August 9, 1988 was arguably the single most important day in hockey history. On that day, the biggest trade in professional sports took place when the Edmonton Oilers traded Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings. Here, the best player in his sport was traded at the height of his career. Gretzky’s trade changed hockey forever. “Kings Ransom,” an ESPN documentary directed by Peter Berg, recounts that fateful day and the events that led up to it.
Unfortunately, “Kings Ransom,” released in 2009, is not the documentary that I hoped for. It tries so hard to be dramatic and doesn’t say anything that hasn’t already been said.
“Kings Ransom” starts with Gretzky driving his car, pulling into a lot, parking, getting out and walking to his destination — all in slowwwww motion — while he voices over his thoughts on his trade 20-something years later. Because, you know, slow motion and narration are so dramatic. Gretzky then enters a darkened arena and looks around. But don’t worry; Berg quickly intensifies the drama by editing in quick flashes of Gretzky’s career highlights; a second here, two seconds there, along with the finest television static and generic goal-horn sound effects money can buy.
At this point, I knew that this was going to be a long 53 minutes.
Fortunately, “Kings Ransom” doesn’t just consist of Gretzky walking around in a darkened stadium. Berg and Gretzky are shown at the driving range, hitting golf balls, palling around and talking about how much Gretzky loves living in L.A., but at the same time knows he would have won more championships had he stayed in Edmonton. Duh!
Perhaps the strongest part of “King Ransom” is that Berg spoke with the three most important people — besides Gretzky, of course — who were involved in this trade: former Kings’ owner Bruce McNall, former Oilers’ owner Peter Pocklington and former Oilers’ GM Glen Sather. Any documentary about “The Trade” would be severely lacking if any of those men were missing.
Some rare footage of Gretzky’s marriage to actress Janet Jones is also shown, as their wedding happened not long before Gretzky was traded. Jones also speaks to Berg, offering her perspective while also stating (probably for the 10,000th time) that she didn’t have anything to do with her husband’s trade to L.A.
Notably absent are Gretzky’s former teammates. What did Mark Messier, Grant Fuhr or Jarri Kurri think — then or now — when the best hockey player in the world was no longer going to be their teammate? What about Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski, who were also shipped to L.A.? Or Jimmy Carson, who was a player the Oilers got in return (along with Martin Gelinas, money and draft picks). Carson, a former 50-goal scorer, felt a lot of pressure in Edmonton, as fans unfairly expected him to fill Gretzky’s skates. His thoughts would have added a dimension to “Kings Ransom” that other documentaries on “The Trade” don’t have.
And that is probably the biggest problem with “Kings Ransom” — it doesn’t really tell us anything that we didn’t already know. Yes, the wedding footage is actually very interesting, as are the interviews with angry Oilers’ fans, as well as footage of celebrities like John Candy and Tom Hanks attending Kings games. Good documentaries are supposed to dig up footage that is not often seen, and “Kings Ransom” has an abundance of that.
But Berg doesn’t explore some of the financial problems that Pocklington was dealing with that made him even consider trading Gretzky in the first place. Gretzky’s father, Walter, was also tipped off a few months prior that Wayne was going to be traded, but hid this knowledge from his son; I wish that angle was explored a bit more, too.
Some titles tacked on at the end mention that hockey grew in California and that the NHL expanded from 21 to 30 teams. More of “Kings Ransom” should have highlighted how Gretzky’s trade helped to grow hockey in the U.S.
What I like about “Kings Ransom”: The footage of Gretzky’s wedding — can you believe people were lined up along the streets outside of the church? — and interviews with McNall, Pocklington and Sather make “Kings Ransom” worth watching, even if you already know a lot about “The Trade.”
What I do not like about “Kings Ransom”: So…much…filler. There are shots of Gretzky — or probably someone wearing a Gretzky jersey, since we only see him from the shoulders down — skating around the ice in slow motion, while a voice over narrates some point. Why not show some real footage of Gretzky here? Gretzky walking around the empty stadium and the time-lapsed footage of Los Angeles’ city scape all feel like attempts to add pause for reflection, or give moments of serenity, to contrast with the turmoil. Instead, they just made me bored.
“Kings Ransom” is a great idea for a documentary, and there is some good footage here, but at nearly an hour it feels too long. Had the filler been cut out, and some of the other nice-but-not necessary footage been omitted, “Kings Ransom” could have been a svelte 30-minute piece. Still, it is a documentary about Wayne Gretzky, so every hockey fan should watch it anyway. And if you want to watch something really good, check out the ESPN “30 for 30” about Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, entitled “The Price of Gold.” That film is 90 minutes well-spent. ■
Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk.