Home > Edmonton Oilers, Reviews, Sports, Television > Sports Documentary Review: 30 For 30 #5 – A King’s Ransom

Sports Documentary Review: 30 For 30 #5 – A King’s Ransom

August 9th, 2013 marked 25 years since the public announcement of the momentous trade that sent Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player ever, from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings. It seemed like an appropriate day to finally get around to watching Peter Berg’s 30 For 30 documentary film (the first one aired in the long-running ESPN sports film series) about the deal’s lead-up, its execution, and its long-tailed aftermath, A King’s Ransom. The initial verdict on Berg’s film is that it’s a fairly cursory and facile portrait of an event whose psychic scars are still visible on a certain generation of Edmontonians and whose legacy continues to be manifested in the NHL’s stubborn insistence on succeeding in southern U.S. markets.

But then Berg (director of macho Hollywood dreck like Hancock and Battleship as well as Friday Night Lights, both the film and the more acclaimed television show, which he helped to develop) can only work with what he has. The principal players in the deal – Gretzky himself, Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington, Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall, and Oiler general manager Glen Sather – give a pretty simple picture of the trade-building process. The decision to move Gretzky was influenced by a combination of factors. There was dire economic need: Pocklington was losing money on the Oilers, a trend which continued well into the ’90s when he sold the team and then later filed for bankruptcy, and he got $15 million in cash from the Kings in the deal. There was roster and contract calculation: Sather and Pocklington would have to convince Gretzky to re-sign for less money than he was most definitely worth to keep him in Edmonton and keep a strong team around him, and Gretzky was looking for compensation that befitted the best player in the game at the peak of his powers. They couldn’t let him walk for nothing in another year so as a free agent, so they grabbed assets for him while they could.

But there was a grander, deeper motive behind the deal which has been enshrined as a foundational moment of the modern NHL, and Berg gives it more than a bit of lip service. Quite simply, there was a vague feeling that the game’s greatest player should play in the continent’s glitziest media centre, and that this could only serve to benefit the game’s growth in the U.S. The league, especially under the stewardship of Gary Bettman, has aggressively pushed expansion into non-traditional American markets, often to the perceived detriment of the game’s passionate grassroots in Canada (although, ironically, it is now the muscular incomes of the Canadian franchises that support the zombie American ones through revenue sharing).

In this way, the Gretzky deal – benefitting a southern U.S. franchise and damaging a northern Canadian one – is a sort of creation myth for the contemporary big-money NHL, or perhaps more properly its messianic break from the smash-mouth backwoods heritage of the game. Once the Great One’s name was in lights in Hollywood, there was no going back for the league; flash and glamour were a part of hockey for good, even if they were supported by law-breaking robber barons like McNall (who later spent a few years in prison for fraud). Hardy northern outposts of dedicated fandom like Edmonton would have to return to the wilderness. With the exception of a few playoff series wins around the turn of the millennium and a Stanley Cup Final run in 2006 that is beginning to feel almost as distant as the glory days of the 1980s, the Oilers have mostly wandered in that very wilderness ever since.

As mentioned, A King’s Ransom only addresses these long-established readings in a cursory way: a closing onscreen title half-credits Gretzky’s coming to Los Angeles for the three teams now based in California. Berg also doesn’t do much more to explore the divergent reactions in both cities to the trade other than to show that Edmontonians were pissed (it didn’t help that Pocklington was clumsy at PR and local media hacks like Jim Matheson fanned the flames of anger unwisely) and Los Angelenos sycophantically hopped on the shiny bandwagon (as they are wont to do; witness the glamourous reception for David Beckham when he signed for the MLS’ LA Galaxy a few years ago, despite soccer being even more marginal a sport in the city than hockey was in 1988). Longer-term effects are left unconsidered.

What’s much more interesting is the glimpse A King’s Ransom provides into the perspective and feelings of the Great One and those closest to him concerning the whole affair. Though Gretzky will forever be hockey’s demigod, he has hardly covered himself in glory since retiring from the game, or indeed since leaving the Oilers: no further Cups, only a single MVP, a painful Olympic defeat in 1998, and in retirement, a failed dalliance with co-owning and then coaching the increasingly-disastrous Phoenix Coyotes franchise and a gambling controversy embroiling his wife Janet and a close associate.

Janet appears here, downplaying the role she may have played in the event. Although she was a Hollywood actress (“I saw Police Academy 5!” yells one fan following her wedding limo in the doc, a hilarious summation of her onscreen career) who had married Wayne the same summer as the trade and they had begun living in L.A. in the off-season, she tells us she had nothing to do with any of it. No thinking fan was ever fully comfortable with the misogynsistic tone of the popular effort to cast her as the Yoko Ono of the Boys on the Bus, but neither could a thinking fan believe that Gretzky’s decision was not influenced by his recent marriage to a Californian. Gretzky’s father Walter also shows up, relating how he told his son a few hours after the last Cup win in Edmonton that he would leave for more money soon. The influence of this most famous of hockey fathers is also underplayed, though most inside views have understood the elder Gretzky’s sway over his son was considerable.

Most revealing, however, is how Berg, speaking to Gretzky on a golf course in the film, perhaps inadvertently exposes the great sports hero as a bit of a shallow intellect. When trying to explain his decision to accept the trade, Gretzky says that he decided to leave because he was angry that Pocklington and Sather were thinking of trading him. They were thinking of trading him, so he let them do it; I’m sure that showed ’em. Gretzky is fully aware that more Cups were to be won in Edmonton with that wonderful Oilers team, and from an on-ice perspective, the motivations for the move are much less clear. Indeed, Berg shows plenty of highlights of Gretzky’s prowess with the game, but A King’s Ransom represents one of the first major points in hockey history where what was happening off the ice trumped what was happening on it. In our era of cynical lockouts and shady ownership machinations, perhaps this was the true legacy of the Wayne Gretzky trade. Big business came to NHL hockey in a major way, and the game itself hasn’t regained primacy over the course of its own destiny ever since.

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