Review of "Kings Ransom"

When ESPN announced it was starting a new documentary series, “30 for 30“, I met the news with skepticism because the quintessential sports documentary unit is from HBO Sports. Of the documentaries I’ve watched from HBO, I have yet to see a weak effort. All of the documentaries produced by HBO are worthy of praise and the unit has won numerous awards.

ESPN then put together a unit called ESPN Films with the intent of producing documentaries that could equal and perhaps surpass HBO. In fact, Bill Simmons who is one of the executive producers for the “30 for 30” project has said he wants nothing less to destroy HBO. Well, the units can co-exist.

The first effort in the series, “Kings Ransom” about the monumental trade of Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988 is worthy of the HBO series and stands alone as one of the better sports documentaries produced this year.

The documentary chronicles the roots the trade which go back to 1985 when former Kings owner Jerry Buss approached Oilers owner Peter Pocklington to trade Gretzky in exchange for $15 million and some players. Pocklington outright rejected the deal.

But when Bruce McNall bought the Kings in 1987, he began to pester Pocklington about trading The Great One.

When the Oilers won their 4th Stanley Cup in five seasons in 1988, Pocklington realized that with Gretzky’s contract expiring within a year, it probably would be the best time to trade him without losing him outright to free agency. So he calls McNall and gets the wheels moving.

The documentary has comments from the players in the trade, McNall, Pocklington, Gretzky, former Oilers coach and General Manager Glen Sather who all give their version of events.

Gretzky notes that he never wanted to leave, but McNall outlines a phone conversation that Gretzky overheard in which Pocklington said Wayne wasn’t good for Edmonton, was a complainer, had an actress girlfriend and that he was a problem. Gretzky got angry and asked McNall to quicken the process.

Director Peter Berg was able to obtain archival footage from several TV networks covering the trade. It was quite interesting to see how the trade was covered in Canada.

The shock from the people of Edmonton quickly turned to denial and anger. Fans’ ire targeted both Gretzky’s newlywed wife, Janet Jones who lived in Los Angeles to Pocklington. Janet said Wayne was a son of Canada and she understood how Canadians were proud of him, but she didn’t understand why they directed their anger at her.

We see pictures of Pocklington burned and hung in effigy. It didn’t help that Pocklington was quoted in an article that he felt the tears shed by Gretzy during a news conference to announce the trade were fake and Wayne had an ego the size of Manhattan. For his part, Pocklington denies those quotes.

And while Gretzky says he would have loved to have stayed in Edmonton, feeling he would have won as many as four more Stanley Cups, he says he understands now why he was traded and he would not change a thing.

In addition, Gretzky says he’s happy that he helped to bring awareness to hockey in Southern California and he’s become adjusted to the lifestyle there.

Here’s a clip:

Overall, a very good documentary and I give this an A minus for the grade.

“Kings Ransom” premieres tonight at 8 on ESPN. The next documentary in the “30 for 30” series is on the Baltimore Colts’ move to Indianapolis and the fight that the team’s band made to remain in existence. That premieres next week and I’ll review that later this week.

About Ken Fang

Ken has been covering the sports media in earnest at his own site, Fang's Bites since May 2007 and at Awful Announcing since March 2013. He provides a unique perspective having been an award-winning radio news reporter in Providence and having worked in local television. Fang celebrates the three Boston Red Sox World Championships in the 21st Century, but continues to be a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan.