Renowned sportswriter Stephen Brunt reveals how “the Great One,” who was bought and sold more than once, decided that the comfortable Canadian city where hockey ruled couldn’t compete with the slushy ice of a California franchise.
Bobby Orr’s career ended prematurely, with tears. Wayne Gretzky’s tears, unlike Orr’s, announced not an ending but another beginning. Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers had four Stanley Cup victories, but Gretzky may then have had other goals in mind.
Beginning with his dad, Walter, and continuing with Nelson Skalbania, Peter Pocklington, Bruce McNall, Jerry Buss — and with the CBC’s Peter Gzowski as chronicler for the eager masses — the enormity of Gretzky’s talent attracted all sorts of people who were after a variety of vicarious thrills.
About the author
Stephen Brunt is one of Canada’s premier sportswriters and commentators. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario, and in Winterhouse Brook, Newfoundland.
Excerpt: Gretzky's Tears: Hockey, Canada, and the Day Everything Changed (by (author) Stephen Brunt)
The Next One
It is the same story. It is a different story.
Small town, working folks, genius sprung straight from the land, honed on frozen slough or backyard rink. Twenty years on, the shinny creation myth hadn't really changed so much, even if so much else had. A new setting now, and Brantford wasn't Parry Sound. Not the near north, the cottager's idea of wilderness, not a prairie crossroads, a backwoods outpost, but the kind of place where most Canadians really lived. It was a city of modest proportions, industrial and gritty, the town that Massey Ferguson built, the country's capital of combine harvesters. The Grand River split it in two, but on Varadi Avenue most of the skating was done on dad-made ice. Walter Gretzky was a driven man, a hard man, who never made more than twenty-five grand working for the Bell (Alexander Graham had lived in Brantford too). He grew up on a farm, never drove a new car, and counted every nickel. He was a tough little guy who once cracked his skull in an accident on the job, was in a coma for awhile, was off work for eighteen months while the family struggled to live on disability payments. When he recovered, he was left deaf in one ear and his head hurt all the time. There was nothing golden or glamorous about Wally. He didn't like the night life or want to charm the ladies or walk with the ex-athlete's swagger, though he certainly didn't mind a bit of attention. He had a big schnozz, a face right from the old country, and his kids would never have to wonder where he was.
His boy, or at least the one born with the gift, didn't play with a lurking anger; his competitive instincts were cloaked in softer fabric. He would almost never fight. He was handsome in a different way—not along the square, straight, crew-cut lines of the 1950s, but skinny, feminine in a way. And bright enough, though school was beside the point. Everybody who saw him at the rink, nearly from the earliest days, understood where his destiny lay, that he would be the next one. Even before his voice had changed, the press flocked to Brantford to see the wonder child, to ask him how it felt to be so special. There would be no more eureka moments, no more accidental discoveries of unknown hockey genius, stumbled upon in a chilly old barn of an arena. Wayne Gretzky we knew before we knew what he really was or what he really meant. (By the time the next one came along, in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, the path was so familiar, the tale had been so processed, that it would seem stage-managed, contrived, reduced almost to cliché.)
The story of the nurturing, demanding dad, the ridiculous scoring feats in minor hockey, the parents end-running the system, the short career in junior, the jump to a rebel professional league—it was all played out under the lights. As before, our hero would change the game, would reimagine it with his genius, would set the National Hockey League on an entirely new course, would be its face shining among the heathens, its image and salvation. For the country, he would come to represent something else—not just the embodiment of national identity wrapped up in a game, but what it felt like to have that bought and sold.
The same story, and different.
A chapter closes.
It was the wrong place, the wrong uniform, but the trappings, the setting, were beside the point. It didn't really matter now whether he was a Bruin or a Blackhawk. The end had come, as he had long known it would, prematurely, painfully, bitterly. In 1978, Bobby Orr was thirty years old, and he wouldn't be playing hockey anymore.
He had stumbled through six games at the beginning of that final season with Chicago before finally surrendering to the knifing pain in his left knee, wrecked and repaired, wrecked and repaired again. All that remained was to make official what was obvious, to share the bad tidings with the world.
Orr had never been comfortable with public intimacy, even the feigned, phony kind that was fast becoming the currency of celebrity. He was imbued with the stoicism of his forebears, their natural reserve, a shyness bordering on the antisocial that had fully kicked in when he left Oshawa for Boston as a teen. The walls he had erected only grew thicker as they wanted more of him. The modern world was redefining sports stardom, with everything, every personal detail, fair game, and he hated that. But now here he was at a press conference, laid bare under the bright lights, with shutters clicking, cameras whirring, and Bobby Orr began to cry. "I'm very, very happy that I attempted to play again," he said, reading carefully, deliberately from his script. "I now know for sure that my leg—" He paused, trying to hold back the emotion. "—cannot handle playing."
He continued, haltingly.
"I am disappointed but I am relieved. I would not want to go through the rest of my life thinking, well, maybe there was that chance. I now know I am no longer able to play."
The saviour of the Boston franchise, the sport's first breakout superstar, the face of the great expansion, the liberated athlete-as-entrepreneur, for awhile the greatest earner in all of professional sports, departed the scene in a very different world than the one he had entered as an eighteen-year-old in 1966. Players were chattel then. Owners were conservative and omnipotent. Hockey was a funny little regional six-team operation, cobwebbed, musty, unchanged for decades.
Nearly all of the players had agents now, and they had a union, and they might wind up showcasing their skills in a whole host of exotic locales, since the NHL had continued adding teams in fits and starts after doubling the original half-dozen, driven by the lure of quick money and a phantom American television audience. The established league couldn't move fast enough to satisfy the imagined demand, so another loop was cobbled together by hockey hustlers, though on the shakiest of foundations. Veteran players, Orr's contemporaries, cashed in enthusiastically, bolting the NHL monopoly for the chance to earn big money playing in strange uniforms for slapdash teams with silly names, that might fold in the face of a strong breeze. The World Hockey Association and Boston's penurious owners had more to do with breaking up the Bruins' dynasty than had any rising foe. Even Bobby Orr had briefly flirted with becoming a Minnesota Fighting Saint, following the path of Gerry Cheevers and Derek Sanderson and the rest of those who had fled Boston Garden, before he finally signed the fateful deal with Chicago.
He and Alan Eagleson had helped build this new world, exploiting the leverage created as the greatest player the game had ever seen, the greatest product it had ever produced, to break the shackles. Now he, though not Alan Eagleson, was about to exit, stage left. For an unhappy retirement. For a cloistered personal life. For near financial ruin. For a period in which he would be so estranged from the game that had defined him, and that he had so helped define, that his two sons would never feel the urge, or the encouragement, to even lace up a pair of skates.
A chapter opens.
It is the age of the hero capitalists, of new-money sex appeal, of the art of the deal celebrated as though it were honest-to-God art. Real estate flippers as movie stars, Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky and Donald Trump, blue-suited pin-up boys. Still to come, the crashes and burns and bankruptcies—and in some cases the jail sentences—but for a brief shining moment they are right there at the heart of the zeitgeist, even in the backwaters.
Six days before Bobby Orr announced his retirement in Chicago, two of those high fliers got together in the most northerly metropolis in North America to play what was, next to high-stakes backgammon, their favourite game. Nelson Skalbania and Peter Pocklington shared a simple set of business principles: buy low, sell high; calculate risk and reward; use other people's money as often as possible; run circles around the stodgy old guard, with their inherited wealth, their safety-first instincts; take chances they never would; search out the cutting edge and ride it, even as you started to bleed a little. Both of them, business-wise, were on the make, always looking for one-night stands and not a partner for life.
