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You Can Eat Wayne Gretzky for Breakfast

Can the Canadian hocker star become a household name in America?

Wayne Gretzky

Wayne Gretzky #99 of the Edmonton Oilers skates against the Montreal Canadiens in the at the Montreal Forum in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, 1980

Denis Brodeur/NHLI/Getty

There’s a man in California who believes that Wayne Gretzky, the hockey player, can become the next Cary Grant. “I know that sounds strange,” he said.

Strange? When there are people in Canada convinced that Gretzky is about to become the next important cereal? With General Mills tossing $2 million into that particular bowl? Gretzky has already had his face and uniform number immortalized on sheets and pillowcases, a wristwatch, a candy bar, even wallpaper. There’s a Gretzky clock on a Gretzky mirror. Why not a cereal? Snap, crackle and Gretzky. That doesn’t sound especially strange.

Let’s face it, this Gretzky is more than the greatest hockey player who ever put stick to puck. He’s a doll — a Mattel doll, wearing his Edmonton Oilers home uniform. For just a few more dollars, you can dress him in a sweat suit, a tuxedo, his road uniform. If you’re in Canada and don’t know who Gretzky is, you ought to think about ordering a headstone.

The rewards of a long and brilliant career are Gretzky’s — a career that’s all the more amazing because he turns twenty-three this month. Gretzky sets scoring records every time he tightens his skates. At last count, he was the holder of thirty-seven records. For example, until Gretzky came along, the most goals anyone had scored in a single season was 76, the most total points, 152. The season before last, Gretzky clanked in 92 goals, 212 points. Jaws dropped. He was ahead of that pace at the halfway mark this season.

What do these numbers mean to somebody who thinks a Philadelphia Flyer is involved with Amtrak? Well, if baseball is the yardstick, those ninety-two goals would be the equivalent of the home-run record zooming from sixty-one to around eighty-five. So it’s a cinch that Gretzky earns his skating salary of a million a year on a $21 million contract that runs through 1999. And since the business deals are said to bring in perhaps $2 million a year, it’s not for nothing that his nickname is “the Great Gretzky.”

Where will it end, this Gretzky explosion? Good question. But there’s a better one: What are we really dealing with here — a Canadian bang or a U.S. whimper?

The problem is hockey. Will Rogers, who said, “I never met a man I didn’t like,” was never seen talking to a hockey player. Sure, the game does splendidly inside the arenas, where the twenty-one National Hockey League franchises play to more than eighty percent of capacity. Among professional sports, only the National Football League shows a more impressive average, but its teams are home only eight games a year. Hockey’s eighty-game regular season opens in October. The playoffs start in April and continue until nobody cares anymore.

The fact is, hockey is not everyone’s cup of ice. As far as the U.S. television networks are concerned, the sport melted away, a victim of anemic ratings, when the league’s contract with NBC expired after the 1975 season. The next time the networks were excited about hockey ratings was 1980, when the U.S. Olympic team was sticking it to the Russians. But that wasn’t hockey as much as it was “us” against “them.”

CBS tried one game that same year, the game that made the New York Islanders the league champions. Only about two-thirds of the network’s 206 affiliates carried the game. How can you score a solid rating when a large chunk of the potential audience isn’t getting the picture?

A network executive told me that as recently as last year, there were discussions about finding a spot for hockey. But with no NHL franchises in the Southern and Southwestern states, he said, “Our stations in those areas, and even some pockets in the Midwest, wouldn’t take the games.” There was some thought given to a regional plan: feeding hockey to the Northern audiences and finding something else for Southern tastes — auto racing, or maybe the world’s fastest cotton-pickers. But they were talking about weekend-afternoon programming, and Plan B was just too expensive.

The only national exposure for hockey is on the USA Cable Network, a system available to one-quarter of American homes. “Go for a vacation in Florida, outside of Miami, and try to get a hockey score,” said attorney Arthur Kaminsky. He must have tried. Kaminsky and a partner represent about one-third of the NHL players. They do swell when they negotiate contracts; the league’s average salary is $115,000 a year. Where the players slip and slide is away from the ice.

“The biggest frustration we’ve had over the years is that we’ve never been able to generate considerable revenue for hockey players in the advertising community,” Kaminsky said. Herb Brooks, the 1980 Olympic coach who now coaches the New York Rangers, is a Kaminsky client. “We thought Herb would get lots of big network-type things,” Kaminsky said. “He’s very mid-American. He stands for all the right things. When you put that together with the dramatic victory over the Russians…”

You get less than you might think. Brooks makes public appearances for Levi’s. Kaminsky expects to sew up something soon with the air force. The coach and five former Olympians will be seen on an American Express commercial before the 1984 Winter Games begin in February. (“Do you know who I am? That’s what I thought.”) And that’s about it. Try us again in 1988, Coach.

Gretzky should be different. Try to forget for a minute that he’s great and take a look at him. Blond hair, eyes the color of honeydew melon, terrific teeth (no small trick for a hockey player). He’s from Brantford, Ontario, and doesn’t have the French-Canadian accent that prevents so many splendid skaters from pushing American products. On top of all that, Gretzky is the rarest of superstars: he’s unfailingly polite. He answers questions in the locker room for wave after wave of reporters. When he showed up a few minutes late for our midmorning appointment, he apologized. The only other time you will hear an athlete apologize is on the advice of counsel.

Okay, Gretzky’s conversation is one part of his game that isn’t hall of fame. When I asked what kind of a hockey career he had hoped for at first, he replied, “My attitude was, come in, make the hockey club, do the best I could to contribute and help win a championship. By being on a winning team, all the individual things fall into place.” The individual things, the records, the cereal — did he expect them? “You can’t look into a crystal ball,” he said. “Personally…”

He paused. No, he wasn’t going to get personal. “As I said, I wanted to make the hockey team, contribute the best I could.” Because he’s Gretzky, I didn’t have to wait very long for him to come clean. “I didn’t think I’d ever do as well as I have. It’s fun. I’m enjoying it.”

