Originally created 02/08/00

Hockey in the homeland hears footsteps



It's been a traumatic couple of weeks for hockey in the homeland.

First Canada's federal government promised to help subsidize its six surviving NHL teams, then said it was only kidding. On Sunday, just before the puck dropped on the 50th All-Star game, Wayne Gretzky's farewell tour passed another milestone as his No. 99 was hoisted into the rafters.

Then, to top it all off, the World team beat their guys at their game, 9-4, and inside their own building. It was one of those rare times when having America as an ally didn't count for much.

"As far as the game is concerned, what can I say?" North American coach Pat Quinn said. "I hated the result. Lots of action."

Quinn's summary is accurate and his lack of concern appropriate -- for the moment. This was an all-star game, after all, and despite the contrast in styles, not one of those where one side is intent on sending the other a message.

"I don't think you can say who is better after this game," Slovakian Pavol Demitra grinned afterward, "but it was a lot of fun."

There were some messages being sent, though, a theme that was established early and pounded home throughout the telecast. First came the video in which Gretzky, Gordie Howe and Mario Lemieux, wearing overcoats, cross a snowy landscape toward a frozen pond. Awaiting them are Florida's Pavel Bure, Pittsburgh's Jaromir Jagr, Anaheim's Paul Kariya and Philadelphia's Eric Lindros.

Instead of playing a pickup game, Gretzky grabs a stick, passes the puck -- and a figurative torch -- to his successors. A second later, Jagr taps his stick in tribute. A second after that, the others follow. There was no mistaking the message: The game remains in good hands.

Bure did his level best to back up the spot by scoring three times and walking away with MVP honors. It didn't hurt, certainly, that he played on a line with younger brother Valeri, who has been setting up Pavel since they played hooky from school and hockey on a frozen pond in Moscow. But the 28-year-old, nicknamed "The Russian Rocket," felt that inspiration was at least as much a part of his special performance Sunday as was familiarity.

"It wasn't just a commercial, it was something bigger. It's like history, it's like changing generations," he said. "It meant a lot to me."

What remains to be seen is how much it meant to hockey fans in Canada, whose ties to the sport they gave birth to are a bundle of contradictions at the moment.

Every memory that drives home the realization Gretzky is through playing is celebrated with a lump in the collective throat of the nation. His last goal, his last game, his induction into the Hall of Fame and Sunday, the first all-star game without him.

It wasn't just Bure who had an inkling of the weight of the mantle that Gretzky's successors are supposed to shoulder. Jagr had a bad thumb and aching ribs and he could have ducked out on the weekend, saying he needed time off to heal.

But then he showed up for an informal practice Saturday and peaked through the curtains at the crowd. This was for a 9 a.m. session, the day before the game.

"I've never seen 18,000 people for practice," he recalled. "Never. They should play the game in Canada every year."

In Toronto, maybe, where the Air Canada Centre was packed, or Montreal, where another deep-pocketed owner has no trouble playing high-stakes poker. But the four remaining Canadian teams -- the Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers and Ottawa Senators -- say they may not be around much longer without help.

Senators owner Rod Bryden said he pays four times in taxes what his U.S. counterparts do -- in addition to losing $13 million because the Canadian dollar is worth only about two-thirds as much as the U.S. dollar.

A tax bailout put together by the federal government to ease those burdens was submarined Jan. 21, when the uproar caused Parliament's ears to ring.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told Canadians there was only so much he could do to keep the moving vans from pulling more teams south across the border, but the warnings worked only so well.

On Sunday, his league staged a show to remind a nation what it had -- Gretzky -- and what it increasingly is in danger of losing -- influence over a game it once owned, but one that is becoming more global by the minute.