There were also differences, though those matching thick, full, dark beards could make them appear, on the surface, almost to be the brothers on the cough drop package. (Skalbania felt compelled to point out that when it came to facial hair, and by implication to other things, he was the sui generis and Pocklington the knock-off.) Skalbania hailed from Vancouver, earned a structural engineering degree from prestigious Cal Tech, then ditched his profession to make his first fortune in real estate, where he loved the adrenaline rush of the big score. Pocklington came from square southwestern Ontario, though he was more than happy to morph, as were so many others, into an oil-boom Alberta free-enterpriser. He quit school early and started out selling used cars—including the family's own, without his father's permission. In business he could play the bully, and he was a bit rough around the edges. Some of his schemes were over and done with in an instant, and some investments he hung on to until they had maxed out, until the moment the asset had begun to depreciate. Remember that phrase.
Among the things they had in common were that neither knew a damn thing about hockey and neither let the fact that they didn't know a damn thing about hockey prevent them from sinking money into the business of the game. Skalbania was the first to get into the World Hockey Association, and he fit right in with its wild and woolly cast of promoters and dreamers and pretenders. Like the rest, he bet that any sports franchise—anywhere—at the bargain-basement prices they were asking just had to be worth more. And then there was the larger play, the big game of chicken, which required surviving long enough that the NHL owners would have no real choice but to let the interlopers join their club. That strategy had worked—once, for the American Football League, to the massive enrichment of its owners when they forced their way into the National Football League. It would never really work again, though it would be attempted by every fly-by-night league that followed, no matter what the sport.
The Edmonton Oilers were originally run by hockey maverick Wild Bill Hunter and owned in large part by a wealthy local named Dr. Charles Allard, who bought the franchise for only $25,000 but still couldn't make it pay. Allard knew Skalbania from financing some of his real estate forays, and was delighted to sell him the hockey team, adding the sincere verbal assurance that it certainly wouldn't lose more than $300,000 a year. Skalbania lost $300,000 in his first month. With no quick turnaround in sight, he naturally sought an exit strategy. Enter Pocklington, his sort-of pal and sort-of rival, who very much liked the idea of upping his public profile, of becoming a bit of a star himself. Skalbania sold Pocklington half of the Oilers in a steakhouse, in public, with a bunch of sports reporters looking on (a classic grandstand play), taking a Rolls Royce, a selection of fine art, and a diamond ring plucked straight from the finger of Pocklington's loyal wife, Eva, as payment (in addition to which, Pocklington assumed half of the Oilers' notinsubstantial debt, and half of their liabilities, which was worth a whole lot more to Skalbania in the moment than any piece of jewellery). Pocklington got lost driving to the rink the first time he went to see his Oilers play.
Skalbania also owned a second-last-legs WHA franchise in Indianapolis, Indiana, a city whose fondness for ice hockey remained a closely guarded secret. If he hadn't bought the Racers they would have folded, and if they had folded the WHA would have been down to six shaky teams, which certainly would not bode well for the future. As late as the spring of 1978, Skalbania was still talking brave talk, fending off the doubters, even as the league seemed to be crumbling around him. He told an Indianapolis newspaperman, apparently with a straight face, "There's going to be a WHA next year come hell or high water. Nuts to everyone else. That's N-U-T-S." And he still had one wild, visionary, crazy-bold card to play.
The NHL had rules about who could play in their league and who couldn't, beginning with nineteen-year-olds selected in the annual amateur draft. Understandably, the now-desperate WHA owners weren't much interested in protocol, or worried about being accused of exploiting child labour. In Birmingham, Alabama—another dormant shinny hotbed—owner Johnny F. Bassett signed his underage "Baby Bulls" before they could be drafted, kids tired of playing for sixty bucks a week in the service of junior teams that turned a tidy profit. It was Bassett who encouraged Skalbania to give it a try. He said he couldn't afford to sign any more underage players himself, but if he could, if he did, there was a seventeen-year-old playing junior in the Soo who was really something special. He'd seen him for the first time way, way back, as a ten-year-old kid in Brantford. "I'm pretty much tapped out, Nelson," Bassett said, "so this one is all yours."
