The individual name is so prominent, you would think that Gretzky’s Tears was an autobiography that focuses strictly on the career and achievements of one of the greatest hockey players and athletes of all-time. However, author Stephen Brunt is after much more than capturing the life of a player. Brunt is after the zeitgeist. He’s after what happened to an entire sport and an entire country when the unthinkable happened: the best player in the world, just coming off his fourth Stanley Cup with Canada’s Edmonton Oilers, was traded to a team and place, Los Angeles, that was more associated with sun and movie stars, than it was with ice and winning.
Brunt’s magical book, hinges on that moment in the summer of ’88 at the press conference announcing the biggest trade in hockey history, Wayne Gretzky read his prepared speech and then broke down and cried. In Canadian sporting terms, there have been few moments like it. It would have to rank up there with moments like the Paul Henderson goal and the Ben Johnson 100-metre run. Thinking back to that moment now, over 25 years later, it is remarkable to me how clearly how I remember where I was in that moment. The moment had that deep an effect on many Canadians.
Around this seismic hockey trade, Brunt builds a story premised on shady businessmen (Peter Pocklington, Bruce McNall), American usurpation of things Canadian, a sport awkwardly trying to grow beyond its roots and into a modern, global world and the loss of innocence.
For me, there is another essential moment in the Gretzky story, one that Brunt calls, “The Last Perfect Moment”. It is the moment after Gretzky wins his final Cup with the Oilers and the team spontaneously gathers at centre-ice for a team picture.
Brunt devotes an entire chapter to it, building up brilliantly to the moment where clicking cameras will immortalize one of the greatest hockey teams of all-time – just as they are about to be broken apart. He takes us to the broadcast booth, where commentator Harry Neale unwittingly says: “I’ll bet you that (General Manager) Glen Sather makes one or two changes before next season. And you might see this again. It’s going to be tough to dethrone the Edmonton Oilers.” Little did Neale know that the wheels were already in motion to send the team’s greatest player to L.A. It would’ve have seemed ludicrous, for as Brunt says, “Why would you mess with this perfect creation?”
Perfect it was, that Oilers team. As perfect as perfect gets in the ever-chaning world of sports. It is quite possible that if that relatively young team had stayed together, they could have doubled their Cup total and gone down in history with the very best. But it was not meant to be. While the Oilers’s core talent and leadership was strong enough to win one more Cup two years later, without Gretzky, 1988 was the essentially the end of a magical era.
And Brunt wonderfully captures the glittering last picture of that perfect team:
“…in that instant a tradition is born: the players gather round the Cup for a photo opportunity at the captain’s behest, and are joined by the coaches and their assistants, the trainers, the clubhouse boy Joey Moss…Finally the owner slides into the happy mob scene, front and centre, right behind the silverware. It looks like an old-time team photo, the players more sprawled than posed, and the joy of the moment is self-evident.”
Of course we all know that in life nothing last forever and that perfection is rare and if attained, fleeting. The Oilers were the picture of perfection for longer than many great teams. And Wayne Gretzky would find that out himself. Brunt makes a point of examining not just Gretzky’s post-Oiler attempts at glory as a player with the L.A. Kings, St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers but also the Great One’s forays into coaching and management: Gretzky had a losing record in 5 seasons as coach (and part owner) of the Phoenix Coyotes; and while as Executive Director he led Canada to a gold medal at the 2002 Olympic Games, his 2006 team did not medal. Some great success. Some depressing failure. Nothing close to that perfect Edmonton team.
In the end, Wayne Gretzky, the individual genius, becomes in the capable hands of Stephen Brunt, a prism through which to examine teams, owners and an entire league; he becomes a route to understanding collective experience – from the perspective of the fans in Edmonton who rode that big wave, to those in L.A. who caught the end of it and for all of Canada; and he becomes a symbol of how things get built and then get taken apart.
On the cover of Brunt’s book is an individual picture of Gretzky in a Kings jersey but the picture that really captures everything that matters to us – the beauty, the complexity, the joy – is the team picture stuffed into the middle and the heart of this great book.
Buy it. As of this writing it is over 25 years since The Trade, but the lessons are eternal and the tears of sadness – and joy – are well worth experiencing.
*A similar version of this post originally appeared on TeamPicture.com.