For Canadian hockey fans possessive of their country’s talent, Wayne Gretzky’s 1988 trade to the Los Angeles Kings was a tear jerker, says Stephen Brunt, Globe and Mail sports writer and author of seven books.
The Great One summed it up for all of us during the pivotal news conference announcing his trade from the Edmonton Oilers to sunny California. The spin was working well for the American franchise, Brunt told a Brock audience Dec. 3. Then Gretzky began to cry.
“It was as if this guy was being dragged away against his will,” Brunt said. “It was something of ours that was being taken from us.
“It was an American coming in, plunking down money and saying ‘I want that.’ And that resonates pretty deeply in our culture.”
Brunt spoke at Brock to promote his new book, Gretzky’s Tears: Hockey, Canada and the Day Everything Changed. It is an account of the trade and its impact on Canadian sports culture. The Department of Sport Management hosted the event.
With the trade, Brunt said, Gretzky showed that he was a new breed of athlete. His girlfriend, Janet Jones, was a Hollywood actress. He was already living in Los Angeles during the off-season anyway, Brunt said.
“He understood how big he could be,” he said. “He was maxed out in Canada in terms of how much he could make.”
Gordie Howe once took a jacket from the Detroit Red Wings in lieu of a pay raise, Brunt said, because playing hockey in Detroit was still better than working on a farm in Saskatchewan. Gretzky introduced a new concept – the “athlete entrepreneur.”
Brunt answered questions from the floor on a range of topics, including recent attempts by the Buffalo Bills to hold home games in Toronto.
The attempts, Brunt said, overlook why sports teams are so successful – the loyalty of the hometown crowd.
“(Buffalo) is selling out this year because people live and die with that team,” he said. “That’s something you can’t just transport to Toronto. It’s not that Toronto isn’t big enough, or that it doesn’t like football. It’s that Toronto doesn’t care about that team. If Toronto was on the front of those jerseys, it would be a different story.”