October 11, 2009

Interview with Stephen Brunt

Last week I reviewed the new book Gretzky's Tears: Hockey, Canada, and the Day Everything Changed. This week I've got an exclusive interview with the author, Stephen Brunt. Brunt talks about the trade, the impact, and what's next for Wayne Gretzky.

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Read The Book Review

Is the Wayne Gretzky trade the most important event in hockey history in the modern history of the game?

I guess it depends on how you want to describe “modern”. I’d say that 1967 expansion was even bigger, but perhaps I’m showing my age in describing the Sixties as part of the modern era. Since then, with the possible exception of the formation of the WHA and the subsequent merger, and perhaps the arrival of the first European players, I’d say that the Gretzky trade had more influence on shaping the NHL as we know it than any other single event.

By leaving Edmonton in the summer of 1988, Gretzky transcended the game worldwide, especially in the United States. But by leaving Canada at this time and under these circumstances, he may have actually become bigger than ever in Canada, too. Why is Wayne Gretzky so important to Canadians?

I think that by being “sold” to an American, and crying about it, it suggested to Canadians that he was leaving against his will, that if he’d had his choice, he never would have left Edmonton and certainly never would have left Canada. I don’t think that’s entirely true, but that was the last impression from that famous press conference. And ever since, though he has played in the US, lived in the US, raised his family in the US, Gretzky has by design or by circumstance managed to create the impression that he still has a beating Canadian heart – from selling cars “built for life in Canada” to his involvement with the 2002 and 2006 Olympic teams. He understands his brand very well, and I think understands that whatever ups and downs he might experience, he’ll always have Canada – though after the recent events in Phoenix, it’s going to be more challenging.

How much of Gretzky's Hollywood image is due to Bruce McNall's master plan?

McNall certainly understood the business and currency of celebrity. He knew that the key to selling hockey in Los Angeles was convincing people there that Gretzky was the equivalent of a movie star, that he belonged in that company – and so he surrounded him with celebrities and filled the Forum with famous faces and created plenty of opportunities for Gretzky to be seen in that company. But as I detail in the book, Gretzky’s involvement with Hollywood predates McNall. He was hanging out in Los Angeles during off seasons when Vicki Moss was his girlfriend. Alan Thicke was the guy who first led him behind the velvet rope. And Gretzky liked it – he liked being around famous people, and he also like the fact that there, he was just another famous person, freed from the fishbowl of Edmonton.

Gary Bettman's master plan is in many ways carrying on Bruce McNall's grand vision. Had Bruce McNall's financial empire been real, or even if he was successful in covering up his trails for a few even just a few more years, how different would today's NHL landscape look today?

That’s a huge “if” because just about everything Bruce did was based on thin air. But I’m not sure it would have been much different. Bettman – who McNall, as chairman of the board of governors, effectively hired – pretty much followed Bruce’s blueprint. It was McNall who brought high-flyers like Disney and Wayne Huizenga to the table. Maybe, had he been able to stick around, he would have been able to convince a better class of owners that hockey had a future in non-traditional markets. Persuading very rich people to part with their money was his greatest skill. Obviously there were times, after the bloom was off the rose, when Gary had to take anybody who could write a check – even if it bounced.

McNall was incredibly likeable, and comes across as such in your book, despite later being exposed as a crook. Nelson Skalbania, Peter Pocklington, Steve Ellman and Jerry Moyes all had their flaws and are painted in the book with shady colors. How is it Gretzky keeps finding himself with these well-monied but sketchy characters?

I think it’s the well-monied part. Gretzky followed the money – signing with Skalbania, signing the personal services deal with Pocklington, getting in deep with McNall and Ellman. I don’t mean that to sound judgemental – I’m not sure I would have done anything differently. But Gretzky was one of the first professional athletes – certainly the first hockey player – who was willing to operate purely in the interests of himself and his personal brand.

As it implausible as it seems, Glen Sather has always contended he was kept the dark about the Gretzky trade until it was too late. Is this true?

He vehemently argues that it was true, and people who I trust, who were in Edmonton at the time and deeply connected with all facets of the Oilers organization believe that it was true. It is hard to believe, especially given the many levels of Sather’s relationship with Pocklington. They weren’t just employer and employee – they also had investments together, and they were socially very close. My best guess would be that while Sather may have heard Pocklington talk about the possibility of moving Gretzky – he had probably heard Pocklington talk about all kinds of outlandish things – and while he certainly understood Gretzky’s contract situation, he had no idea what was going on between Pocklington and McNall until the deal was effectively done.

