BOSTON -- This is supposed to be the NHL's shining moment, the best of the best playing each other in tonight's 46th All-Star Game. This is supposed to be when team and league worries recede into the background, overshadowed by Mario Lemieux's wonderful comeback from cancer and the revitalization of such older stars as Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky.
But as the NHL prepared for tonight's All-Star celebration at the new FleetCenter, the biggest story concerned Gretzky's ultimatum to the Los Angeles Kings: sign a 50-goal scorer and an offensive defenseman to help him win another Stanley Cup, or trade him. If the Kings do nothing, they no doubt will lose Gretzky as an unrestricted free agent this summer and get nothing.
"I didn't want this. I didn't think this would still be the focus 10 days later," said Gretzky, "But what can I do? I can't tell people to stop writing about it."
The ultimatum is so unlike Gretzky that 11-time Stanley Cup winner Henri Richard, who was here as part of the Heroes of Hockey game last night, simply looked sad when asked about it.
"I don't understand what he is doing," said Richard. "I understand he wants another Cup. I don't understand that he should talk this way in public. Of course, he has done a lot for the Kings, but it is still his team, and he owes them loyalty. I don't understand why he's doing it this way. Maybe it's just about money."
These are the 1990s, when money influences nearly every decision involving players and their teams. Here at the NHL All-Star game, however, Gretzky's peers hope this isn't one of those decisions.
"I just know Wayne wants to win and he'll do everything he can to do that," said Paul Kariya, the 21-year-old star of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, who may play on Gretzky's wing tonight.
hTC And perhaps that's all it is. Maybe Gretzky just wants to win. He said he has been "hit like a ton of bricks" by all the rumors that have sprung up around his statements, concerning possible trades and possible new contracts.
"I've said my piece and made my point and I don't back down from it," he said yesterday. "The bottom line at the moment is I didn't get traded and I didn't get re-signed. So I'm kind of still in limbo. But we [management, Gretzky and his agent] had a positive meeting, in that I think we're on the same page now."
Gretzky, who will turn 35 next week, has said from the start of the season that he wants another Stanley Cup. Yesterday, he pointed to Kings teammates Vitali Yachmenev and Aki Berg, both rookies, as the future, and possibly his problem.
"They are a big part of this hockey team," Gretzky said. "They deserve to be playing now. But I just didn't want people [management] to look at them, at the youth, and have the plan be to go for the Cup three years from now. That doesn't do a whole lot of good for Wayne Gretzky. I wanted to make sure everyone understood I'd like to have a chance to win now."
Across the room, Colorado Avalanche left wing Joe Sakic listened to some of what Gretzky said and then tried to put it in perspective.
"It's come down to crunch time for him," said Sakic, Gretzky's Western All-Star teammate. "I don't think anyone begrudges him the idea that he wants to win another Cup.
Gretzky said people can think what they like; that in pro sports people either like what you say or they don't. He says he has, at times, been criticized for not speaking out more forcefully.
"Well, this time, from Day One, I've said I wanted what was best for Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings," Gretzky said.
"I think about those four Cups with Edmonton and my trip to the finals with L.A. And I think about wanting to get back to the finals. I believe we can do it here, that we can come out of our conference. I mean, if you're not trying to win, then you're in the wrong game, because that's what makes hockey fun."
Defenseman Kevin Hatcher, who was traded by the Washington Capitals to the Stars two seasons ago and is Dallas' only representative here, said that Gretzky's strategy of trying to prod the Los Angeles ownership is different.
"There's not too many players who take those steps," Hatcher said. "He's stepped up and said what he feels and you've got to respect a player of his standard speaking out like that. . . . He's one of the best who ever played, so I guess people will listen."
Site: FleetCenter, Boston
Time: 8 tonight
TV: Chs. 45, 5
Eastern Conference coach: Doug MacLean, Florida
Western Conference coach: Scotty Bowman, Detroit
Last year: No game because of the lockout.