King's Ransom: The Wayne Gretzky Trade and the Pain it Caused
When Wayne Gretzky was traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988, it was, we're told in the new documentary King's Ransom, like the prime minister being shipped off to another country.
Actually, based on the evidence in King's Ransom, which debuts Tuesday as the first installment in ESPN's new 30 for 30 documentary series, it was bigger than that: The people of Edmonton didn't view Gretzky as their leader so much as they viewed him as their family.
Juxtaposing archival footage with new interviews, King's Ransom powerfully conveys, more than anything else, the sense of pain that Oilers fans felt by losing Gretzky, the hero who had won four Stanley Cups for their team. The fans in Edmonton thought Gretzky was one of them, and when he left for Hollywood, they felt betrayed.
The anger at that betrayal wasn't only -- or even mostly -- directed at Gretzky. Instead it was directed at Oilers owner Peter Pocklington, who received $15 million in cash from Kings owner Bruce McNall in the trade, a sum of money that many in Edmonton viewed as more akin to 30 pieces of silver. And it was directed at Gretzky's wife, actress Janet Jones, whose desire to live in Hollywood was, some Edmonton fans were convinced, the real motivation behind the trade.
But as much as Edmonton fans may want to view Jones as hockey's Yoko Ono, King's Ransom shows Gretzky and Jones as a couple very much in love. It's a little weird that the documentary includes home video footage of Wayne and Janet in the limo immediately following their wedding ceremony -- didn't they want even a moment of privacy? -- but it's also a tender moment between two newlyweds that makes it hard to view Jones as the manipulative woman that so many Oilers fans think she is.
To his credit, Gretzky doesn't put any blame on anyone for the trade that caused him to sob through his farewell press conference. He seems to recognize that it was simply a business deal in which he was the valuable commodity, and McNall was willing to pay whatever price Pocklington demanded. Gretzky also doesn't shy away from the fact that he commanded a high price himself.
"I wanted to be the highest-paid player in the game," he says. "I felt like I deserved it."
He certainly did deserve it. Gretzky wasn't just hockey's best player, he was also the only star who could make the sport relevant in Southern California. Thanks to the presence of Gretzky, Kings games became big events, not so much to see hockey but to be seen seeing hockey. Within a week of the trade, the Kings sold more than 4,000 new season tickets, with fans often explaining, "I've never been to a hockey game before, but I want to see that Wayne guy."
Director Peter Berg interviews Gretzky on a golf course, and as Gretzky recalls the trade, he sounds almost like he's describing something that happened to someone else. To Gretzky, playing hockey was the most important thing, and he could be content on the ice in Edmonton or 1,800 miles south. Where King's Ransom succeeds is in showing that the fans he left behind couldn't get over the trade as easily as Gretzky could.