Tuesday, October 6, 2009
When Arthur Left Camelot: Kings Ransom
He bites his lip. He sniffles. He exhales. He chokes back tears. He tries to speak, but the words won’t come out. He laughs. He dabs at his eyes with a tissue, and then he repeats the whole cycle. He tries to speak once more: “There comes a time when … when, uh …” His voice fades. That’s all he can say. This is Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player of all time, and his heart is breaking. The date is August 9, 1988. Gretzky isn’t injured. He isn’t sick. He isn’t retiring. In fact, his playing career will go on for more than a decade. All that’s happened is that Gretzky has been traded in a blockbuster deal that he approved that will allow him to become the highest paid player in the NHL. Nevertheless, Gretzky looks as if someone has died. Nearby, his now former coach and owner sit watching the press conference with the kind of pained, shell-shocked expressions that you’d expect to find on parents checking a teenager into an inpatient rehab facility. This isn’t just another press conference. This isn’t just another sports transaction. This is the end of a love story and the most important event in hockey since the United States upset the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics.
That you probably don’t remember that day with the clarity reserved for “The Miracle on Ice,” or never noted it the first time around, or haven’t thought about it in a while, is part of the reason it’s being memorialized now in a documentary called Kings Ransom. Directed by Peter Berg (The Kingdom), Kings Ransom is the first release of a new series of documentaries from ESPN Films called “30 for 30,” which will explore some of the most significant but often forgotten or otherwise under-appreciated sports stories of the past three decades (the amount of time that ESPN has been on the air). August 9, 1988 is a great place to start, because the deal sending Gretzky (along with Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski) from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings for $15 million and three first-round draft choices is almost undoubtedly the most significant trade in any North American team sport in the past 30 years. The only reason you might not think of it that way is because it happened within a sport that most Americans didn’t pay attention to then and/or don’t pay attention to now.
As Berg notes in the film, the Gretzky trade is without parallel. The Oilers were coming off their fourth Stanley Cup win in five years. Gretzky, still only 27, was in his prime. Trading Gretzky from Edmonton was like trading Arthur from Camelot. That’s why the title of this documentary is so perfect, because it (1) evokes the name of the team Gretzky was traded to, (2) refers to the extreme cost of bringing Gretzky to L.A. and (3) alludes to Gretzky’s importance to the hockey-loving town he left behind. In Edmonton, Gretzky was royalty. With one transaction, Edmontonians lost the best player in the NHL, the star of their team, their hero and their brand. When they lost Gretzky, they lost their identity. This isn’t like Michael Jordan retiring to play baseball after three straight NBA titles, because fans felt Jordan was doing that in honor of his deceased father, and because Jordan wasn’t donning a Detroit Pistons uniform and because Chicagoans had other sports passions to distract them – the Bears, the Cubs, the White Sox and maybe even the Blackhawks. This also isn’t like Brett Favre leaving Green Bay, another town with a one-pro-team religion, to suit up for the New York Jets and then the Minnesota Vikings, because Favre was well past his prime when that drama began to unfold and he’d worn out his welcome (among some) with years of self-centered maybe-I-will, maybe-I-won’t retirement waffling. Gretzky’s departure was swift, and even if Favre had been traded from Green Bay just as quickly back in 1998, coming off three Most Valuable Player awards and back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, that still wouldn’t rival the Gretzky trade, because – get this – Favre has never been as dominant in football as Gretzky was in hockey.
If none of the above has ever occurred to you it’s probably because you don’t follow hockey. Though the sport has long-time fans in the Midwest and Northeast, ours is not a hockey-loving nation, which is another reason that losing Gretzky was such a bitter pill for Oilers fans to swallow. Edmonton’s adopted son went from a community that worshipped him for all the right reasons to a city that embraced him for all the wrong ones. At the time, most L.A. residents knew as much about hockey as they did about ice fishing. But they knew the name Gretzky, and on that name alone the Kings regularly sold out the Forum. Of course they did. Americans are drawn to greatness and hype. Gretzky had both. He was even nicknamed “The Great One.” Hockey ignoramuses flocked to the Kings like Dan Brown acolytes descending upon a historic site that they had no interest in the day before but now needed to experience for themselves. Hockey had been in L.A. since the late 1960s, but it took Gretzky coming to the Kings to put the sport on the map in the West.
Berg’s film touches on all of this, and yet if Kings Ransom has a weakness it’s that in 51 minutes it only has time for touching. The film is focused and efficient, and it’s especially effective as either a first-timer’s introduction or an expert’s refresher course. Alas, there’s so much meat here that Berg doesn’t have the opportunity to bite into. In that respect, the Gretzky trade is an imperfect subject for this series because it’s too monumental to be contained in documentary that has to come in at 1 hour with commercials. Of course, this is a just typical sports-fan lament: each triumph only increases the desire for more, rather than satisfying the itch. Journalistically speaking, Berg does a remarkable job of parachuting down onto this small historical target and making us appreciate the view on the ground without the luxury of context. And cinematically speaking Kings Ransom manages to feel at once calculating (a present-day Gretzky is filmed contemplatively gazing across an empty arena) and casual (Berg interviews Gretzky on a golf course driving range).
It also feels honest. Rick Reilly, who acted as the ghostwriter on Gretzky’s autobiography, wrote in 2001 that getting Gretzky to talk about himself “was like trying to draw personal revelations out of a 1970 Plymouth Duster,” but you wouldn’t detect that from Kings Ransom, in which all the subjects – including Gretzky’s wife Janet, his old coach Glen Sather, former Oilers owner Peter Pocklington and former Kings owner Bruce McNall – seem forthcoming and sincere. There’s only one debate about the facts here, involving Pocklington and an interview he gave after Gretzky’s departure, and beyond that there isn’t a whiff of spin (which isn’t say that the film is truly without spin). Just as significant, there isn’t a whiff of something else: ESPN’s notorious self-adulation. When Reilly wrote the above quip he was with Sports Illustrated, but now he’s an ESPN guy. Given such, it must have been tempting for ESPN to demand that one of their most prominent personalities be included as an expert in Berg’s film, but Reilly and other national boasters of his ilk are nowhere to be found. Thank goodness.
Kings Ransom feels intimate, personal, and that seems to be the point. Each film in the “30 for 30” series has its own director with, according to ESPN, “complete creative control.” Diner’s Barry Levinson will chronicle the departure of his beloved Colts from Baltimore. Bull Durham’s Ron Shelton will apply is love of the minor leagues to Jordan’s failed attempt at baseball. Shut Up & Sing’s Barbara Kopple, New York-raised, will examine the reign of George Steinbrenner. Those are just three of the features that will be released on an almost weekly basis heading into 2010. In this procession, Kings Ransom is a promising first step. Berg’s documentary isn’t a story about statistics or even athletic prowess. It’s an analysis of a day when a business deal created broken hearts. Even if you never fully appreciate the significance of August 9, 1988, you’ll be sure to feel its power.
Kings Ransom premieres tonight on ESPN at 8 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler will be reviewing each film in the “30 for 30” series upon its release.