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The sweater vest descended from the rafters with fanfare.
A simple black vest, emblazoned with the number 99, it soon settled above the studio desk. And Wayne Gretzky, arguably the greatest hockey player of all time (hence his nickname “The Great One”) buried his face in his hands.
The sweater vest was retired. From that point on, only Gretzky would be permitted to don the attire on set.
“Of all the awards I’ve ever gotten, this is definitely one of them,” Gretzky quipped after a montage of players congratulating him on the tongue-in-cheek achievement played in the studio.
For the hockey legend, who now works as an an analyst for Warner Bros. Discovery Sports’ studio show The NHL on TNT, it was another example of how TV is in a very different business than the players on the ice.
“The sweater vest I didn’t see coming,” Gretzky tells The Hollywood Reporter, noting that he was as surprised as the viewers when it was lowered above his head. “It was an inside joke that we all laughed about for a long time.”
Gretzky may be a hockey legend, but TV is still a relatively new endeavor for him.
Last season, TNT’s first with NHL games‚ was also Gretzky’s initial foray behind the desk. And the WBD Sports format (made famous by The NBA on TNT) of combining serious news and analysis with friendly razzing and lighthearted segments (the sweater vest retirement, a shootout with actor Will Arnett) is fully present.
Gretzky says that is no accident.
“I think we all admire the chemistry and the show that the NBA does,” he says. “They have done such a tremendous job that we are just trying to be one quarter as good as they are, in the sense that they are lighthearted, yet they are serious. They can be in some ways a little bit controversial but not overstepping the bounds, there are more positives than negatives, and I think people want to hear that.”
But the heart of the show is still hockey. Analyzing or previewing the games, debating who is having the better season, and getting viewers into the mood to watch the main event.
“We aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, we are just trying to be positive and create as much chemistry between us as we can,” Gretzky says.
He adds that the chemistry between him and his fellow hosts and analysts came together quickly.
“We are used to being in the locker room and used to trying to get on the same page and pull together, and I think that is beneficial in the sense that Anson [Carter] and Biz [Paul Bissonnette] didn’t know me and I really didn’t know them, but the fact that Rick [Tocchet] and I are such good friends, they saw the banter and the relationship and debating that Rick and I have, and everybody else could kind of conform to that pretty smoothly and quickly,” he says. “We aren’t going to agree on everything, but that is what makes for good TV.”
“I don’t always have all the answers, and those guys don’t hesitate to razz me a little bit, that is what makes the show fun,” he adds.
But the formula isn’t just about fun. As with TNT’s NBA coverage, the NHL studio show has not shied away from addressing serious topics, from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to issues of racism and addiction that impact the game.
“I think that we have a pedestal that we are on, in the sense that we have a platform where people want to hear what our thoughts and opinions are,” Gretzky says. “I think that it is a fine line in that we don’t want to be a political program, we don’t want to be a program that people turn on and say, ‘geez, I just wanted to hear about the hockey game.’ But there comes a point in time where there is some responsibility that we talk about things. We don’t shy away from those issues, people have their thoughts and opinions and we understand that.”
However, “at the end of the day, ultimately, people turn on the hockey game to get away from the stress and pressures of everyday life,” Gretzky adds.
For Gretzky and WBD Sports, understanding the platform also means making hockey accessible.
“Maybe some of the terminology we use in the locker room may go over some people’s heads, so we will work to make it easier for the average viewer to understand what we are explaining in some situations,” Bissonnette told THR at a press conference for the show.
“I think we kind of take a responsibility to get some of those people [nontraditional hockey viewers] on board to try and like hockey,” Tocchet added.
Gretzky adds that he views growing the hockey audience as a “responsibility and somewhat of a priority.”
“From my point of view as a broadcaster, my job is kind of easy,” he adds, noting that his goal is to make the day’s game and the show fun for viewers.
Even if it means an occasional surprise sweater vest retirement ceremony.
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