Peter Berg’s King’s Ransom made sense as the first of the ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries – an accomplished filmmaker examining one of the era’s defining stories. It is actually amazing to think that it has been twenty years since Wayne Gretzky got dealt. It is even more amazing to ponder that he could have been. How can the Bulls deal Michael Jordan – and not just Michael Jordan, but the Jordan AFTER winning the titles? THAT was the magnitude of Edmonton dealing Wayne Gretzky. That he was traded to Los Angeles added a spin – Gretzky as a true hockey ambassador, while Edmonton had to lose their boy, to a warm weather team!
Berg’s film spends equal time discussing the machinations that got the trade to happen – as well as examining the impact in California, turning the Kings from a local afterthought into THE glam entry in the NHL map. But we start at the beginning – the idea of Gretzky and the Oilers changing how hockey was conceived. Their 198x average of 5.9 goals per game is unfathomable. Wayne Gretzky had seasons of 217 points, 92 goals … 92 goals is nearly twice what the elite guys score now. The Oilers were a high flying act, but they won 5 titles – the substance was there with the sizzle.
Edmonton is also a small city. Edmonton is a very small market. At some point, Gretzky wanted to make a bit more money while Edmonton’s ownership became cash strapped. He became more valuable as a trade asset to their franchise than as a player. As such – what we get is them finding a deal for Gretzky and asking him to help. Berg’s film is very strong here, assembling the documentary footage, showing what a phenomenon Gretzky was. We see what a state event his marriage was (to some chick from the Police Academy movies), and how big a deal he was. When Gretzky wipes tears away when announcing his move – the tears were real.
However, the hole in Berg’s movie is Gretzky himself. I am not sure why Gretzky agreed to the deal. He wipes the tears away. In fact, he has chances to reverse things and stay with Edmonton once the trade rumors start. However, he accedes. Why did he do it? In a lot of ways, Gretzky’s view of things is the angle that is the most fascinating – but Berg cannot really unpack that. This is compounded by the fact that Berg and Gretzky are friends, and Berg interviews Gretzky on camera. Alas, we just get some vague answers from Gretzky. It does not prevent the story from being good documentary, but it prevents the film from rising up further.