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GRETZKY PASSES THE TORCH TO HASEK

Wayne Gretzky was just leaving the main stage at media day Saturday when the National Hockey League public relations people brought in Dominik Hasek.

The symbolism of that moment might have been missed by many but not by The Great One. Today's National Hockey League All-Star Game may still be a stage for Gretzky, but he was more than willing to turn it over to Hasek, the dominant player on it.

"Dominik Hasek is one of the greatest players in the game," said Gretzky, the longest-running superstar the sport has ever known. "He's kind of transcended his position to a point where people will pay a lot of money to go watch this guy play; he's that good. I think what he's done for our game. . . . he's taken our game and given it some great exposure. He's been wonderful for the sport of hockey. And, as I said, there haven't been too many guys in the game that have been better than he has in the last couple of years. He's tough to play against. It is frustrating to play against him."

Gretzky paused for a moment, obviously recalling that he and his North American teammates would face Hasek in the afternoon exhibition in the Ice Palace here. "But you know he's no different than anyone else. You've got to get a lot of traffic in front of him; you've got to try and rattle him as much as you can and hope for the best."

That last statement is the competitor in Gretzky. This is his 18th consecutive All-Star appearance and he wants to win it as much as anyone here, but the rest of it was a bona fide tribute to Hasek and the new wave of superstar players in the NHL.

Gretzky could have thrown a bone to Eric Lindros or Paul Kariya. Maybe to Tony Amonte, Keith Tkachuk, John LeClair or Mike Modano. Instead he chose Hasek, symbolic of the new wave of talent in the NHL today.

Where once hockey was all about players from Moose Jaw and Kamloops, Quebec and Kelvington, and an occasional player from the United States, it's new wave of stars hails from places like the Czech Republic (Hasek, Jaromir Jagr and Bobby Holik), Russia and its former federated states (Alexei Zhitnik, Arturs Irbe, Nikolai Khabibulin and Sergei Zubov), as well as Sweden (Mats Sundin, Daniel Alfredsson, Niklas Sundstrom), Finland (Teemu Selanne, Sami Kapanen) and Slovakia (Peter Bondra, Ziggy Palffy).

"It's great for our game and great for the league," said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, who will direct the World Team in the contest. "Our game is growing and it's partly because we've incorporated skilled players from all over the world. That's not just good for the game here, but everywhere. Hockey now has fans all over the world."

Most of whom recognize Hasek.

This is Hasek's fourth All-Star Game appearance in as many years and his second consecutive appearance as a starter (voted by the fans). Among European players he is by far their most recognized star.

"The last two years I would say, without question, that Dominik Hasek has proven to be the best player in the game," Gretzky said. "Not only for what he did for the Buffalo Sabres and for the NHL, but for what he did for his country in the Olympic Games. I think it would be hard for anyone to question that.

"What he did (in the Olympics), players still talk about it today. What a feeling it was to watch him win. Unfortunately we (Canada or the U.S.) weren't part of that, but what was amazing was afterwards you could see the celebrations of the people and that the country had, how excited the people (of the Czech Republic) were.

"Unfortunately, we didn't do as great a job as we wanted to do. . . . But when people talk about selling our game, if you look at what he did and what that team did for hockey in the Czech Republic and parts of Europe, I don't think anything we could do would replace the publicity and the PR and the positive PR we got from that team winning the gold medal."

Hasek took the accolades in stride.

"It's very nice to hear," he said. "Especially from the player who I admire most of all, from Wayne Gretzky. To hear something like that is very nice. But I think it's very hard to compare goalies and the players on the ice.

"I mean the forwards and defense, because our position is very different. We are 60 minutes on the ice, and other players, they spend between 20 and 30 minutes. So I think it's very difficult to compare this to the different positions. But I don't know what to say about that (Gretzky's comments). It's a great feeling, if a player like Wayne Gretzky says anything like that."

And Hasek is not the only European getting raves here. Last year in Vancouver, the game's MVP was Selanne despite the World team losing, 8-7.

"The influence of Europeans has been a fantastic development for our league," said Seymour H. Knox IV, who's here as a part of the Buffalo delegation. "People like Borje Salming, Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson helped open the door. There's more accent on fundamentals in European hockey. I hear some Russian kids don't even touch a puck for three years when they're learning the game."

That's paid off for the NHL in a big, big way. You could see that when the game's greatest player ever left the stage.

And turned it over to Hasek.

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