ESPN’s Kings Ransom proves everyone has a price

Last week, I was asked if I’d like to screen ESPN’s new documentary Kings Ransom, after I had blogged about whether Wayne should come back to L.A. I said “absolutely.” I had read Yahoo’s Puck Daddy’s assessment of the flick, and wanted to see it for myself. After all, it was Gretzky who was my introduction to hockey. And after seeing that cool history video before the Kings home opener, I figured it would be a great time to revisit that era.

As it started, it shows the Great One walking through a vacated Great Western Forum. It took me right back to 1988, when I was a senior in high school in Los Angeles. As the documentary unfolds, it’s starts in Edmonton, when a glass-eater of a trade was proposed by new Kings owner Bruce McNall to Oilers owner Peter Pocklington. Trade the greatest player in the game where? For what?

The stunning revelation was that Pocklington actually said “Let’s talk later” floored me. It is a reminder that no matter what the circumstance, sports is also a business. And that’s something that the average sports fan may recognize, but is still perplexing. Granted, much of it has to do with finances and circumstances, whereas a fan’s devotion for a franchise often unwavers. The average fan doesn’t understand completely the Law of Diminishing Returns, and how it relates to sports, they just want their team to win. The documentary attempts to reveal part of that, how a player’s worth does indeed drop with age. But then the director Peter Berg abandons it to focus more on the result of Gretzky appearing in L.A.

Back to me… so it’s the summer of 1988. The Lakers just beat the Detroit Pistons to secure their back-to-back championship. The Dodgers were marching toward a World Series berth, thanks to the Cy Young Award winning Orel Hershiser. The Los Angeles Rams were just starting a season that would propel them into the playoffs. Sports in L.A. were at a peak. Then word breaks that the Los Angeles Kings, a team that was completely off my radar, just traded for the Great One. When I asked my old man about it, he off-handedly told me he ‘holds the record of hat tricks or something.’ (Which is true, Wayne had 50 3-goal games)

Now, I peripherally knew about hockey and the Kings. I knew that they played in the same arena as the Lakers. I knew that they wore purple and gold jerseys, because they were owned by the Lakers owner. And I knew that in hockey, players beat the crap out of each other. Other than that, I knew very little about the sport or the players. My Dad was more into tennis and auto racing, and we watched football Sundays sometimes. Then the news broke that Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Kings, and the surrounding hype intrigued me. They changed their jerseys, to mirror the Los Angeles Raiders color scheme. The logo was changed. The team was changed.

There’s a point in the doc where Wayne’s playing in L.A., and there are talking about the boon of fans that he’s attracted. Bob MIller recounts how fans just started flooding phone lines, just handing over their credit card numbers for seats. The arena went from 7,000-8,000 fans a night to being sold out. Stars like Tom Hanks, Michael J. Fox, Billy Crystal, John Candy and Magic Johnson all came to see L.A.’s newest star play. Even the former President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, wanted to experience greatness. There’s footage of a woman is being interviewed, and she says “Everybody loves the Kings, but the only hockey player the people of Los Angeles have ever heard of is this Wayne guy.” Well, that describes most of my friends.

Fast forward five years, and the Kings have become perennial playoff contenders. Gretzky had already won the Hart Trophy, and had put the Kings on his back. He had tallied 100+ points each season until 1992-93, when he injured his back. By now, I was completely hooked. I watched games on Prime Ticket, and had started playing roller hockey out at the park on a converted tennis court, and had purchased a Sega Genesis with my meager wages from the video store, so I could play NHLPA 93.

Los Angeles was completely engulfed with Kings fever. I’m not quite sure how I could sufficiently describe just how big it got. For the 1993 Playoffs, the Kings were the only show in town. They rolled through the Campbell Conference bracket, beating Calgary, then Vancouver. As the series went to Toronto, more and more people in Los Angeles were hopping on the bandwagon. I remember Game Seven like it was yesterday, and the elation swelled through the city and it’s hockey fans unlike anything I’ve seen. There was no resentment from hardcore fans of the newbies to hockey. Everyone was on board and riding the wave.

As a Kings fan, I was on top of the world. What I didn’t understand was were fans who were absolutely livid at Pocklington, whose dynasty came crumbling down just as it was reaching its peak. Sure, the Oilers won another Cup without Gretzky, but imagine what could have been. The documentary shows the range of emotions from Edmonton fans, from denial to disgust. There’s an image of an road sign, announcing that Edmonton was the ‘City of Champions,’ that someone had spray-painted the letter’s L.A. Fans were pissed.

The only parallel I could draw to recent times was when Shaquille O’Neal was traded by the Lakers after their 2004 season. The Lakers had just lost to the Pistons, and there was upheaval. Shaq wanted more money, Phil Jackson was asked to step aside by Jerry Buss, the static between Kobe and Shaq… everything blew up. So Shaq was traded to the Heat, and the Lakers failed to make it back to the Finals for five years. Many people, including Kobe, have gone on the record saying the Lakers could’ve won 2-3 more titles, if they hadn’t blown it up. As a Lakers fan, it killed me to see that unfold the way it did. And that’s how I can empathize with the Oilers fans.

Back to the documentary, Kings Ransom does a good job showing the lead-up to the trade, with interviews with Gretzky, Pocklington, Glen Sather, Bruce McNall, Marty McSorley and Luc Robitaille. Some of the best exchanges involve Pocklington and Sather, when discussing just how pissed Sather was after hearing about the trade. You could tell he was still a bit sore. There’s some great images and video of the old Forum, and the fans who made it great. It took me back to the friendly confines of the Great Western Forum, where you could walk around the entire arena unhindered. Those were the day.

But I was sort of let down by just how blank Gretzky was in his interview with director Peter Berg. Granted, it’s been 20 years, and I’m sure he’s had plenty of time to think about it. His responses seemed canned and measured, and really lacked any emotion. Like he hasn’t been asked before about the trade before… And to me, his response of “I felt I had a calling” seemed a little less like he was drawn by fate, but rather pushed by circumstance.

All in all, Kings Ransom does provide a decent Cliff Notes account from all sides, and as a hockey fan, I found it enjoyable.

Here’s a preview

Other reviews

• Yahoo! Puck Daddy: Film Review: ESPN-ization of Gretzky trade in ‘Kings Ransom’ doc

Berg works hard in crafting an effective hour of hockey nostalgia, but ultimately that detachment from Gretzky circa 2009 is the difference between a Good One and a Great One for ESPN.

• The Hockey News: ‘Kings Ransom’ relives blockbuster trade of Gretzky from Edmonton to Los Angeles

“I knew I would get nothing for him in the free market because I couldn’t bid what others would and that’s how the deal got done,” Pocklington told the audience. “If I hadn’t done what I’d done, we wouldn’t have won another Stanley Cup. It was the right thing for hockey and the right thing for the Gretzky family.”

• New York Daily News: Peter Berg’s ESPN documentary ‘Kings Ransom’ examines Wayne Gretzky trade to Los Angeles Kings

Yet it’s clear in “Kings Ransom” that Gretzky looks back with ambivalence. He never won another championship, and there are long moments in “Kings Ransom” that call to mind the old gospel lament “He got what he wanted, but he lost what he had.” 

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