sparking the NHL’s Sun-belt expansion. He’d just completed his first season as a King, and interest in hockey skyrocketed in L.A., with celebrities popping up at games. The San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks would join the California market within a few years of Gretzky’s arrival, and the Winnipeg Jets would move to Arizona by 1996. More than three decades later, we’re seeing players born in the Sunbelt emerge as stars, most notably Auston Matthews, who grew up watching the Coyotes. In Gretzky’s time, the NHL and Kings owner Bruce McNall made it their mission to increase national exposure of the sport and knew the best way to do so was via their transcendent superstar. Today, the NHL’s geographical landscape is less of a wild, undiscovered frontier. The motivation to sell a singular name isn’t there. Also, in a great twist of irony, the increased number of paths to the spotlight have made players more timid, not more outgoing, as so many of them are afraid of saying the wrong thing and watching it go viral in mere minutes.

It thus appears Gretzky’s peak popularity was a one-off for hockey. No one will ever reach his stratosphere again. We’ll have to settle for Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon working the drive-thru in Tim Hortons commercials.

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