* Premiering October 6th on ESPN
* Screened September 13th at the AMC 7 theatre
Kings Ransom is the first in an ambitious 30 part series for ESPN, under the banner of 30 For 30. Launched in celebration of the sports network's 30th anniversary, respected filmmakers were asked to pick any sports-related topic they desired and create a documentary film about it. Kings Ransom was helmed by Peter Berg, a noted actor, director, producer and writer (Berg has acted on the TV series Chicago Hope, directed films such as The Kingdom and Hancock and is creator, writer and executive producer of the Emmy-winning TV show Friday Night Lights). The 53 minute documentary made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and examines the historic 1988 trade of Wayne Gretzky from the NHL's Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings, and its significant impact on the sport.
The film conducts new interviews with the central figures (Oilers owner Peter Pocklington, Oilers coach and GM Glen Sather, Kings owner Bruce McNall and Gretzky's wife, Janet), with little new insight into the whole affair being brought to light by anyone. It's amusing, 20 years later, to see the levels at which outraged Oiler fans displayed their contempt for Pocklington - notably, burning him in effigy, as though the dictator of a foreign country who was found guilty of human rights abuses. Not so funny is the reminder that he also received death threats. Also finding her way into the disgruntled fans' crosshairs is Janet Jones Gretzky, who many fans attached the "Yoko" label to, erroneously.
The movie opens with a dramatic shot of Gretzky driving an SUV into his former home rink (L.A.'s Great Western Forum), but that and subsequent shots of him walking in slow motion through the empty, iceless arena while gazing pensively upwards don't quite carry the dramatic heft Berg intends. The Great One is interviewed about the trade on a golf course, an unusual choice of setting, but one that works visually. Perhaps Berg's goal was to create a more relaxed atmosphere more conducive to disarming the normally reserved and guarded legend. He doesn't quite succeed. Berg asks the relevant questions and Gretzky complies with mostly stock, well-trodden answers. Of note from the exchanges: he seems to hold lingering thoughts on how many more championships the Oilers could have won had he stayed (he estimates four or five); he felt he should be the highest paid player in the game; not unlike his on-ice "one step ahead of everybody else" instincts, he saw the bigger picture of what a move to a large U.S. market could do for both the game and his own career.
He wasn't wrong about the latter. After the trade, ticket sales for Kings home games skyrocketed and celebrity attendees, commonplace at NBA Lakers games in the same building, began to also flock to the rink. The league, mostly through U.S. expansion into southern markets, expanded from 21 to 30 teams. Sports Illustrated heralded the NHL as likely to become even bigger than the NBA. Two decades later, the positive effects prove to have been relatively short-term, with the ultimate irony being the mess involving the Phoenix Coyotes, the team Gretzky bought a part of and was heavily involved with in a management capacity, including a role as head coach until his recent resignation.
Kings Ransom isn't really geared towards hardcore hockey fans (especially Canadians) who are already well-versed in the story. Berg does a good job in capturing the Canadian side of it, thoroughly laying out the significance it had on the city of Edmonton and, in fact, the entire country. The movie succeeds at competently revisiting this compelling story, but ultimately fails to compel with its dearth of new insight. Fans seeking another viewpoint on the trade and its effects might want to pick up a new book titled Gretzky's Tears: Hockey, Canada, And The Day Everything Changed by Stephen Brunt, longtime Globe And Mail writer and co-host of Prime Time Sports With Bob McCown.
* Anticipation of a Gretzky appearance at the screening ran high, but he was a no-show. Not surprising, considering the fact his then-team was embroiled in an ugly legal battle. Berg was in attendance in the row behind me for the only screening of the film at the festival, introducing it and taking questions from the audience afterwards. His funniest moment involved recounting a story about playing in Gretzky's charity baseball game in Gretzky's home town of Brantford, Ontario in the early 90's. Early in the game, while playing in the infield, he threw out a baserunner and couldn't understand why the crowd reacted with heavy booing. Turns out the baserunner was Gordie Howe.