That would explain the smile I saw on his face for almost an entire practice session. His teammates, to a man, were serious skaters. Gretzky, if we’re to believe his coach, Glen Sather, is more than great; he’s downright good. “He doesn’t do that much,” Sather said, talking about the demands on his star’s time. “He’s in bed early. He gets lots of sleep.”

That routine was changed at a small gathering the night before, at which five portraits of Gretzky had been unveiled. The artist was Andy Warhol. When Gretzky posed for Warhol’s camera one afternoon last June, his hair was almost at his collar. Imagine Warhol’s surprise when he saw Gretzky for the first time in six months.

“You got a haircut,” Warhol said.

“To change my luck,” Gretzky answered. Probably a joke.

Warhol glanced at the portraits. “I’ll have to change them.”

“No, no, it’ll grow back,” Gretzky assured him.

The public Gretzky is a charmer. He was asked for a short speech and went straight to the microphone, calling the paintings “quite an honor for a small-town boy.” At a reception later, Gretzky was at still another microphone, thanking all the right people. Strangers asked him to stand near them for photographs or sign pieces of paper, and he was at least obliging and something very close to cheerful.

It’s probably worth mentioning that there was a bottom line to this public reunion of artist and subject. The five paintings are priced at $35,000 each, and 300 silk-screen prints will be offered at $2000. Eventually, a poster, at somewhere between twenty-five and fifty dollars, will be sold in Canada, America, Europe and Japan. Warhol and Gretzky have received “a substantial fee,” said Frans Wynams, the Vancouver art dealer who brought them together. “Negotiations were difficult, but Andy and Wayne wanted to do it. That helped.”

Gretzky uses three people to screen his offers. Gus Badali is Gretzky’s agent for hockey. Michael Barnett heads the marketing arm of Gretzky’s empire. The player’s father, Walter, who still works as a technician for the Canadian telephone company, gets another vote. Barnett does most of the scratching. He sought out General Mills in Canada because he thought the company that was responsible for Cheerios, the cereal shaped like little letter O’s, might be interested in putting a tail on their O’s and coming up with a 99. That just happens to be Gretzky’s number. According to Barnett, there were experiments on the 99 shape at the company’s Minneapolis laboratories. They’d thought about a puck-shaped cereal as well, but settled on a star. They called the cereal Pro Stars, put Gretzky’s face on the box and are testing it in three Western provinces. The $2 million budget is the most they’ve ever spent on a breakfast-cereal launch in Canada. He adds that the tests are going well and that “General Mills in the U.S.A. is looking at this product very seriously.”

“If that cereal moves down to the U.S., if it gets in the supermarkets,” said Shelly Saltman, “right there, he transcends hockey. That would be a cornerstone for him.” Saltman is in the television and film business. He claims Gretzky would have landed roles on Matt Houston, Simon & Simon and Magnum, P.I. if he’d had more than six weeks of Gretzky’s time. Saltman used one precious day to schlep Gretzky to eight different casting directors. Gretzky eventually turned up in one episode of The Young and the Restless and was a judge on Dance Fever. “He’s got a boyishness, a wistfulness, a warmth, an indefinable, I-don’t-know-how-to-describe-it quality,” Saltman said. Yes, he does. He could do drawing-room comedy, Saltman decided. “If Wayne worked at it, he could be another Cary Grant.”

Meanwhile, back on earth, there are cold facts to contend with. A poll commissioned by Benton & Bowles, an advertising agency, listed twenty-four prominent athletes and asked people to indicate the ones they were familiar with. There were two hockey players on the list — Gretzky and Mike Bossy, the high-scoring star of the champion Islanders. Gretzky finished twenty-third, his name recognized by only thirty-one percent of those polled. The one player he beat out was Bossy.

Kaminsky, who knows how hard it is to sell his hockey clients, wasn’t surprised. “If more than two-thirds of the country doesn’t know who Wayne Gretzky is, how can an agency sell a buyer on a Gretzky commercial?”

George Lois of Lois, Pitts, Gershon is an adman who often hauls athletes into commercials. He had Mickey Mantle, Oscar Robertson and Johnny Unitas, among others, crying for their Maypo. Lois doesn’t bother with expensive polls; he has a wife. “This is an intelligent, aware New York woman,” Lois said of his spouse. “If you asked her to come up with one name in the history of hockey, she couldn’t. I suspect that’s the same with 999 out of 1000 in America. I’m sure, in Canada, Gretzky’s famous up the kazoo. I hate to say it, but he’s not famous here. Famous is Mickey, Yogi, Reggie. Obviously, Gretzky’s the greatest hockey player ever. He’s good-looking, ingratiating, nice, et cetera, et cetera, but who cares? He ain’t a famous name. Famous is my wife’s got to know who he is.”

Is it possible that a cereal will mean more to Gretzky’s fame than all his hockey records? The biggest noise he made this season — after his Edmonton team buried the New Jersey Devils — seems to underline Gretzky’s difficulties in breaking through to the American audience. With reporters listening, Gretzky, who scored eight points that night, described the Devils as a “Mickey Mouse organization.” The headlines — all about the mouse, nothing about his scoring — were impressive, if embarrassing to Gretzky. He apologized the next day.

How would he have felt about a subsequent conversation between Walt Disney’s public-relations office in New York and a league official? “They called me about the Mickey Mouse crack,” the official said. “They couldn’t understand why it was so important that he said it. The other thing they wanted to know was, who is this Wayne Gretzky?”

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