Hockey great Brett Hull salutes the crowd as tears well up in his eyes during the ceremony to retire his No. 16 jersey. (CPimages \'06/AP/Tom Gannam)
Steve Yzerman, Ron Francis, Brett Hull, Al MacInnis, Luc Robitaille and Vincent Damphousse may have quit playing but they've stuck around the NHL, trading their uniforms for a suit and tie. For a league struggling in some U.S. markets, having such recognizable faces still in the game is a much-needed boost.
"In a way, all of us involved changed the game, we were involved in labour agreements, all kinds of things during our time as players. ...," Robitaille said this week.
"So for me, anyway, it was a no-brainer to get on the other side and be involved and help develop the league."
None of them are GMs or coaches - yet. They know a ton about the game but they're dipping their toes into a new side of it.
"Obviously you're not going to just jump in and be a huge decision-maker," said Hull, special assistant to the president with the Dallas Stars.
But Hull wants to be a serious part of the organization when he feels ready, when he feels he's learned enough.
"My goal is to be in the next Stanley Cup team picture with a suit on, knowing that I had an integral part in bringing that championship to Dallas," said Hull, third all-time in the NHL with 741 goals. "That's where my ultimate goal is, and how long it takes to get there and if it ever gets there, I don't know."
NHL teams are finding ways of keeping players like Hull on board.
Robitaille is assistant to the governor for the Los Angeles Kings, MacInnis vice-president of hockey operations for the St. Louis Blues, Francis director of player development for the Carolina Hurricanes, Yzerman vice-president with the Detroit Red Wings and Damphousse director of business relations for the NHL Players' Association.
"A good crop of players have retired since the lockout," Damphousse said. "You look at guys like Yzerman and Robitaille, I think those teams realize those guys are big assets and know the game, and they can help their organizations in the future."
Former players staying in the game is nothing new. Toe Blake, Al Arbour, Bob Clarke and Bob Gainey are just a few on a long list that dates back to hockey's beginning. But given the money NHL stars earn these days, it would have been easy to hit the golf course and never be heard of again.
"I think all of us have benefited from the game over our lifetime. I know I have," said Francis, fourth in NHL history with 1,798 career points. "To have an opportunity to stay attached to it and help in any way or form is something that's real simple for me to be a part of."
Francis points to Phoenix.
"Who would have ever thought Wayne Gretzky would be coaching in the National Hockey League?," said Francis. "But there he is behind the bench and all the credibility and notoriety that he brings is great for the game of hockey."
Gretzky is living a coach's unforgiving lifestyle, with the bags under his eyes to prove it. He definitely doesn't need the money.
The game needs him more than he needs it.
Patrick Roy, one of the NHL's greatest goalies, remains in the game, coaching his junior team in Quebec City. Toronto fan favourite Doug Gilmour rejoined the Maple Leafs as a player development adviser.
Yzerman and the boys are the most recent retirees, and their decision to stay involved perhaps can help long-lost hockey fans reconnect.
"It kind of sounds egotistical but yes, I do agree with that," said Hull. "To have the ability of guys like Yzerman, Francis and Robitaille stay in the game and in the organizations they're in, it keeps them in the forefront of people's minds and keep them thinking about the game.
"And if they're used properly it can really help bring the game to a wider audience."
But Robitaille is interested in more than cutting ribbons at charity functions.
"I don't think any of us are interested in coming in and just shaking hands," he said. "I think our biggest thing is that we want to come in and really learn the business at whatever level we're in and move forward from there."
Part of Robitaille's job is working for the Kings' parent company, Anschutz Entertainment Group, which is trying to woo the Penguins to the new arena it's building in Kansas City. AEG president and Kings governor Tim Leiweke brought Robitaille with him to Kansas City last week to meet Penguins owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle.
"Tim says to me, 'You're working for us now, you got to help me bring a damn hockey team there,"' Robitaille said with a chuckle.
Once the meeting with the Penguins was over, Robitaille went over to Lemieux and added his touch.
"I talked to Mario in French and tried to sell him a little extra," Robitaille said with a laugh.
Last month, both Robitaille and Yzerman attended the NHL's board of governors meeting in West Palm Beach, Fla.
"Interesting, and for me very informative," Yzerman said after his first owners' meeting.
Francis and Yzerman battled in the 2002 Stanley Cup final. Now they cross paths at AHL arenas.
"I've actually bumped into Stevie a couple of times on the road, so it's been interesting," said Francis.
The former Hurricanes captain is helping nurture Carolina's young talent. He watches prospects play and addresses issues with them.
"We keep tabs on them and I try to help monitor their progress - hopefully try and make their dream of playing in the National Hockey League happen and happen a little quicker."
Hull says his job changes from day to day. He says he's at the "beck and call" of team president Jim Lites, while also working with GM Doug Armstrong. He watches games with Armstrong and offers his opinions on almost anything, "as usual," Hull adds with a laugh.
"If he wants to bounce a name off me, say he's looking at a trade, he does that and I give him my thoughts," said Hull.
Damphousse felt it was the obvious move to join the NHLPA full time after serving two terms while a player as a vice-president on the players' executive board.
"I know that side of it and I think I can pass on my experience to the players that are on the executive board now," he said.
Francis took two years away from the game before coming back into the fold this season. When all was said and done, hockey was not only the best fit, but the only fit.
"This is what I've done my whole life, it's what I know best," he said. "I've always loved the game."