January 26, 2011

Gretzky's Tears by Stephen Brunt

It may have been the most important single day, the most significant event in modern hockey history. The consequences of that day are still be felt today.

On August 9th, 1988 Peter Pocklington, owner of the Edmonton Oilers, traded/sold the greatest player in the history of the game - Wayne Gretzky. For hockey, and for Canada, that was the day that changed everything.

That day is the focus of Stephen Brunt's latest book Gretzky's Tears: Hockey, Canada, and the Day Everything Changed.

Buy The Book: | Amazon.ca - Chapters - Amazon.com |

Brunt needs no introduction. He is Canada's leading sports columnist, writing with a rare gift of eloquence for sports writers. The Globe and Mail writer has written seven other books, including Searching for Bobby Orr and Facing Ali.

With such a reputation expectations are high for Brunt's newest text. Gretzky's Tears is the most highly anticipated hockey book of 2009. Does it live up to all those lofty promises?

The book gets off to an awkward start, with Brunt trying to sell the book as a sequel to his 2007 hit Searching For Bobby Orr. While the two had similar upbringings and Gretzky's career began as Orr's ended, that's about as close as a tie-in as there is. The book could have been better served with a thought-provoking essay about the how the hockey world has changed in the past two decades, and how all that changed thanks to one day in the summer of '88 - the day Gretzky got traded. Instead of we get a failed opening theme which is never really touched upon again throughout the entire volume.

Despite the rough start, the book does get rolling when Brunt expertly introduces us to the main characters - Peter Pocklington, Bruce McNall and of course Gretzky. Other key figures like Nelson Skalbania, Glen Sather, Jerry Buss and Janet Jones all get their due mention as well.

Brunt paints all these characters in expected shades. McNall is colorful and likable, though no better than the shabby Pocklington; after all both are crooks. Gretzky remains as hockey's Teflon saint, although he hints that Gretzky long ago grew out of the small town Canadian dream we still think of him as. Brunt does not reveal the other characters any deeper, and nor should he. After all, hockey's most important moment should be relived and explored through the public's perceptions.

The book gets the most interesting as the foundations of the trade are laid, and of course with all of the behind the scenes of the infamous day itself. Even the most educated hockey fan will learn something new. For me, it was the surprising revelation that Alan Thicke had as much to do with Gretzky's infatuation with LA as his wife, Janet Jones.

The book goes on to look at Gretzky's first few years in Los Angeles, and how he, with some incredible vision from McNall, transcended hockey. The book winds down with a bit of a hurried look at the long term implications the Gretzky trade, and the plight of the owners. The most interesting exploration is how Gretzky's stature only grew in Canada.

In many ways it is too bad the book deadline has missed the conclusion of the Phoenix Coyotes bankruptcy case and Gretzky's plight. It may be bringing the story full circle.

Gretzky's Tears is very much reminiscent of the hockey book marketplace in 2009. Good, but not great. I'll even say very good. The text gets a little wordy, and there's a couple of factual errors that Oilers fans in particular will catch. But it is a good, fast read about the most consequential moment in most of our hockey lives, if not all of hockey history. You will enjoy this read.

I firmly believe this book will seriously challenge for the title of the best hockey book of 2009.

4 comments:

Picton October 12, 2009 at 10:48 PM  

Interesting book, though Brunt does repeat himself once or twice in the process.

It would be interesting, Joe, to hear how Brunt's tale differs from the one constructed by Pocklington and his writers (and apparently supported by Gretzky) and which holds up.

Joe Pelletier October 12, 2009 at 11:08 PM  

I haven't received Pocklington's book yet, but I will be posting about it as soon as I can.

One word of caution though - Pocklington's word is not nearly as respected in my books as is Stephen Brunt's. I'm not sure I am likely to believe a whole lot of what Pocklington has to say.

nickt January 13, 2010 at 8:13 PM  

This book is crap. An 'awkward' start? No, the first hundred pages are simply unnecessary.

Anyone who is reading this surely has enough background information to know who the players are. Burnt just drags us through details that other people have already written about.

Worth noting is that Burnt was unable to get an interview with Gretzky himself, stating that he'd just have to draw from the public archives on the matter. That seems fine, but Burnt then goes on to make a glaring statistical error. He recounts the story of Gretzky breaking Howe's "goal" record on October 15, 1989 and how it took the Great One only 780 games to scored 802 goals. Who edited this section? Seriously, a little simple math would tell you that 802 goals in 780 games would be more than one goal a game. Nothing against the Great One, but even he wasn't capable of that. If anyone is wondering, it was the career point total Burnt should have been referring to. The goal total would fall much later in Gretzky's career (Kings vs. Canucks).

Mr. Burnt, if you're claim is that you're going to have to do your homework to re-tell the story, then please get the easy answers right.

Thumbs down.

Anonymous,  April 4, 2011 at 2:17 PM  

I have just finished this book. A very interesting read. It's the first hockey book I have ever read. I come from a non-hockey culture in New Zealand and while the opening introductions were very hard work... I very much appreciated the detailed character introductions - I needed them.
I felt Stephen got a little wordy at points - but I just figured it was me struggling to quickly pick up on brand new concepts/assumptions in a new sport, and a new country.
Anyway, I thought it was a very interesting book - and I feel I have a much more rounded understanding of the hockey landscape on North America now.

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