gretzky’s tears


Hockey: the real crying game

The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Oct. 30 2009, 4:33 PM EDT

There’s no crying in baseball, as we know. But hockey? Hockey rests, apparently, on a whole great sloshing aquifer of tears. In Montreal in the late 1940s, they used to boo Bill Durnan, their own goalie; game after game, they’d boo, and he’d sit there in the dressing room, afterward, inconsolable.

Or how about — these tears hurt, somehow, even more — Edmonton defenceman Steve Smith, in the 1986 Stanley Cup playoffs, plonking the puck off his own goalie to kill the Oilers dead. What could he do but sob? And, of course, Bobby Orr, at the age of 28: He cried when he announced in 1978 that his poor old knees had finished him as a hockey player.

If that last one seems a familiar scene, it’s because it comes from the end of Globe and Mail columnist Stephen Brunt’s previous book, Searching for Bobby Orr (2006), and also because it opens his provocative, painful new one, Gretzky’s Tears, with such a, well, sniffling whimper.

I’m not sure why we would have any illusions left regarding NHL hockey — if I may speak for the group. When it comes to the National Hockey League, the game is so smutched and stained that it’s hard to watch any more. Our game, we like to say, although there’s another version of this, as markered on a sign held up by an American fan during the 1996 World Cup of Hockey:

You breed em
We buyem.

That’s only some of Brunt’s story, but not to worry: As there was in the excellent Searching for Bobby Orr, there’s plenty more here to dispirit even the most heavily Cooperall’d true north patriot love of the game. Gretzky’s Tears is as penetrating a book, and as sure in its navigation of hockey’s cultural currents, even if it isn’t so much a biography as an annotated receipt of sale. It’s a book about assets and bottom lines, market forces and bank frauds, wheelers and dealers, a story played out in Ford dealerships and the offices of public relations executives rather than Gretzky’s familiar on-ice suite, behind the net, waiting for Jari Kurri to swoop into the slot.

Going in, I thought it was going to make me mad. I thought it was going to be Russ Conway’s Game Misconduct all over again, or maybe Net Worth redux, by Alison Griffiths and David Cruise, another exposé of hockey’s crassness and venality, stirring up my reserves of righteous Canadian, how dare these people toy with the game, who are they to treat it with anything other than complete respect and honest stewardship. But no. Gretzky’s Tears didn’t make me mad. It just increased my dismay. It’s a different dismay than I knew in 1988. I think that must be because, as Brunt makes so clear, it was all so sadly inevitable.

We thought we knew the story. With Brunt’s account, we know that we only had the ugly half of it. His is the most detailed account yet, and it makes for an unforgettable set-piece that is at the centre of book. We hear from Glen Sather and – a great get – from Jeffrey Goodman, the Toronto PR man Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington hired to spin the deal that must have seemed as unspinnable as it turned out to be. He talks to Edmonton Oilers of the day, Craig Simpson and Kevin Lowe. From Los Angeles, there’s L.A. Kings president Roy Mlakar and – maybe most interesting of all – that most affable of fraudsters, the man who bought Gretzky, former L.A. owner Bruce McNall.

Gretzky didn’t want to talk: What else could he say? Pocklington excused himself, too, because, well, why would he sell someone else’s book when he was working on one of his own?

In Brunt’s telling, what it all boils down to is a bitter reduction indeed: Gretzky was a 26-year-old asset, powerful, yes, the best there ever was, but with every shift he took, with each astounding assist, he was depreciating in value. So, in 1988, even as Gretzky was leading the Oilers to a Stanley Cup – not to mention looking forward to his upcoming wedding – Pocklington was shopping him around. Gretzky’s agent got wind of this but he and Walter Gretzky thought it best to wait to tell Wayne. When he heard, he didn’t believe it.

But then he did.

Emotions rose, fell.

Rumours wafted.

Money began to move.

