A decade ago, the incomparable Wayne Gretzky's career was winding down and the NHL knew it needed a new signature icon to take his place. Similar to the way the basketball media prepared for the retirement of Michael Jordan, those who covered the NHL began to size up younger stars not just as great players in their own rights, but also as potential successors to the Great One, ambassadors who could transcend hockey and increase the sport's popularity on the U.S. stage.
We know now that this was pure folly. A megastar like Gretzky isn't someone you merely replace on the spot; his own arrival didn't come until years after the eras of Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, Bobby Hull, and Bobby Orr, so why would anyone expect the "Next One" to crawl out of the woodwork before the dust had even settled on the First One's career? Still, the search pressed on, and four names emerged in the mid-to-late 1990s as Gretzky's most likely successors in the race to be the new face of the NHL.
Paul Kariya, Jaromir Jagr, Eric Lindros, and Peter Forsberg were already superstars heading into their respective primes, but as Gretzky's final season waned in the spring of 1999, each took on a new significance in the hockey landscape. A post-Gretzky world was unfamiliar and frightening territory for the league, their only consolation being that at least one of these Chosen Four would likely step in and take over Gretzky's role as the NHL's star among stars.
Of course, that never actually happened, at least not to the extent that Gary Bettman and friends had desired. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see each player's very obvious shortcomings, weaknesses that would preclude any from approaching #99's status at the top of the hockey world, but at the time we were too blinded by their on-ice brilliance to recognize them. As it turned out, the league would have to wait six years and endure a painful lockout that threatened to destroy the sport itself before Gretzky's true heir arrived on the scene. But what compelled us to single out the original four in the first place, and what went wrong along their path(s) to "Next One"-ness? Read on to find out...
The Case For: From a pure playing standpoint, Kariya was easily the most similar of the four to Gretzky himself: a smallish but nimble forward with great vision, instincts, hands, and elusiveness, Kariya saw the play developing faster than other players and could impose his will on the game as a result. Also, Kariya played in Southern California (meaning he could continue Gretzky's Sun Belt marketing presence), he and linemate Teemu Selanne were often compared to the deadly duo of Gretzky and Jari Kurri (always a plus), and Kariya's affable personality and good-guy image seemed to make him the ideal choice to follow in the Great One's footsteps.
The Fatal Flaw: Kariya couldn't stay healthy, for one. He suffered multiple concussions which robbed him of games played in his prime and hampered his effectiveness when he did suit up. He also lacked Gretzky's killer instinct in big moments, and wasn't even assertive enough to establish himself as the dominant one in his pairing with Selanne. In other words, Kariya, while supremely talented, simply didn't have the right personality to assume Gretzky's mantle.
The Aftermath: Predictably, the Ducks never lived up to the promise they flashed when Kariya and Selanne first paired up. Kariya continued to score roughly a point per game (even after Selanne departed for San Jose in 2001), and he even led Anaheim to the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals, where the Ducks were dispatched by New Jersey, but he never had another dominant season after 1999-2000. After that Finals run, Kariya became a sort of journeyman, hopping from an unsuccessful stint in Colorado to a career mini-renaissance in Nashville, and now to the Blues, where the only thing he has in common with Gretzky is the fact that he's playing out the twilight of his career in a St. Louis uniform.
The Case For: On the surface, Lindros seemed to have it all -- dominating size, a cannon for a shot, soft hands, a willingness to mix it up in traffic all while maintaining his finesse game... A Hart Trophy winner by age 21 (!), Lindros was supposed to be the next evolution of Gordie Howe or Mario Lemieux, a super-sized wrecking ball with the skills of a Gretzky and the toughness of an enforcer. In the mid-1990s, the Philadelphia Flyers' young captain looked poised to follow in Bobby Clarke's footsteps and win multiple Cups... and anyone who's seen a Lindros interview knows that if he could pull it off, he possessed the charisma to become a media darling and one of the top ambassadors for the game.
The Fatal Flaw: Where to begin? Lindros already had one strike against him (a rep as a spoiled, selfish brat) before his NHL career ever started, having infamously spurned both Sault Ste. Marie in the OHL draft as a junior player and the Quebec Nordiques in the 1991 NHL Entry Draft. Then, in light of everything Philadelphia had given up to acquire him, Lindros began to be perceived as a choker for not leading the Flyers deeper into the playoffs... and it only hurt Lindros more that the Nordiques (aka the Colorado Avalanche) won Cups in 1996 and 2001 -- with players the Flyers had dealt in the Lindros trade playing key roles. And then there were the injuries, including an epic propensity for concussions which ultimately ended Lindros' career. The bottom line is this: Lindros was blessed with absolutely immense physical tools, and he didn't use them to deliver as much on the ice as fans or the league would have liked.
The Aftermath: Fairly or unfairly, Lindros is now viewed as something of an anti-Gretzky, a sulking, choking, injury-prone loser who ultimately squandered a fantastic set of hockey skills. After his well-publicized draft incidents he was probably never going to fully assume Gretzky's role as the face of hockey, but all of the injuries, postseason disappointments (also injury-related; he averaged 1.08 postseason pts/g when he actually played), and feuds with management permanently destroyed his "Next One" status. Lindros retired in 2007 after comeback stints with the Rangers, Maple Leafs, and Stars.
