Thursday, October 08, 2009

He's Had A Few

After watching the depressing and all-too-predictable outcome of the Twins-Yanks game last night, I caught Peter Berg's Kings Ransom on ESPN ('cause I just haven't watched enough sports lately). It's part of their "30 for 30" documentary film series to celebrate the channel's anniversary. Since I love sports and documentaries, the series sounds very appealing. When the topic involves hockey, it's must-see television.

"Kings Ransom" is the story behind the story of the Wayne Gretzky trade from Edmonton to L.A.:

On August 9, 1988, the NHL was forever changed with the single stroke of a pen. The Edmonton Oilers, fresh off their fourth Stanley Cup victory in five years, signed a deal that sent Wayne Gretzky, a Canadian national treasure and the greatest hockey player ever to play the game, to the Los Angeles Kings in a multi-player, multi-million dollar deal. As bewildered Oiler fans struggled to make sense of the unthinkable, fans in Los Angeles were rushing to purchase season tickets at a rate so fast it overwhelmed the Kings box office. Overnight, a franchise largely overlooked in its 21-year existence was suddenly playing to sellout crowds and standing ovations, and a league often relegated to "little brother" status exploded from 21 teams to 30 in less than a decade. Acclaimed director Peter Berg presents the captivating story of the trade that knocked the wind out of an entire country, and placed a star-studded city right at the humble feet of a 27-year-old kid, known simply as "The Great One."

Hockey fans who were old enough to remember the trade recall how shocking it was at the point. I had forgotten that Gretzky was right in the prime of his career at the time. He enjoyed so much success at Edmonton that you assume his peak years were spent playing there, yet he became a King at a mere twenty-seven.

The film explores the important role the Oilers played in the life of the people Edmonton (compared to that of the Packers in Green Bay and also described as a "religion"). They were the only game in town and their success elevated the team and its players to a revered status. Being the best of the best and the best hockey player in the world at that time, made Gretzky a living legend. At the time, it was hard to understand the impact that the trade had on the community, but the the film shows how devastating it was.

The fans in Edmonton found plenty of targets to direct their ire at. The main villain was Oilers owner Peter Pocklington, who was burned in effigy in protests and had death threats after the trade. Janet Jones--who married Gretzky right before the trade--also came in for abuse as the Hollywood harlot who had stolen the city's favorite. While there was some bitterness toward Gretzky, most fans did not blame him. And when he returned to Edmonton in a Kings jersey early in the 1988 season, he received a warm welcome from the home crowd.

Interestingly, one person who played a significant part in the drama that wasn't obvious at the time was Gretzky's father. Before the 1988 Stanley Cup Finals, he warned Wayne that he better accept the fact that he was going to be sold to the highest bidder at some point soon. His attitude seemed to have helped harden Gretzky's heart and make him more willing to agree to the trade.

I've never heard Gretzky talk much about the trade previously. In "Kings Ransom" he opens up quite a bit and helps us understand how the wheels were set in motion and why it was so hard to stop them once they were. It's only sports, but in some ways the story has elements of a Greek tragedy to it. You get the feeling that many of the principle players--with the exceptions of the two team owners--had misgivings about what was taking place, but felt powerless to stop it as if it was fated to be.

There's a profound sense of regret that hangs over the film. Even though Gretzky himself assures us that if he had to do it all over again he would not change anything, it feels like he's still trying to convince himself of that. While on the driving range, Berg asks Gretzky how many Stanley Cups he won in Edmonton.


And how many in L.A.?


How many more could you have won had you stayed in Edmonton?

Gretzky hits a shot, takes a deep breathe, and speculates, "I don't know, maybe four more."

Berg asks, "Do you ever think about that?"

Gretzky answers immediately, "All the time."

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