And it was done. After that, it was all over but the crying. Oh, and the lying. Because Gretzky, having apparently refused (according to Goodman) to read from Pocklington’s script, ended up delivering his lines all the same. Let’s see: Pocklington’s Pedalling gave way to Gretzky’s Fiction + his Tears, followed by Sather’s Ire, ending up with the Media’s Easily Parried Questions. God’s Nice Touch: Storm clouds came through as the press conference got under way before clearing the skies again.

The events of August, 1988 unleashed forces into hockey’s market from which there would be no turning back

Why did Gretzky decide to bolster Pocklington’s lie and make it his own? Because Pocklington asked him to? Just being polite? Sorry, but Gretzky isn’t saying, because even though (as it turns out) he has quite a lot to say about his former boss, and is saying it in Pocklington’s new book, which just happens to be out this month, too – well, that’s not one of the things he’s saying.

He does say, for the record, that of the feelings he has, none of them are hard. Also that Pocklington is “not a jerk.”

On Pocklington’s side, everything you need to know about his book is on the cover. The title is I’d Trade Him Again: On Gretzky, Politics, and the Pursuit of the Perfect Deal (by Terry McConnell & J’Lyn Nye with Peter Pocklington, Fenn). In the presale photo below the title, Pocklington and Gretzky hug at centre ice – although the owner does look as if he’s grabbing on tighter than Wayne.

 About the sale, Pocklington reports that he had a big line of credit funding the team and the good people over at Alberta Treasury Branches wanted it paid down and so, ka-ching! “God,” he chuckles, “I should really blame it on the ATB.”

So Gretzky is at peace and Pocklington – well, he’s mired in some legal troubles right now, but once they’re squared away, the world will once again be his oyster.

Gretzky’s Tears can’t summon up quite so sunny a mood. The man himself takes on the taint of an inglorious post-retirement career that no Olympic gold can brighten. (He’s at his best here where else but on the ice, in two artful interludes that Brunt offers up to help us remember him on skates.) Gretzky’s hometown, Brantford, Ont., may as well have burned the boy in effigy for all the glory it gets here, accused more or less of running him out of town because he was so much better than all the other kids.

Walter? Our most beloved former Bell Canada lineman? Prince of all hockey dads, marquis of the backyard rink? Even he acquires a shadow, at the darker edges of which he takes the shape of a meddler and a taskmaster. And don’t think you’re not to blame either, pal – you and me, actually, because aren’t we all complicit in creating Gretzky, depriving him of a childhood, us with our needy, star-struck mythmaking?

Mostly, though, Brunt is guiding us in and around the weepery. Afterward, Gretzky was a star in L.A., and with his help, the game flourished, because, well, just ask Gary Bettman about hockey’s no cold-weather game: Everybody loves it! Bruce McNall had a plan to spread hockey, and as chairman of the league’s board he spearheaded the effort. Right: Nashville? Sunrise, Florida? Sorry, Winnipeg. See you later, maybe, or never. Hey, Phoenix!

And then it all started to fall apart for hockey. Gretzky retired. McNall went to jail. Quebec City lost its team; so did Winnipeg. The league began to falter. There was a lockout in 1995. U.S. TV deals dried up and blew away. Brunt sketches out the game’s “phony economy,” which only kept on getting phonier, right up until the big ugly labour war of 2004.

Now? The game may be stronger than ever here in the north but down below the border, it has just gone south.

This can’t all be hung on Gretzky’s hook. His tears didn’t start the flood. And yet they did moisten an undeniable watershed. Just as Bobby Orr before him led his generation out of serfdom and into the 1970s, Gretzky was the vanguard for a new breed of athlete/entrepreneurs. He was a product of his times — and as Brunt points out, they just happened to be greedy times.

What he’s arguing is that the events of August, 1988 unleashed forces into hockey’s market from which there would be no turning back. Though here the book does seem to be in a bit of a quibble with its own subtitle. Because isn’t The Day Everything Changed in fact the one in 1978 when the Gretzkys decided to snub the NHL and hitched Wayne’s skates to the World Hockey Association? Isn’t that when Gretzky and the game he so ennobled with his gifts both set out for the parched suburbs of Arizona, on their way to the rendezvous they would eventually make there, all these years later, so far from home?