Even off the ice, Gretzky still serves as an evangelist spreading the gospel of hockey. “Everybody has to be an ambassador to help grow the game, whether it’s us on TNT or the guys on ESPN or the players themselves,” Gretzky said. “We all have a responsibility because we all want the game to get bigger and better.”
Genteel and soft-spoken, Gretzky might not seem like the most natural fit for the often rambunctious world of studio commentary. He wasn’t so sure himself when he was approached by Turner Sports—the owner of TNT—now known as Warner Bros. Discovery Sports, which, along with ESPN, secured broadcasting rights of the NHL in 2021. Gretzky said he was eventually persuaded by his wife, the actor Janet Jones, and fellow TNT commentator Charles Barkley.
“He talked about how great of an organization TNT was and how much they want to make basketball bigger and better, and they’re going to do the same for hockey,” Gretzky said of Barkley. “So, yeah, it was a pretty easy decision after I chatted with him.”
It’s been a fairly cushy gig for Gretzky. He spends his winters in Florida, which makes it easy to jet to TNT’s studios in Atlanta for the network’s NHL broadcasts every Wednesday. “It’s not overbearing,” Gretzky said. “We go up, we work Wednesday, and I’m home Thursday. I can’t say enough good things about it. I love it. I love talking about hockey.”
“He’s a hockey encyclopedia,” said Bissonnette. “He was not only the greatest to ever play, I think he’s the greatest absorber of everything that’s happened around the game.”
Last month, Warner Bros. Discovery Sports announced that it had signed Gretzky, Bissonnette, and its other two NHL studio analysts, retired 11-year NHL player Anson Carter and legendary former goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, to multi-year extensions.
WBDS now boasts a portfolio of live sports that includes the NHL, MLB, and NBA—and a roster of hall of farmers for each corresponding studio show. Gretzky and his cohosts have been well received by fans and critics, as have Boston Red Sox icon Pedro Martinez and the hosts of MLB on TBS, which is also produced by WBDS. But both shows (and maybe all studio programs) will forever invite comparisons to Inside the NBA, the beloved TNT institution hosted by Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, Kenny Smith, and Ernie Johnson. Gretzky embraces the parallels, calling Liam McHugh, the host of NHL on TNT, “as close to Ernie Johnson as you can get in sports.” Bissonnette is “our Charles,” Gretzky told me.
As a commentator, Gretzky is certainly no Barkley, whose studio career has been filled with sharp-elbowed critiques of modern players. “Yeah, we got to sometimes be critical but all in all, we got to be positive about the game and about the players because the game is bigger than any individual,” Gretzky said. “It’s a great sport and the more positive we are, the more the players are going to watch the show and want to be on the show. We don’t need to be negative. We don’t need to talk about players’ mistakes or what they’ve done wrong.”
Commentary can’t be all kumbaya, of course, but Gretzky said he leaves it to Bissonnette to “be a little tough on the guys.”
The two have been the standouts of TNT’s studio show, displaying a natural chemistry and repartee fueled by their contrasts: Gretzky, 62, the legend with statesmanlike presence; Bissonnette, 38, the self-described “fourth-line scrub” who’s always wired and a little rowdy. “I don’t have the credibility as a player that most of the guys on the panel do,” Bissonnette said.