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.


Unknown said...

"Gretzky was such a bitter pill for Oilers fans to swallow."

Not just that but also a bitter pill for Canadians in general to swallow. I remember when this happened and the shockwaves were felt throughout the country and almost a feeling of betrayal that he was leaving his home country for a lucrative paycheck in the US of A. The same thing happened on a much smaller scale when Eric Lindros forsake playing for Quebec for a more lucrative contract in the US as he too was touted as Gretzky's heir apparent. Of course, look what happened to him.

Matt Maul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt Maul said...

I just saw an ad for this on ESPN and am geeked to see it. However, I take issue with this statement:

This is Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player of all time

While Gretzky may have been hockey's biggest superstar, he's NOT it's "greatest player." That distinction would go to either Gordie Howe or Bobby Orr.

(let the bar fight begin)

Fernando said...

Trying to think of a bigger trade but can't (only thing I can think of is Hershall Walker to Minnesota, but that didn't change the landscape of the sport like Gretzky to L.A. did).

Gretzky greatest player? I'd say yes when u combine the stats with the superstar status. Its not that he's a superstar, its that he took the league/sport to new heights while he was in the game. Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr were superstars too, but they didn't captivate the nation like Gretzky did. Though Gretzky rise does coincidence with the rise of sports in general (ESPN/other sports outlets becoming national/24 hours/ominpresent definitely helped cement that).

Jason Bellamy said...

J.D.: Very true. The film focuses more on the Edmonton fans (you kind of have to infer the rest), hence my phrasing. This is one of those areas, per my review, when I wish the doc could have gone into more detail.

Matt: I left this at the House, too, but in the interest of addressing it here ...

I'm sure you won't be the only one wanting to wave a broken beer bottle at that description. Originally I qualified it, but -- admitting that I'm not a hockey historian -- I decided Gretzky was inarguably in the conversation and that was close enough. I'm all for sports bar fights, but I don't care enough about this one to draw blood. Maybe a future "30 for 30" doc will bring out a good brawl. For now we'll just have to flip each other the finger (kindly, of course).

So on that note I'll say this: If it's Howe OR Orr, then it might as well be Howe OR Orr OR Gretzky. Close enough, I figure.

Thanks for the comments, fellas. I'll be curious to see what you think of Kings Ransom.

Jason Bellamy said...

Fernando: Right. The Herschel Walker trade was huge in size and hype, but it didn't have the lasting impact, nor did it match the emotion, of the Gretzky deal. Walker didn't mean as much to Dallas as Gretzky meant to Edmonton, nor did he mean as much to football in the Midwest as Gretzky meant to hockey in the West.

As for the "greatest" debate, very good point on the significance of ESPN on Gretzky's legend. No doubt, that played a part. On the other hand, in all sports there are these old-time, pre-ESPN legends that are mostly impossible to dethrone. (Works the same way in movies, too.) There's an advantage to being great first. So in some sense it evens out -- provided that ESPN isn't the one assessing the greatness, of course.

Walt said...

I think the same impact would be felt if Albert Pujols were traded from or left the Cardinals. He's that big in St. Louis.

I'm not a big hockey fan but I remember when this all went down. Can't wait to see the documentary.

Anonymous said...

... Barbara Kopple, New York-raised, will examine the reign of George Steinbrenner.

I think I'd rather see a director from Cleveland examine the rise (instead of reign, which we all know a lot about) of Steinbrenner. He was born and raised in Cleveland, after all, and even tried (and failed) to buy the Indians before he bought the Yankees.

Matt Maul said...

I totally agree that this is one of those era spanning sports debates that can never really be settled.

Having said that, there's a huge purist school of thought which acknowledges Gretzky's huge talent and the role he played in increasing awareness for hockey BUT holds that his stats were inflated by such things as a) being able to depend upon people like Mark Messier run interference for him and b) an unspoken consensus among the players to cut Gretzky some slack on the ice for the good of the league because of his popularity (hence the "cherry picker" tag).

For what it's worth, I've met both Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky. Howe, a large man, was just as impressive when viewed up close as from a distance while playing. My reaction to Gretzky was just the reverse (in fact we used to joke in the 80's about confusing him with Meryl Streep). So based on that and the fact that I'm from the Detroit area, I'm sure my judgment is somewhat clouded. :)

Craig said...

I just watched "Kings Ransom" and found it engrossing despite my distate for Berg, who directs with the same flashy obviousness he does his lousy movies. (And of course he would find a way to insert himself in the narrative.) Looking forward to Ron Shelton's segment.

