Gretzky and Messier face off, and the winner is – Charles Barkley?

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It says something about the location of professional hockey in the United States that the biggest star of the opening week of the NHL season was a basketball player who retired more than 20 years ago.

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On Wednesday night, Charles Barkley dropped by the slick new studio in Atlanta that Turner Sports was building over the summer after acquiring the rights to nearly 50 NHL games over the next seven years. Along with ESPN, which is airing a larger package of games than TNT as well as launching hockey-oriented shows as part of its new seven-year deal, Turner has been seen as the league’s leader in US pop culture. Touted as a panacea for relative ambiguity.

(None of the networks are legally available in Canada.)

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Barkley, a mainstay of Turner’s NBA coverage, was chirping for his good friend, Wayne Gretzky, whom he helped recruit to the network in his debut as a pundit.

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But first, he had to spend 17 years in the woods giving the league a bit of a chirping (aka at NBC Sports and other marginal broadcast properties).

“You know, I’ve been a hockey fan forever, and I’m glad we’ve stabilized the TV network between ESPN and TNT, so that real fans can [watch the games]. I mean, like… 10 years ago, you were all out on the outdoors [Life] Network,” he said, referring to the erstwhile lifestyle channel that was often found at the top of the cable dial (if at all). “As rich as I am, I didn’t even have the outdoors” [Life] Network!” laughed Gretzky: It was funny because it was probably true.

Earlier this week, speaking at a sports business conference, NHL commissioner Gary Bateman explained that Turner, which has a stable full of flashy digital properties, was a good partner for the league because the company was “a little bit smaller – to go digital-facing.” skews” with Bleacher Report, and for Millennials and Gen Z – and we skew youth. “

There is a battle going on between the conservatives and the TikTokers for the soul of hockey. (This side of the border, there’s a frenzied dynamic literally on your screen: Just before the puck drop on Wednesday, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that TikTok Canada is the team’s helmet sponsor for the new season.) And though TNT spending millions. (Canadian) Dollars for a panel of people who really know a thing or two about hockey — Gretzky, Anson Carter, former coach Rick Touchett, as well as spiky former tough boy-podcaster Paul Bissonte — the only thing internet The day after the debut show seemed to care for Barkley.

This is partly the fault of the producers, who chose to tape a fight between Gretzky and Neil Brotten from December 1982, after Barkley gave his welcome address to the network. No one seemed to know why, but it caused Barkley to bite his friend: “Wait, you lost to a perm guy? Are you serious?!” She said incredulously, while Gretzie nodded good-naturedly and quipped, “Yeah, I did. I got five minutes for cat fighting.”

Then he rolled some tape of an infamous NBA fight between Barkley and Shaquille O’Neill in November 1999 — because why not, I guess? Host Liam McHugh tries to decipher the segment before moving on to the real business: teasing a shootout between Gretzie and Barkley to come later.

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In the first half, Barkley donned a blocker and catcher’s glove, grabbed a goalkeeper’s stick, and awkwardly stood in front of a net while Gretzky blew four (mild, non-injured) pucks behind him. . Later, asked if he wanted to turn the tables and take a few shots at his friend, Barkley begged politely. “Gretzky was not a defender,” he explained. “He’s the Charles Barkley of hockey!” As did the rest of the panelists laughing.

But then that was gone, the moment it was packaged up and sent into the ether to play and share with digital natives, just another fungus-worthy piece of content, and whatever else was on the old-fashioned television set. All that was left was the actual hockey talk.

Even for this non-digital native, it made for a long night. And not just because TNT did a double-header program, kicking off with the Washington Capitals versus the New York Rangers, followed by the Colorado Avalanche playing the Chicago Blackhawks.

Gretzky is a relentlessly positive person who I think can be early in the season before losing any games. But his sunny stance – he suggested that 22 to 24 teams could be in the running to win the Stanley Cup this year – will quickly get old.

After spending so much money on Gretzky (the New York Post reported that Turner would pay him US$3 million a season), producers apparently felt pressure to at least turn the opening version into The Wayne Gretzky Show.

During a bar, in the second period of the first game, he dropped her in the upper-right corner of the screen for an interview.

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Eddie Olczyk and Kenny Albert, who were calling the game, asked him about Alexander Ovechkin, and Gretzky politely asked Ovi what a great man he is and how much he expected his goal-scoring record to eclipse him. Will, the Caps scored two quick goals including one assisted by Ovi. And Gretzky, with no natural broadcaster instinct, just kept talking. Olczyk and Albert, too respectable for a mistake, did not dare to interrupt.

The night before, Gretzky’s longtime partner Mark Messier was going through a similarly rocky period. ESPN drafted him for its on-air team last spring. During the first intermission of the season-opening game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Pittsburgh Penguins, broadcast from Tampa, he looked nervous as he sat at the desk between Chris Chelios and Barry Melrose, stacking his notes as host Steve Levy Looking down again and again. guided him through the points he wanted to make.

There, too, the producers thought the audience was interested in bad business, so they rolled tape of a high stick that Chelios had returned to Messier’s nose in the late nineties, and then the two former fighters. Cut back, the way they were dodging. The game was played.

It all felt very old school. Who knows? – Might be okay: I’m told that kids love retro chic.

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