The Case For: In the mid-to-late 1990s, Forsberg quietly ascended to become almost the consensus best all-around player on the planet. A rare combination of grit and grace, he could check like a 3rd-line grinder (it was a labor of love, too), yet he possessed the hands and playmaking ability to notch 85 points in a season (no paltry total in the Dead Puck Era) 6 times, cracking 100 twice. In his prime, Forsberg was the motor that drove the Avalanche to 2 Cups and 9 straight division titles from 1995-2003. He was the ultimate teammate as well, an unselfish player who led by example, never backed down from an on-ice challenge, and did whatever the team required of him. He shined especially brightly in the playoffs, leading all players in scoring twice -- including 2002, when he missed all season with a ruptured spleen but returned for the postseason to score 27 points in 20 games. Like Gretzky, Forsberg was nothing if not clutch.
The Fatal Flaw: Again, a lack of durability. (Are we sensing a theme here?) Forsberg's reckless and, yes, sometimes even nasty style of play opened himself up to an inordinate risk of injury, and as a result he has missed 328 regular season games in his 13-year career. (By contrast, Gretzky missed only 97 games in his 20 seasons.) Beyond the health problems, though, Forsberg's personality probably wasn't suited to carrying #99's torch, either. While in Colorado, he never truly emerged offensively from the shadow of teammate Joe Sakic, and that's the way he liked it. Like Gretzky, Forsberg was an unselfish teammate and quiet leader, but unlike the Great One, Forsberg shied away from the spotlight off of the ice as well. He often contemplated retiring in the middle of his prime, moving back to his native Sweden, and playing hockey away from the NHL's limelight. Besides, between the Dead Puck Era and his role on the Avalanche at the time (do-everything forward), Foppa wasn't going to put up the kind of gaudy numbers that would have vaulted him into Gretzky-level status and fame.
The Aftermath: Forsberg continued to be (along with Sakic and Patrick Roy) the heart and soul of the Avalanche until the lockout. Afterwards, he signed with the Philadelphia Flyers, but his injury problems escalated and he missed 120 games over the next 3 years with Philadelphia, Nashville, and Colorado. As of late July 2008, he still hasn't decided whether he will retire from the NHL altogether. As for the Gretzky comparisons, Forsberg's brilliant 2-way brand of hockey was always more for the connoisseur than the casual fan anyway, so there wasn't much chance he'd become the face of the post-#99 NHL in the first place. Still, his injuries force you to question how much better his chances would have been had he only been able to stay healthy during his prime.
The Case For: There's no question that Jaromir Jagr was the signature player of the NHL's post-Lemieux, post-Gretzky period... for a time, at least. Between 1995 and 2001, he won 5 Art Ross Trophies as the league's leading scorer, and took home the Hart Trophy as league MVP in 1999 as well; in 1997-98, he was the only player in the game to surpass the mythical 100-point barrier. Oh, and he also won two Stanley Cups and an Olympic Gold Medal along the way. Simply put, Jagr was the NHL's best one-on-one offensive player during his prime -- impossible to knock off the puck, he owned every offensive move imaginable and was a threat to score every time he had the puck on his stick. You want more signs that he was destined to pick up the torch? In Gretzky's final game, guess who scored the game-winning goal in overtime? And guess whose name is an anagram for "Mario, Jr."? Spooky.
The Fatal Flaw: And yet Jagr never truly grabbed the torch and ran with it. Despite #68 being at the height of his powers and popularity, Pittsburgh never made a big playoff run under captain Jagr until Lemieux's triumphant comeback in 2001. Meanwhile, Jagr spent that season feuding with coach Ivan Hlinka after he demanded that Jagr take a bigger defensive role on the team, then made it clear that the Penguins wouldn't be able to re-sign him when he became a free agent after the year. Bolting for Washington, Jagr disappointed over the following 2½ seasons and essentially solidified his reputation as a selfish, me-first player who was only concerned with his salary.
The Aftermath: After underachieving in Washington, Jagr moved on to the New York Rangers, where he was more productive and, by all accounts, a better teammate and more mature player. However, the reputation he picked up in Pittsburgh after Lemieux's first retirement proved difficult to leave behind, and as a result Jagr had a love-hate relationship with fans and the media throughout his stay in New York. After the 2007-08 season, Jagr's contract was not renewed by the Blueshirts, and he signed with a pro team in Russia for two years, signaling perhaps the end of his NHL career. It is a career that is difficult to assess at the moment, but one which will likely be viewed more favorably with the passage of time, as Jagr ranks 12th in career goals, 13th in assists, and 9th in points, despite playing his prime years in the Dead Puck Era. Still, it has to be seen as a disappointment, given that Jagr was literally poised to take the baton from Gretzky after the Great One's final NHL game. From that point on, instead of becoming the "Next One," Jagr fostered an image of selfishness; and while it probably won't be his enduring legacy (the glory years with Lemieux will likely be the lasting image of his career), it represents a missed opportunity on Jagr's part to become the NHL's greatest post-Gretzky superstar.