Kings Ransom (2009)

My favorite television series in the past decade has been the ESPN 30 for 30 series which began on October 6, 2009. It was the idea columnist, Grantland founder and then ESPN employee Bill Simmons and ESPN’s Connor Schell. The idea was with ESPN’s 30th anniversary coming up to have 30 films on the biggest sports stories in the past 30 years done by 30 different directors. The series was a success so it has continued.  Eleven  years in there have been 112 30 for 30’s, 69 of what they call Shorts- which is exactly what it sounds like- much shorter versions of the series, in 2014 with the soccer World Cup they did eight soccer stories and also the outstanding mini-series documentary OJ: Made In America. Once a week I will do a review of a 30 for 30- I am going to do them in the order they appeared on television.

Note- I started this series a year ago- and only did two episodes- going to give it another go in 2021.

  • Episode 1: Kings Ransom
  • Directed by Peter Berg
  • I thought this was an odd choice to start the series out with. It did have poor ratings but the series did slowly catch on and find its audience.
  • The biggest trade in sports history happened one hundred years ago-when the sale of Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees was finalized on January 3, 1920. What was the second biggest sports trade ever? I’d have to go with the trade of Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings on August 8, 1988.
  • Worth noting about Wayne Gretzky. He was a genius on the ice. Looking at him he isn’t a great physical specimen. He was 6 foot 185 during his playing days. He wasn’t the fastest skater. He was maybe a step slow but he had incredible hockey instincts. He reminds me of Larry Bird in the NBA and Tom Brady in the NFL. Bird when he was in college was thought by many ‘experts” to be too slow, not athletic enough for the NBA- but like Gretzky he seemed to see things before they happened. Brady with the Patriots- not a great athlete. They still laugh at the picture taken of him when he was at the NFL combine when he left college but again incredible decision making skills and the ability to see things and react quickly. Of course all three of these guys have another thing in common -great work ethic and a burning desire to win. They once asked Larry Bird “What do you do when your not playing basketball? His reply was “Play basketball.”

  • Wayne Gretzky in 1988 was at his peak. He was only 27 years old. His team the Edmonton Oilers had won 4 of the last 5 Stanley Cups. Gretzky had won eight straight Hart Trophy’s- the leagues MVP Award and had won eight straight scoring titles. The Oilers appeared to be set up to dominate for at last another half decade or so. Wayne Gretzky was dominating in the way Babe Ruth was in baseball. Ruth once his hit more home runs than every other team did in the league. He was statistically like Wilt Chamberlain was in the NBA- Wilt once averaged over 50 points a game for the season. Gretzky is the GOAT in hockey. Why would Edmonton even think about trading this guy?
  • As far back as 1985 then Los Angeles Kings owner Jerry Buss [most famous for owing the LA Lakers in the NBA} had approached Oilers owner Peter Pocklington about trading or buying Gretzky. He offered him $15 million dollars and players. Pocklington said no but he didn’t close the door on it. A couple years later Bruce McNall bought the Kings and Buss had mentioned to him the conversation he had with Pocklington. McNall started working on Pocklington every time they crossed paths.
  • After the Oilers won the Stanley Cup in June 1988 Wayne’s father Walter- who played a big role with his son becoming a great player- approached Wayne and told him he had heard they were looking to trade him. Wayne couldn’t believe it. The issue was in 1988 hockey player salaries were on the rise. Gretzky the greatest player in any sport in the 1980’s-at the time wasn’t even the highest paid player in the NHL. His contract ended in a year and he would become an unrestricted free-agent. Pocklington had approached Gretzky would a contract extension but Gretzky wanted to play out the year and test the open market. Pocklington was now in a position where he could keep Gretzky that one year and lose him and receive nothing in return. What to do? The Edmonton Oilers are a religion in Edmonton but it is also one of the leagues smaller markets. How much would Gretzky as a free agent get? Pocklington calls up Bruce McNall. He needs $15 million and some players to rebuild the team.
  • There were 21 teams in the NHL in 1988. The LA Kings in 1988 were the next to worst team. They didn’t have a lot of talent. They start discussions.
  • Glen Sather was the Oilers coach during their Stanley Cup years. {When I first saw Sather in the documentary I thought it was Elton John} Sather of course was against trading his greatest player. Sather is furious. He was the coach and general manager he told Pocklington he had the final say.
  • Again when the talk gets to Gretzky about going to the Kings he isn’t for it but then his feelings seem to get hurt. The turning point in changing his mind was when Gretzky who had recently married actress Janet Jones and was living in LA- met with McNall. As they were talking- who calls out of the blue but Peter Pocklington. The speaker phone was on. Pocklington doesn’t know Gretzky is in the room and hearing the conversation. Pocklington starts trashing Gretzky saying he he had a big ego and was selfish. That did it as far as Gretzky went.
  • Back to the Gretzky -Jones wedding. It was in Edmonton- they show footage of the wedding. It reminded me of a royal wedding.
  • They finally agree to the trade but Pocklington as the rumors of a trade leak starts to get cold feet. He is also being heavily criticized of course in Edmonton for even thinking about trading Gretzky. McNall and Gretzky fly to Edmonton. Pocklington and Sather want to talk to Gretzky. On the plane McNall was worried that this is going to all fall apart. Gretzky tells him not to worry. The meeting takes place and Pocklington and Sather tell Gretzky that its up to him- they will pull out of this deal if he doesn’t want to go to the Kings. Gretzky says let’s do it.

