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Wayne Gretzky has launched the 2021 NHL season as a pundit for Turner Sports after the network scored rights to about 50 NHL games in each of the next seven years.Mark Schiefelbein/The Associated Press

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

On Wednesday night, Charles Barkley dropped by the slick new studio in Atlanta that Turner Sports had constructed over the summer after it scored rights to about 50 NHL games in each of the next seven years. Along with ESPN, which is airing a bigger package of games than TNT as well as launching hockey-oriented shows as part of its own new seven-year deal, Turner is being touted as a panacea for the league’s relative obscurity in U.S. pop culture.

(Neither network is legally available in Canada.)

Barkley, a mainstay of Turner’s NBA coverage, was there to chirp his good buddy, Wayne Gretzky, whom he’d helped recruit to the network, on his debut as a pundit.

But first, he had to chirp the league a bit for having spent 17 years in the wilderness (aka on NBC Sports and other marginal broadcast properties).

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

Earlier this week, speaking at a sports business conference, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman explained that Turner, which has a stable full of glittery digital properties, was a good partner for the league because the company “tends to skew a little younger – digital-facing with Bleacher Report, and for millennials and Gen Zs – and we tend to skew young.”

There’s a battle unfolding for the soul of hockey, between the traditionalists and the TikTokers. (On this side of the border, there’s a frenemy dynamic literally on your screen: Just before 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 is spending millions of dollars for a panel of (Canadian) folks who actually know a thing or two about hockey – Gretzky, Anson Carter, former coach Rick Tocchet, as well as the spiky former tough guy-turned-podcaster Paul Bissonnette – the only thing the Internet seemed to care about on the day after the debut show was Barkley.

That’s partly the fault of producers, who after Barkley made his welcome-to-the-network speech, chose to run tape of a fight from December, 1982, between Gretzky and Neal Broten. Nobody seemed to know why, but it gave Barkley a chance to rib his friend: “Wait, you lost to a guy with a perm? Are you serious?!” he said incredulously, while Gretkzy nodded good-naturedly and quipped, “Yeah, I did. I got five minutes for catfighting.”

Then they rolled some tape of an infamous NBA fight in November, 1999, between Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal – because why not, I suppose? Host Liam McHugh gamely tried to make sense of the segment before segueing to the real business: teasing a shootout to come later between Gretkzy and Barkley.

In the first intermission, Barkley donned a blocker and catching glove, grabbed a goalie stick, and stood awkwardly in front of a net while Gretzky blew four (light, non-injuring) pucks past him. Afterward, asked if he wanted to turn the tables and take some shots at his friend, Barkley politely begged off. “Gretzky wasn’t a defender,” he explained. “He’s the Charles Barkley of hockey!” as the rest of the panelists chuckled.

But then he was gone, the moment was packaged and sent out into the ether for digital natives to play with and share, just another piece of fungible content, and all that was left on the old-fashioned television set was actual hockey talk.

Even for this non-digital native, it made for a long night. And not just because TNT had programmed a double-header, 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 individual, which I suppose one can be at the beginning of the season, before anyone has lost a game. But his sunny stance – he suggested that 22 to 24 teams could be in the running to win the Stanley Cup this year – will get old quickly.

Having spent so much money on Gretzky (the New York Post reported that Turner will pay him US$3-million a season), producers evidently felt pressure to turn at least the opening edition into The Wayne Gretzky Show.

During one stretch, in the second period of the first game, they dropped him into the top-right corner of the screen for an interview.

Eddie Olczyk and Kenny Albert, who were calling the game, asked him about Alexander Ovechkin, and as Gretzky droned on politely about what a great guy Ovi is and how much he hopes he’ll eclipse his goal-scoring record, the Caps scored two quick goals, including one assisted by Ovi. And Gretzky, having no natural broadcaster’s instinct, just kept talking. Olczyk and Albert, too deferential to a fault, didn’t dare interrupt.

The night before, Gretzky’s old teammate Mark Messier was going through something similarly rocky. ESPN had snapped him up last spring for its on-air team. During the first intermission of the season-opening game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Pittsburgh Penguins, broadcasting from Tampa, he looked nervous sitting at the desk between Chris Chelios and Barry Melrose, glancing down repeatedly at his sheaf of notes as host Steve Levy guided him through the points he wanted to make.

There, too, producers seemed to think viewers were interested in nasty business, so they rolled tape of a high stick that Chelios had delivered to Messier’s nose back in the late nineties, and then cut back to the two former combatants chuckling over the way the game used to be played.

It all felt very old school. Which – who knows? – may be fine: I’m told the kids love retro chic.