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Gretzky’s Tears: Hockey, Canada,and the Day Everything Changed

by Stephen Brunt

Canada’s Game: Hockey and Identity

by Andrew C. Holman, ed.

The story of The Great One’s sale to the Los Angeles Kings from the Edmonton Oilers in August 1988 is a variation of the myth of the fast-talking American swindling the hapless Canadian out of his money, his land, or some other precious natural resource (such as the most prolific goal-scorer in hockey history). The trouble with myth, though, is that it is only loosely based on reality.

The same goes for the Wayne Gretzky deal. We all remember the press conference:Gretzky tearing up, dabbing his eyes with tissue, and saying, “I promised Mess[ier] I wouldn’t do this.” Janet Gretzky, Wayne’s wife of less than a month at the time, was cast by some – fans, the media – as the Yoko Ono figure, the Californian seductress who took the good Canadian boy away to L.A. 

More than 20 years later, author and Globe and Mail columnist Stephen Brunt gives us a behind the scenes look at the dramatis personae and their various machinations in what was, for many Canadians at least, a story surely on the scale of Greek tragedy.

In this instance, however, a fast-talking Canadian sold the puck prodigy to a nerdy American in what was a win-win deal. The Oilers’ owner at the time, Peter Pocklington, knew the fury he would face from Edmonton fans and made sure to characterize the trade as Gretzky’s idea, when in fact the scheme was of his own concoction. Bruce McNall, the Kings’ new owner, also played a key role, agreeing to fork over $15 million (and a few players) to bolster Pocklington’s fast-sinking business portfolio. (Glen Sather, the Oilers’ coach, was kept in the dark about the deal.)

Brunt deftly connects the dots between the deal and the NHL’s Sun Belt strategy to expand further into the U.S., and in the process revisits what was a seminal moment for the game. Within a few years of the Gretzky deal, the NHL had set up shop in San Jose, Anaheim, Tampa Bay, and Miami. More ominously for Canadian fans, the Nordiques had bolted from Quebec City for Denver, and the Jets had closed up shop in Winnipeg and left for Phoenix.

Unlike many breathless sports writers, Brunt has both a literary sense and a detachment from the story, allowing it to unfold unencumbered by the routine hyperbole of the nightly sports newsreel or the partisan newspaper scribe.

Even more detatched is Canada’s Game, a quirky collection of scholarly articles that picks apart some of the other cherished myths of Canadians and hockey. Readers may squirm as the received wisdom about hockey and its role in our collective historical narrative is placed under the microscope, but if this book is any indication, it may not be such a bad thing for the academy to examine the game as a legitimate source of social, political, and economic inquiry.

In 10 wide-ranging essays, doctoral candidates, lecturers, and professors look at, among other things, the idea of Americans as villains in hockey, the myth of the “good Canadian kid,” and attempts by corporate owners to reinvent hockey mythology on their own branded terms.

This book likely won’t make its way into Don Cherry’s library any time soon. Nostalgia for the game, and the accompanying desire for a “simpler time,” can be enervating, and this book serves as a bracing squirt from reality’s water bottle.

Along the way, we encounter figures such as Leslie McFarlane – hockey broadcaster and writer Brian McFarlane’s father – and his ambivalence about the Hardy Boys, the massively popular teen mystery series he helped ghostwrite under the name Franklin W. Dixon. The Hardy Boys were his meal ticket, but what he really wanted to write about was hockey. There’s also a fascinating discussion of the epic 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union and its repercussions for Canadians’ sense of self. Other essays touch on fighting in hockey, the spectator experience, the economics of the NHL, and Canada’s oddball entry at the 1936 Olympics.

While the essays cover a lot of ground, it’s difficult to dislike a hockey book that quotes Aristotle and the Tragically Hip with equal deftness.