Matt Maul said...

I mostly liked it. Certainly better than the garden variety TV sports doc. But I agree that Berg was too much a part of it. And the bits of Gretsky today at the rink (in a suit) looking around with various expressions was too staged.

Jason Bellamy said...

Walt: Thanks for the comment. Pujols might mean as much to the fans of St. Louis as Gretzky meant to fans in Edmonton, but it's almost impossible to imagine a scenario in which a Pujols deal could impact baseball the way Gretzky's trade impacted the NHL. Unless maybe Pujols was traded to the first MLB team in the Dominican Republic or something.

Matt: The Meryl Streep thing kills me!

Craig & Matt: I'll be interested to see how my opinion changes over the course of the "30 for 30" series, but for the moment I'm giving Berg a pass for inserting himself into the film, because I think the intended spirit behind the series suggests that these are personal stories that the directors are sharing with us. In other words, director involvement might prove to be the norm.

Later on, with a larger sample, we can debate whether that's a good thing. For the moment, though, I decided to hold on a similar knee-jerk response to seeing Berg in the film. Also, to Berg's credit, he gets Gretzky to talk comfortably. If that's the best way to get the guy to open up, I won't fault him for it.

As for the staged scenes: at least they are few. As bookends, I didn't find them too offensive.

Alan Sepinwall said...

(And of course he would find a way to insert himself in the narrative.)

Better get used to that if you're gonna watch the other films in ESPN's 30 for 30 series, then. In three of the first four films, at least, the director (Barry Levinson and Mike Tollin are the other two) is a significant on-camera presence, conducting interviews with the principal figures.

Matt Maul said...

Better get used to that if you're gonna watch the other films in ESPN's 30 for 30 series

I literally found out about the ESPN 30 for 30 series yesterday when I saw an ad for it on a TV at the gym (and, of course, later in Jason's piece.) So, I guess I'll retract my complaint about the director injecting himself into the mix. However, I stand by gripe about the Gretzky's staged "reaction" shots :) and my contention that Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr ARE the two "greatest" players - sorry, I couldn't resist that last one ;)

Craig said...

I don't mind the insertions per se. I just find Berg repellent. Levinson is fine, though. Ditto Shelton.

Craig said...

By the way, Jason, I gotta ask you: Whom do you believe about that quote or misquote attributed to Pocklington on Gretzky -- the owner or the sportwriter?

Jason Bellamy said...

Whom do you believe about that quote or misquote attributed to Pocklington on Gretzky -- the owner or the sportswriter?

Well, I should say from the jump that I'm close with lots of sportswriters and used to work in that field. I've come across people in that business who don't seem to understand journalistic ethics at all, but I can't even imagine the worst of the worst just fabricating a quote out of thin air. It's just so counter to the reporter process in which you dig and dig and dig for a quote.

So to that degree I side with the sportswriter. However ...

Sportswriters certainly get caught up in the quest for a headline. So often the juicy 5 percent of an interview will become "the story" just because it's juicy. Thus, what hits the paper is blown out of proportion, as a result. So with all that said, here's what I think ...

I think Pocklington gave an image-saving interview in which he did nothing but glorify Gretzky about 95 percent of the time. But, wanting to stick up for himself and/or justify it to himself, he couldn't quite resist and so he spouted off a few things that the reporter used out of context or -- quite possibly -- formed into a better quote than the one that left Pocklington's lips. And that quote became the story.

So in a sense, they're both telling the truth. Pocklington probably said what the reporter wrote, but Pocklington is probably also correct that the article in no way reflected the overall spirit of the interview...and quite likely the reporter knows that.

That's just a guess. If in fact one of them is totally lying, it's Pocklington. He'd have sued the paper if it fabricated a story with that kind of significance.

Troy Olson said...

Just had a chance to watch the doc this morning. Knowing that this comes from ESPN, I was impressed -- it looks like they are actually going to give the directors carte blanche to make these as they see fit. There wasn't much (if any) of the over-majestic background music, low-angle shots, and deep focus that they tend to overuse in their typical doc-type pieces.

As for the story itself, even as a 10-year old, I remember it feeling like a big deal at the time and it did make me interested in hockey (partly due to collecting sports cards -- Gretzky suddenly made hockey cards a hot seller) for the first time ever.

Considering Gretzky's quiet demeanor, Berg actually did a decent job of getting him to say a few things, although there were times it felt like he was leading him with those questions.

Overall, a good show and a novel concept. Something I'll definitely be following along with.