On the 25th anniversary of the trade that shook Canada and sent Wayne Gretzky to Hollywood, TSN.ca Producer Shane McNeil sits down with “Kings Ransom” filmmaker Peter Berg to take a look back.
Originally published on TSN.ca – August 8, 2013.
It was 25 years ago that Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings from the Edmonton Oilers – and stunted one of the greatest dynasties in NHL history.
To many, that seems like the distant past. But to others…
“It goes fast,” Peter Berg, the acclaimed filmmaker and director of the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Kings Ransom told TSN.ca this week.
Berg – a self-professed life-long hockey fan – recalls the details of hearing about the trade vividly. “I was actually in Paris and I had just booked an acting job,” he said. “A friend woke me up and said ‘We’ve got Gretzky.’ And then he said, ‘We gotta buy season tickets.'”
“I said: ‘We have to buy season tickets?’ and then I realized that I had to buy them. So I took all the money I made on that film and bought season tickets – because we had Gretzky.”
The trade turned the franchise on a dime, as Berg remembered the Kings prior to Gretzky’s arrival.
“They were just kind of a wonderful mess, he said. “I think they averaged a few thousand people per game and we used to go to all the games, because we could afford – for five bucks – to get a ticket.”
It was kind of like we had a junior team wearing NHL uniforms. Occasionally we’d win and occasionally something exciting would happen.”
“When that trade happened that was exciting,” Berg explained.”That was the beginning of (Kings owner) Bruce McNall’s desire to turn things around.”
The Kings morphed within the span of a year, becoming a hot spot for Hollywood’s elite to coincide with the arrival of the biggest name in hockey. Kings Ransom’s archival footage reveals a who’s who of the late-1980s elite clamouring to get a look at The Great One: Tom Hanks, Kevin Costner, Sylvester Stallone along with Canadian-born celebs like John Candy and Michael J. Fox. Even U.S. President Ronald Reagan dropped in.
“It went from being kind of pathetic to – once Bruce McNall came in – things started to get turned up,” said Berg. “The Kings had an owner that was not going to accept the status quo. He was going to figure out a way to shake things up and he sure did.”
But what about the City of Edmonton?
Therein lies the greatest question left lingering by Berg’s film and one that is inevitably addressed by Gretzky himself.
Gretzky and Berg traded swings on an L.A.-area golf course and Berg asked flat out: “How many Cups could you have won, had you stayed in Edmonton?”
“Ummm, I don’t know,” Gretzky paused. “The team was good enough maybe I would’ve won four more?”
So how does a city move on from the possibility of doubling down on what was already one of the greatest teams of all-time?
“When you think about the dynasty that was broken up in Edmonton, you can’t help but shake your head and wonder,” Berg recalled. “Yeah, the trade did a lot and it opened up hockey in the southwest of the U.S. Yes, Wayne is a great ambassador for the sport and yes, his move to L.A. helped make the sport a bit more popular in America. But he never won another Cup and he broke up arguably one of the greatest dynasties in the history of professional sports.”
But when faced with the question of why the move had to be made, that is where Berg’s narrative veers from what has traditionally been accepted as fact in Edmonton, Canada and many other hockey circles.
Just about every story that’s been told indicated that Oilers owner Peter Pocklington made the move out of the need to get a monetary return for his greatest asset and partially out of frustration with the sheer size of Gretzky’s on- and off-ice persona.
And in the end, there sat Gretzky, struggling through his tears, saying goodbye to Edmonton.
In Berg’s conversations with Gretzky it became clearer to the filmmaker that Gretzky was less a victim of the shrewd business tactics of Pocklington and McNall and more a willing participant in the greatest collective turn of fortune in hockey history.
“I think the fact that his wife was from there was certainly a factor,” he told TSN.ca. “I think the money was a factor and I think that at the end of the day the chance to do it again with another franchise was a chance to take on a new and more epic challenge,” Berg said. “I think all of those factors contributed to Wayne’s decision.”
But also factoring in was Gretzky’s pending free agency and the fact that at least preliminary discussions about a trade had taken place prior to Gretzky hoisting his fourth Stanley Cup with the Oilers.
And Gretzky was candid about his reaction to hearing about such discussions. “I was mad they were trying to trade me,” he told Berg in Kings Ransom. “So, I left.”
As for Pocklington, Berg was loath to paint him with the brush of villainy that immediately followed news of the trade.
“Look at the reality of what kind of dynasty was broken up,” Berg said. “I would imagine Pocklington knew what was happening and he knew that while – yes, he was making some cash – he was also aware of what kind of injury he was causing to his team and to his franchise.”
In the end, the injuries would go both ways.
Gretzky retired without ever again hoisting hockey’s top prize and Edmonton – despite the Oilers capturing the Cup once more in 1990 – would soon watch their empire get dismantled piece-by-piece and endure a championship drought that extends to the present day.
The cost was high. But in the end, it was one that was paid out on both sides.
“[Gretzky] was flat out about it,” explained Berg. “He said, ‘I think about it every day,’ and wiped a tear out of his eye. I can imagine that every time he and Mark Messier get together, there’s not a moment where they don’t look into each other and kind of wonder what might have been.”