  • They show an emotional and tearful Gretzky at a press conference announcing the trade. The Oilers get $15 million a couple players and 3 first round draft choices.
  • Where were you when the trade happened? This is one of the few trades in sports where I clearly remember where I was. I was going to cut my grandmother’s yard and I had just pulled into her driveway when they announced on the all-sports radio station that Gretzky was going to the Kings. That had me shaking my head. Why would they do that? I’ve been a sports fan since the late 60’s- this was /is the biggest trade in my lifetime.
  • All the sudden there is interest in hockey in Los Angeles. The Kings had averaged around 7000 a game previously. Within a week of the trade they sell 5000 season ticket packages. Games at The Forum become sell outs. It is the place to be- and be seen.
  • Wayne Gretzky in his first year in Los Angeles would win his final MVP Award. He would never win another Stanley Cup. In 1993 the Kings did make it to the Stanley Cup finals but lost to Montreal. Worth noting that 1993 Montreal Canadian team which won the Stanley Cup is the last Canadian team that has won it.  Without Gretzky the Edmonton Oilers won one more Cup in 1990.
  • In the show the director Peter Berg interviews Gretzky as the golf. As great a player as Gretzky was- let’s just say he is not the most stimulating interview. In the end it comes across that he accepted the trade because they hurt his feelings. He also goes on to say he had no regrets knowing what he knows today- that he would go back and do the same thing if given the chance. That he loves Los Angeles and still lives there.
  • The three main people interviewed for the show were Gretzky, McNall and Pocklington. Pocklington after the trade was made took heavy abuse in Edmonton for doing it. He says now that he understands why the reaction was what it was but that it was something he had to do. He couldn’t afford to sit back and in a year lose Gretzky and get nothing in return. He sold the team in 1998. In the last 13 NHL seasons the Oilers have only made the playoffs once.
  • One thing that I thought was poorly discussed and in some aspects not discussed at all is how this trade changed the NHL. In 1988 there were 21 teams in the league- today there are 31 including teams now in Phoenix, Dallas, Tampa Bay, Las Vegas, Nashville, Charlotte and Miami. Without this trade it is possible that none of this happens. Gretzky going to Los Angeles not only changed the Kings franchise from a struggling one to a successful one but spread the popularity of the league. It added glitz and glamour. When I started following hockey in the early 70’s the thought of having NHL teams in the southern US would have been laughed at. The league then was a league of Canadian players. Now it has players from all over the world and there are more players than ever from the US.
  • Wayne Gretzky finished his career in 1999 with the New York Rangers. In his 20 years in the NHL he scored 894 goals  1963 assists for a total of 2857 points. Second place all time in points is Jaromir Jagr with 1888. Gretzky has more career assists than Jagr’s goals and assists added together.
  • Overall I’d give this 30 for 30 a C+ Better ones were to come in the series. A big part of the problem to me was- as exciting as Wayne Gretzky was on the ice- he seems kind of dull in the interviews. Maybe part of the problem was- Peter Berg is a friend of his or maybe Wayne is just kind of laid back in these situations. One thing for certain we are unlikely to see an athlete dominate a sport as Gretzky did hockey in the 1980s.

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7 responses to “ESPN 30 FOR 30 SERIES: #1 “KINGS RANSOM”

    • You or I may have scored 40!! It’s like here with Mario- in his prime they could put some stiff on his line and they’d score a lot of goals. Rob Brown came to mind- one year with Mario he scored 49.. a few years later he’s out of the league.

    • Mario saved the franchise twice- first as a player then stepping in to be a part of ownership- team may have left during both time spans.. while I am a bigger baseball and football fan I’d vote for Mario as the greatest Pittsburgh sports figure ever.

    • Thats saying something with all those great athletes from there. I really dug the Pirates. First because of Clemente then with Stargell, Oliver and Parker.
      I mean it when I say he was the best hockey player. When he turned it on he was on another level. To top it off Hans from what I hear he’s a pretty good human being. I watched a thing where he helped Stevens get back on track.

    • He’s been a fixture in Pittsburgh nearly 40 years- and has kept a pretty quiet profile- you are right a class act. Over the years I’ve heard a number of stories about different Pittsburgh athletes and their behavior- a certain Steelers QB for example- but never heard a bad story on Mario.

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