In terms of hockey players, why weren't the Oilers able to get more for Gretzky?

I think because the hockey side was an afterthought – it was all about the money. It was a sale more than a trade. The hockey components were added in part for optics, and in part because Sather got involved trying to protect his team as best he could, and Gretzky got involved trying to make sure that the Kings didn’t completely mortgage their future.

You scrape away at Gretzky's Teflon just a little bit in the book, showing him mature from the kid from Brantford to someone interested in big pay days and the Hollywood lifestyle. Yet he was so fiercely protective of his squeaky clean image. How close is the real Wayne Gretzky to his carefully kept image?

Well, we all have feet of clay. I think it’s important to understand that a big part of Gretzky’s image isn’t just his construction – in many ways, it has to do with what we wanted him to be. He was elevated by the fans, and by the press, into something far more than just a great hockey player. He was a great hockey player – perhaps the greatest who ever lived – and I think from everything I know he’s a decent guy. But a whole lot of extrapolation was done beyond that, to suggest that he was smarter, wiser, humbler, more patriotic, than the average Canadian and therefore worthy of our adoration. In all aspects of sports heroism, I think it’s safer to leave it on the field or on the ice, and not imbue athletes with other qualities simply because of how well they play their games.

How are we still feeling the effects of the Gretzky trade today?

Where do you start? The entire business model of the contemporary National Hockey League is based on establishing a national footprint in the United States and attracting big television dollars there – it didn’t work, and in any case it’s a completely outmoded concept. The league would never have made such a dramatic move in that direction without the trade, and without Gretzky’s success reviving the Kings and creating new interest in hockey in the U.S.

Now the book was in the publishing stages before the most recent events could be covered. Obviously Gretzky has fallen victim to the Phoenix Coyotes bankruptcy case, and could be out millions of dollars. How much of the Coyotes demise and the troubled American hockey teams. Are we seeing everything come full circle?

It’s poetic, isn’t it – the former Winnipeg Jets, a franchise forever tormented by Gretzky when he was an Oiler, the symbolic Waterloo (no Balsillie pun intended) for so much of what was set in motion by the trade? The Coyotes are Gretzky’s spiritual children. The fact that he’s caught in the middle of it – and that in the end, he tried to leverage his position for one last payday, even though he knew how dire the circumstances were – is unfortunate, but does seem somehow appropriate.

What's next for Wayne Gretzky?

That’s a heck of a question, isn’t it? I guess the very next thing will be his fight to get paid in Phoenix. We’ll see whether or not the NHL finds a way to make nice and make up at least some of the money that he believes he is owed – though it’s telling that they weren’t interested in buying him off completely to make him happy. After that, I would assume that he will find a way back into the game somehow because he really has to in order to keep the Gretzky business going and keep his brand alive in Canada, and I would assume that when push comes to shove, the NHL won’t want to live without him.


Scott February 2, 2013 at 7:26 PM  

Excellent questions Joe, and terrific answers. If that didn't help sell a bunch of books, I don't know what could.

Brian S., Oceanside,  August 27, 2013 at 10:38 PM  

Joe, this is some of your best stuff by far, made great because of the quality of the writer and the magnitude of the subject matter. I just finished “Gretzky’s Tears” and it is excellent. Again Stephen Brunt has shown us art and mastery by his writing and his command of hockey knowledge and insight. (If you haven’t also read “In Search of Bobby Orr”, do so). And because I am such a Stephen Brunt fan please allow me a bit of liberty in taking issue with his response to the question posed about wether or not the Trade was the most important event in modern hockey. Brunt rightly cites the “…formation of the WHA and the subsequent merger, and perhaps the arrival of the first European players” as the biggest rivals to the Gretzky trade in importance to the shaping of the NHL as we know it today. I would have to add Bobby Hull’s signing with the upstart Winnipeg Jets in 1972, an event that put those other seminal events into motion. The WHA would never have survived without Hull, would never have been first to bring highly skilled Europeans (Anders Hedburg and Ulf Nilsson), and never would have begun the maverick practice of signing teenagers before they were NHL eligible, which of course denied them to the establishment. One could say that, without Bobby Hull, 17-year-old Wayne Gretzky would not have gone to the WHA (to the forgotten Indianapolis Racers) which led directly to his career in Edmonton. Bobby Hull is the direct link to these events, events that shaped the landscape of professional hockey for the next 40 years.

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