Great TV

As one who criticized the NHL Network for a meagerness of programming this summer, I need to be quick on the draw to commend the outlet for what it did for hockey fans last night. Wednesday night’s documentary on the 1988 trade of Wayne Gretzky from Edmonton to LA, labeled ‘A Day that Changed the Game Forever,’ may end up serving as the segment that changed the network forever.
For puckheads, this was must-see TV. For 60 minutes it was compelling and riveting and thought-provoking. It offered assessments from the most important players in that August drama of 20 years ago — and not mere soundbites or cliches but rather heartfelt, pull-no-punches post mortems. The program seemed premised on an outlandish claim — that the movement of one superstar, admittedly hockey’s greatest-ever talent, in his prime — forever altered the landscape of hockey. And yet its 60 minute-argument offered up a darned persuasive case.
On August 9, 1988, Gretzky was the centerpiece of a deal that required two press conferences — one in Edmonton and the other in LA. At his morning presser in Edmonton, an hour before its start, Oilers’ GM Glen Sather approached #99 with an offer to block the trade. After it had already been made. Obviously the decision to make the trade came from Oilers’ owner Peter Pocklington. Blocking the deal would certainly have cost Sather his job, and yet he told Gretzky that’d he’d resign rather than carry out the deal if the move would be the source of unbearable anguish for his star.
Which, last night’s documentary richly illustrated, it initially was. But Gretzky was willing to endure the personal pain of being traded from the team and city he adored out of a sense of needing to grow the game’s economics — especially for smaller market teams. His headed-for-the-Hall-of-Fame teammates in Edmonton were inked to contracts for about a quarter of a million bucks while lesser names in big cities in the U.S. were earning four times as much. The Great One was aware, too, of the Kings’ struggles. It is hardly overstatement to suggest that Gretzky’s greatness was matched as much off the ice as on.
Sather alone during that August’s heady moments seemed to possess a sense of the hockey-world-altering moment. His reflections in last night’s documentary carried a searing quality of personal anguish that he appears to carry to this day. Pocklington comes off as a business guy just cutting a deal. Mark Messier lost a best friend, a buddy who was “like a brother,” and their brief reunion in New York as Ranger teammates years later now seems fitting but far too fleeting.
There was particular poignancy in the program’s snippets of Edmontonians offering their reactions to the deal. Young and old, male and female, they articulated heart-felt outrage and shock. “I can never think of the Oilers in the same way,” one lamented. Gretzky has spoken of his concern for the fans he left behind that August day; his concern, this program illustrates, was well-founded.
As the program drew to a close I was left with two powerful impressions. First, isn’t it remarkable that while American hockey was indeed profoundly changed by Gretzky’s trade to LA — both the volume and accomplishments of youths playing hockey in California today are stunning — in the totality of the Kings’ existence, the deal proved to offer only a fleeting improvement for the organization. Second, with this program, the NHL and its network demonstrated that it can conceive and produce a special product befitting a distinguished occasion and rejuvinate a slumbering offseason fanbase.
May it be the first of many more.

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This entry was posted in Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, Morning cup-a-joe, National Hockey League, NHL Trades. Bookmark the permalink.

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