Demosthenes Spiropoulos

D-mo's Book Club:
Gretzky's Tears
Hockey, America, and the Day Everything Changed

June 6, 2021 - Volume 3, Issue 35

D-mo's Book Club returns, and it's a book I received as a gift

Gretzky's Tears Gretzky's Tears: Hockey, America, and the Day Everything Changed
by Stephen Brunt

How I came upon this book
I was on a Zoom call with my Canadian friend, JM, and we were talking about a whole range of topics. A good time was had. During the call, the conversation turned to sports, and specifically hockey (we're both fans). He said there was a really good book about the Wayne Gretzky trade that he recommended I check out. Groovy. I didn't expect him to order one off of Amazon for me though. What a pal! Fun fact: north of the border, the subtitle is "Hockey, Canada, and the Day Everything Changed."

The gist of it
A deep dive into what could be considered the biggest trade in the history of sports - simply for what it did for the growth of hockey: the Edmonton Oilers trading Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles Kings for some players, some draft picks, a bag of Doritos, and most importantly... fifteen million dollars. The book covers a bit of Wayne's early pre-professional hockey life, his family dynamics, the owners of the renegade World Hockey Association, and one key person in the National Hockey League.

My thoughts
The trade in question happened right when I started high school. I can confirm hockey wasn't big in Los Angeles at the time, but Gretzky did, more or less, put it on the map. Hockey became hip now, and hockey fans can point to this moment as to when the NHL exploded in popularity and reach (even more than the merger with the WHA). But I didn't know, and I'm pretty sure a lot of people didn't, how much more significant this trade actually was. Whatever you think you know, that's just the tip of iceberg.

The personal history of Wayne Gretzky is pretty standard fare and nothing out of the ordinary - outside of his prestigious skills - for someone many consider to be a hockey god and Canadian folk hero. The more interesting parts dealing with the owners. Today, sports owners are certified billionaires or faceless corporations (read: legitimate businesspeople). But back in the 1970's and 1980's, a lot of owners (especially in hockey) were hucksters, grifters, and quasi-con men. Sure they had real companies they were running, but their wealth was always tenuous at best. Like Nelson Skalbania, the owner of the WHA's Indianapolis Racers who signed Gretzky from under the NHL's noses before the draft (who cut his losses and sold Gretzky for cash), to Peter Pocklington, who became the most hated man in Canada when he sent the "Great One" to L.A. (who was running out of money on his other businesses so, honestly, sold Gretzky for cash - the $15 mil mentioned above), to someone who is the real star of this book... L.A. Kings owner, Bruce McNall.

It turns out that Bruce McNall, an antique coin collector turned hockey club owner, is more or less responsible for the current state of the National Hockey League as we know it.

-Who pulled off an impossible trade and make hockey relevant in Los Angeles? McNall.

-Whose vision of playing exhibition hockey games in non-traditional markets was it that lead to hockey teams actually landing in places like Phoenix, Miami, and Atlanta? McNall.

-Who helped get the NHL a national broadcast deal after not having one for years? McNall.

-Who, as a newly elected Chairman of the NHL Board of Governors, went calling to the NBA asking for someone to be the new NHL commissioner? McNall. (True story, NBA Commissioner David Stern didn't want to part with McNall's first choice so he offered up McNall's second choice... Gary Bettman)

-Who's to blame if you think Bettman's a bad commish? McNall.

-Whose business endeavors, which was really a house of cards, came crashing down and saw him plead guilty to defrauding banks and spend five years in federal prison? McNall. Told you... they were all quasi-con men.

Hockey fans definitely look back at the trade as when the NHL began its evolution. But as much as we think it was Gretzky... it was Bruce McNall all along.

The verdict
If you are a fan of: a) Wayne Gretzky, b) the Los Angeles Kings, c) the Edmonton Oilers, d) hockey in general, and/or e) backdoor dealmaking and machinations, I would definitely recommend reading this book. It's definitely the behind-the-scenes details that made this a fascination read for me.

In general, the book is well written and a pretty easy read. If I had to nitpick, I'd say there are a few parts where he covers 2-3 particular games in great detail and it bogs down the flow a bit, but it isn't anything to derail the narrative.

If you're not a sports fan, you may not find this book to be your Stanley Cup of tea. But someone you know will probably love it.

One a scale of 1-4 Library Cards, Gretzky's Tears gets:

Thanks for visiting. Love, Demosthenes Spiropoulos