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Wayne Gretzky can't make Americans embrace hockey

All the talk this season about how Wayne Gretzky is going to make hockey maniacs out of basketball and football infidels reminds me of two conversations I had a few years ago.

The first was with Henry Aaron. After attending a charity dinner in North Carolina, we stopped for a nightcap, and somewhere in the bar talk I made the brilliant observation about how unfair it was that poor Henry had had to spend his entire career in Milwaukee and Atlanta, and how he would have received much more recognition in New York or Los Angeles. He let me talk, suffering the fool as best he could, and then said, "If I had played in those big places, there would have been so much aggravation to deal with, I don't think I ever would have broken Babe Ruth's record."

In other words, he wouldn't have been Henry Aaron.

The second conversation was with the late Patrick O'Higgins, the author of Madame, a best-selling biography of cosmetic queen Helena Rubinstein. O'Higgins had just learned that the paperback rights had been sold for a fantastic sum.

"That's terrific," I said.

"Especially since it won't sell another copy," O'Higgins replied.

"Why?" I asked, dumbfounded.

"Because," he said, "there are only so many little old ladies interested in Helena Rubinstein, and every last one of them has already bought the hard cover."

Similiarly, there are only so many hockey fans, and all of them are already watching hockey games. I wonder why everybody is so cocksure that more of them will materialize to watch Gretzky in the LA. paperback version, when he was available in the original Edmonton hardcover for nearly a decade.

I don't doubt that Gretzky will make more money in Los Angeles. As a number of sports agents have carefully instructed me, the dolts who decide who-endorses-what five almost exclusively in New York and L.A., and they barely know of the existence of baseball players in Philadelphia or San Diego, let alone ice people in Edmonton. So Gretzky is bound to prosper in his new home.

But how is that going to have a substantive effect on the sport? Are we to believe, for example, that football fans in Washington, D.C., are going to start buying hockey tickets simply because Gretzky is now conveniently located for Tonight show appearances and commercial shoots?

Listen, no sport has ever gotten a more dramatic and heartwarming boost than hockey did at the 1980 Olympics. Did it have any lasting effect? Except for a few cold pockets in the Midwest and New England, most kids in this country don't grow up playing ice hockey, so they don't identify with the sport. What's more, I don't care if they paint the ice Day-Glo chartreuse and color the puck plaid, you can't see goals being scored on TV. The players look as if they're dressed in diapers, and they brawl all the time. Even if Gretzky is almost as cute as li'l Danny Quayle, hockey is just so tacky.

Under the scenario sketched out by the NHL seers, the 27-year-old Gretzky has about four seasons to turn the nation on to their sport before he's past his prime. The fact is, he can't do it. And the NHL's deal with SportsChannel means games will be telecast only in regions that already have teams.

The geniuses who are assuring us that Gretzky in an L.A. uniform is going to have the same appeal for red-blooded Americans as Willard Scott or Janet Jones and her dècolletage are no different from the Nostradamuses who, in the 1970s, guaranteed us that soccer would soon take its natural place at the top of the American sports ladder. Many kids here grow up playing the sport, but when was the last time you were at a soccer game and a crowd broke out? When Pelè came from his native Brazil to play in the U.S. in 1975, Americans went to see Pelè. When Pelè retired three seasons later, Americans had no interest in soccer games.

There's no evidence that a star such as Pelè can lift an entire sport. Katarina Witt and Debi Thomas drew knockout TV ratings from Calgary in February, but what do you want to bet that the ratings for figure skating will be anemic this winter? If the 1980 U.S. Olympic team couldn't help hockey, how can anyone seriously believe that Gretzky's departure from a championship team in Canada for an abysmal team in California will make a difference?

In fact, once the curiosity honeymoon is over, hockey could face a real problem. Oh, the Kings have been doing better with Gretzky, but most every year before the trade he led the league in scoring, won the MVP award and led the Oilers to the Stanley Cup. Suppose Gretzky doesn't do those things in L.A.? Worse, suppose Edmonton keeps on winning without him? What then?

Well, then, he wouldn't be Wayne Gretzky anymore, would he?