With the 2019-20 NHL season on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic (here’s the latest update on where things stand), we’ve started the NHL Viewers Club, highlighting some of the most rewatchable games from this season — such as when EBUG David Ayres beat the Maple Leafs — along with some cool hockey documentaries on ESPN+. So far, that has included “Big Shot” — covering the fraudulent purchase of the New York Islanders — as well as a look back at Games 5-7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final in “Quest for the Stanley Cup.”
For this week’s edition, we’re rewatching the first film in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, “Kings Ransom,” which covers the 1988 trade of Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings and the impact it had on hockey in Southern California. Click here to watch “Kings Ransom,” and read on for our big takeaways from the film and some lingering questions we have afterward:
Describe “Kings Ransom” in 10 words or fewer:
Emily Kaplan: Sad breakup story. Peter Pocklington is your heartless ex.
Greg Wyshynski: The $15 million (U.S.) reasons Edmonton traded Wayne Gretzky.
Best “inside the NHL” moment?
Kaplan: A seething Glen Sather, then the Oilers head coach, furious about Peter Pocklington trading away his star player. I love power dynamics in the NHL, so to learn about a coach undermining his owner is fascinating. Sather apparently called Kings owner Bruce McNall and said, “I don’t know what Peter Pocklington is doing. He might be the owner, but I run the franchise. Gretzky is going nowhere.” It turns out, the owner actually is in charge, because the deal went through — in part, because McNall threatened to sue. Poor Slats.
Wyshynski: The speakerphone call between L.A. Kings owner Bruce McNall and Pocklington — with Gretzky in McNall’s office, unbeknownst to the Edmonton owner. Imagine being Wayne Gretzky. You’re 28, you’ve won the Stanley Cup four times for the Oilers and you’re an eight-time (consecutively!) MVP. And you’re now listening to Pocklington, who previously said that if the Kings had traded their entire roster for Gretzky, it would have been a lopsided deal for Los Angeles, and talking himself into the necessity of a Gretzky trade. Oh, and you’re also hearing him demonize your then-girlfriend, Janet Jones. From that moment, Gretzky considered himself a King.
Pettiest drama in the film?
Kaplan: Tear-gate. The scene that resonated most was Gretzky’s farewell news conference in Edmonton, in which he’s wiping away tears with a tissue, choking up, saying he “promised Mess” [former teammate/friend Mark Messier] that he wasn’t going to cry. Pocklington then called sportswriter Jim Matheson to share his perspective of the trade, and claimed Gretzky was faking the tears. Pocklington argues he was misquoted — yeah, OK — but this is the moment the breakup gets juicy.
Wyshynski: Pocklington vs. the fans. As some Oilers fans were burning his visage in effigy, Pocklington declared that if they were in his shoes and knew the financial situation with the team, they would have also made the trade. But it’s his comment at the end of the documentary that stung: “I think it was one of the great trades ever done, and hopefully the fans will get over [it] one of these years.” There’s a better chance the NHL would allow Pocklington to add his father’s name to the Stanley Cup than Edmonton fans ever getting over it.
Favorite piece of hockey nostalgia?
Kaplan: Gretzky and Janet Jones’ “royal wedding” in Canada (which, according to Jones, Gretzky planned much of himself). Loved watching the tabloid coverage, as well as the massive crowds that lined the streets to catch a glimpse of Gretzky getting hitched. Can you think of an organic, hockey, pop culture event that has garnered this much attention since? I can’t.
Wyshynski: The clip from the 1985 NHL Awards was incredible. A lot of newer fans might not realize that before the NHL Awards relocated to Las Vegas in 2009, they were like the Canadian Oscars. (We mean no disrespect here to the annual Genie Awards.) That footage of Wayne Gretzky taking the stage in his tuxedo, surrounded by very 1980s graphics, as he collected the Hart Trophy was stellar. Here’s the promo for the 1985 Awards, hosted by impressionist Rich Little and featuring musical performances by Chet Atkins and Belinda Metz. The Edmonton Journal called it “boring TV.” For shame!
Favorite 30 for 30 trope?
Kaplan: The scene of Wayne Gretzky’s father, Walter, weeding dandelions in his front lawn, then a dramatic pan of the backyard hockey net and pucked-up fence, where his son presumably honed in on his skills as a kid. A reminder of our protagonist’s humble beginnings.
Wyshynski: The classic “subject of the documentary walks into site of former athletic achievement, the lights come on and they stare wistfully at where the fans and the playing surface were located.”
Who was the MVP of the documentary?
Kaplan: Gretzky’s insights into the trade are what drives this documentary. But director Peter Berg kind of made himself the MVP, framing the entire one-hour piece through a golf game he had with Gretzky for access.
Wyshynski: Sather. Bruce McNall was the charismatic huckster. Peter Pocklington was the greedy antagonist. Slats was the “good hockey man” caught in the middle of this mess, telling Gretzky he would resign if it meant the trade to Los Angeles could be stopped.
Kaplan: We get not one, but two brief appearances by John Candy! “Just look at the building, I think it speaks for itself,” the comedian says, apparently being interviewed about Gretzky’s impact on attendance in Los Angeles. We then get a quick shot of Candy in the locker room after a game, chatting with Gretzky. “Nice way to kick it, pal. Nice way to do it.” John Candy was the coolest.
Wyshynski: As much as I want the answer to be actor Tony Danza posing for pictures in the Kings’ dressing room, the answer has to be former President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan sitting in the front row to watch Gretzky play for Los Angeles. If only because we’re left wondering if Ronnie was a glass-banger.
Lingering questions after watching?
Kaplan: What impact did Wayne Gretzky have on hockey in Southern California? OK, so we kind of know the answer to this — spoiler: it was huge — but I would have loved to see the documentary explore this further. Instead, we skim through it in an extended montage during the last 10 minutes of the movie. I would have watched an entire documentary on Gretzky’s first season with the Kings.
Wyshynski: Everyone has their favorite “unbreakable” Wayne Gretzky record. Most career points (2,857)? Most career assists (1,963)? Those 50 goals in 39 games? Let me offer this up as Gretzky’s most unbreakable record: eight straight Hart trophies. Consider that the most anyone else won in a row, before or since, is three straight (Bobby Orr, 1969-72). But to further that record: eight straight Hart trophies, beginning in his first NHL season! Who is ever topping that?
The other lingering questions from the film are found in the end notes, which could have added another hour to this thing. What was Gretzky’s reaction when he found out Bruce McNall, the Kings owner who brought him to L.A., pled guilty to defrauding six banks out of $236 million? And what was Gretzky’s reaction, and Pocklington’s reaction, when the Oilers won the Stanley Cup again in 1990 with Gretzky’s supporting cast — especially when you consider that Sather, who nearly left over the Gretzky trade, was widely credited with building that unexpected championship team?