Finding the NHL's future

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

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.

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 ...

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.