Finding the NHL's future

If a work stoppage forced the retirment of top players, there's plenty of young talent ready for their shift.

Updated: October 8, 2003, 7:32 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

Every sport searches for The Next One, especially a sport that has been graced with The Great One and The Magnificent One.

Jason Spezza
Jason Spezza scored a goal in his first-ever playoff game last May against New Jersey.
In accepting the torch, a player must accept that it's not enough to simply be good, but that the sport demands more. It's in many ways a difficult role, one that transcends a player's standing in his own community, with his own team.

Each sport has had them. Each sport searches feverishly for another when those players move on.

The NBA still searches for someone to fill the void left by Michael Jordan's final exit. Likewise, the NFL hopes some of its young talent can become the next Dan Marino, John Elway, Joe Montana or Steve Young.

The NHL is no different in its need for such faces, although the challenges in finding those types of individuals may be more complex, given the global nature of the game. And given the NHL's struggles to maintain its tenuous place in the sports consciousness of the American public, the presence of these rare specimens is crucial to the game's future.

Wayne Gretzky understood these things and gracefully accepted his role as the face of the game for years. Mario Lemieux embraced the role late in his career. Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan, Jeremy Roenick have all become players who are comfortable in speaking beyond the clichés.

The fact that one-third of the almost 300 players taken in the 2003 entry draft were born outside of North America, that many of the game's top stars were born in homes where English is not the first language, makes finding ambassadors for the game even more complicated.

Jaromir Jagr, for instance, has always had an antsy relationship with the media in part because some of what he wants to communicate gets lost in the language barrier. Yet Jagr remains popular with the fans, especially young women, said analyst Pierre McGuire of The Sports Network in Canada.

Europeans Daniel Alfredsson, Mats Sundin, Markus Naslund and Saku Koivu all are captains of their respective Canadian teams and have grown to accept the demands of answering for their teams -- and in some ways for the game itself -- in large, fervent hockey centers.

Generation to generation, there are always new stars that come to the game to excite fans. We have a lot of terrific players under the age of 25.
Commissioner Gary Bettman

Today, because many Europeans cut their teeth playing junior or college hockey in North America, they are more comfortable with the language and the media by the time they reach the NHL, McGuire said.

"I think the world is shrinking as opposed to growing," he added.

Who then represents the future face of the game? Who carries the torch?

"I think one of the great things about sports today is the fact that, generation to generation, there are always new stars that come to the game to excite fans," said commissioner Gary Bettman. "We have a lot of terrific players under the age of 25. That doesn't mean we don't miss Wayne Gretzky and that when Mario ultimately retires we won't miss him. But that's life. ... It's part of the life cycle."

"The only thing you can do about it is play and just try and get better as a player," says Dany Heatley who makes our list in spite of the car crash that will see him miss much of the early part of the season at the least.

"There are a lot of great young players that have already made a name for themselves," Heatley says. "There's never going to be a shortage of good players in this league."

Here's a list of some who might be, some who could be and some who should be ...

THE FUTURE 15
Rick Nash 1. Rick Nash, Columbus Blue Jackets
The top pick in the 2002 draft, Nash made an almost instant impact on the ice as a rookie and seems comfortable handling the pressure of answering for his team. "He's going to be a bright young face in the game," predicts McGuire.
Jason Spezza 2. Jason Spezza, Ottawa Senators
He's been granting interview requests since he was 14 years old, but Spezza hasn't lost his "aw shucks" appeal. He is patient and eager to accommodate. And oh yeah, he's going to be a terrific player.
Jay Bouwmeester 3. Jay Bouwmeester, Florida Panthers
Bouwmeester has been granting interviews for almost as long as Spezza, and -- with all due respect to the third pick in 2002 -- he has likely mumbled pretty much the same thing in every one of them. In a market like Florida, Bouwmeester will have to accept that the demands placed on him will extend well beyond the ice.
Ales Hemsky 4. Ales Hemsky, Edmonton Oilers
McGuire thinks the Czech forward will be "dynamite" in Edmonton, and he's right. The Czech forward was one of the team's most dynamic players down the stretch and quickly became a fan favorite. His development on and off the ice will be helped by playing in a small but exceptionally savvy media market.
Ilya Kovalchuk 5./6. Dany Heatley/Ilya Kovalchuk (left), Atlanta Thrashers
The twin towers of hockey in Atlanta have almost always been referred to in the same breath. With the serious accident that injured Heatley and killed Dan Snyder during training camp, Kovalchuk will need to accelerate his development as a leader. Heatley had made tremendous strides before the accident. Now Kovalchuk won't have his partner as a crutch to lean on.
Marian Gaborik 7. Marian Gaborik, Minnesota Wild
Although holding out will take some of the sheen off any player, anywhere, Gaborik has quickly assumed star status in a hockey-mad market. Is as gifted as any young player in the league and in some ways represents the face of the small-market, high-achieving team.
Marian Hossa 8. Marian Hossa, Ottawa Senators
The Senators' top scorer has seen his personality develop along with his game. Watching the classy Alfredsson must have been a great learning tool, and if, as expected, the Senators make another deep run in the playoffs, Hossa will continue to be the center of attention in Canada's capital.
Zach Parise 9. Zach Parise, New Jersey Devils
He may not be in the Devils' immediate plans, but the 17th pick overall in the 2003 draft has a great hockey background and is American to boot. "He's a good-looking kid who's a very polished speaker," says McGuire.
Rick DiPietro 10. Rick DiPietro, New York Islanders
Having spent much of the last two years in the AHL may have done wonders for DiPietro's on-ice development, but he should also be better prepared to handle the daily rigors of playing in the New York market. As a U.S.-born player, he will be called on more and more, especially as the World Cup of Hockey and the 2006 Olympics approach.
Jordin Tootoo 11. Jordin Tootoo, Nashville Predators
Already the subject of several magazine profiles in Canada and the United States, including ESPN The Magazine, USA Today and Sports Illustrated, Tootoo is the first Inuit player to play in the NHL. His story is the stuff of movies, and yet the on-ice dynamo remains unpretentious and well-spoken. He will become the face of the Predators in short order.
Joe Thornton 12. Joe Thornton, Boston Bruins
No list of future stars would be complete without a mention of the man who may well be the game's next scoring champion. Even a minor brush with the law hasn't shaken the luster off Thornton's hockey halo. Big, rugged, he is hockey to many fans. More and more comfortable with the role, and he's only 24.
Vincent Lecavalier 13. Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay Lightning
Dubbed the Michael Jordan of hockey by then-owner Art Williams, Lecavalier was fed too much responsibility too soon. Freed of the burden of the team captaincy, the 23-year-old center's game and personality have begun to flourish.
Evgeni Nabokov 14. Evgeni Nabokov, San Jose Sharks
The Kazak goalie is confident in his skills and comfortable with his handle on the English language. By virtue of his position -- and the absence of any other true superstar on the team -- his success is closely tied to that of the team's in the standings and in the community.
Jarome Iginla 15. Jarome Iginla, Calgary Flames
Down to earth and honest, when it looked like the Flames might not be able to sign him last year, many teams were interested because they saw him as a tremendous talent with the kind of personality they could build their team around.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

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