The existence of a teen messiah may have been news to Skalbania, but it wasn't to most any other hockey-loving Canadian. Wayne Gretzky's story, a familiar replay of the national shinny ur-myth, had already been well circulated. But even though Skalbania had never seen him play, he was more than happy to buy Gretzky, just like that. He flew him up to Vancouver with his mom and dad and his agent, Gus Badali, invited them all to his mansion, challenged Gretzky to a six-mile race (Skalbania was a fitness buff), lost handily and, based on that experience, decided that that the kid was the real deal. This was a year before the NHL would allow its worst team to have first crack at Gretzky through the draft, and thus a year before Gretzky could otherwise earn a hockey salary—and then, at nothing close to his true market value. Skalbania gave him a $50,000 signing bonus and promised him crazy money because it might save his team and his league. And the moment it became obvious that that wasn't going to happen, that Indianapolis remained immune to hockey and to Gretzky's charms, Skalbania moved to cash out. Just eight games into a season in which the Indianapolis Racers would be out of business after game twenty-five, Skalbania called Michael Gobuty, the co-owner of the Winnipeg Jets, with a sporting proposition. To make sure he had an option, a bit of leverage if required, he got in touch with fellow-traveller Peter Pocklington as well.
Time, memory and self-mythologizing render the picture a little fuzzy here. As Skalbania recalls it, he flew to Winnipeg, with Gobuty on board. John Ferguson, who ran the Jets, was waiting at the airport. "You're not going to pay that kind of money to a seventeen-year-old," Big John said, and who was Gobuty to argue? So that was that. Skalbania immediately called Pocklington and cut a deal. Others remember it differently, remember Fergie as being plenty enthusiastic, but cash was the issue—Skalbania needed as much as he could get, and Pocklington was willing to pay more, which sounds about right. Gretzky was told to board a private jet in Indianapolis, along with the other players who were thrown in—his future best man, Eddie Mio, and Peter Driscoll—not knowing exactly where the plane was headed. The pilot didn't know, either, and didn't know who was paying for the trip, but he took off on a northerly heading, on a wing and a prayer, and in possession of Mio's credit card. Somewhere up there, he was contacted by radio and instructed to hang a left and chart a course for Edmonton.
They called it a trade, but it wasn't a trade. More like a real estate transaction. There were other players involved, for the optics, but at base it was a straight cash-for-flesh exchange. The age of professional athletes as chattel might have already drawn to a close, but Wayne Gretzky was bought and sold like any commodity. In the papers, they said the price was $850,000. In private, Pocklington maintained it was $700,000—though, like a gambler who crows over every win and grows stone quiet over losses, he wanted very badly for everyone to believe that he was the smartest guy in the room. In private, Skalbania said he never got all of his cash in any case.
A decade later, Gretzky would be sold again, though again they tried to call it a trade. His price had gone way up. Pocklington would have a much harder time convincing the outside world that he'd got the better of the deal. And at that press conference, there would also be crying.
But Gretzky's tears were different.
"Brunt captures the feelings of shock and betrayal set off by The Trade better than anything I've ever read. Long the consensus pick as Canada's best sportswriter, Brunt has probably earned the right to be called one of our best writers, period." The Gazette
"Gretzky's Tears is as penetrating a book, and as sure in its navigation of hockey's cultural currents, [as Searching for Bobby Orr]." The Globe and Mail
"If there's a more interesting and committed sports writer in Canada than Stephen Brunt, I don't know them." Dave Bidini, National Post
Other titles by Stephen Brunt
All Roads Home
A Life On and Off the Ice
Mind Over Matter
Hard-Won Battles on the Road to Hope
A Life in Hockey
Now I'm Catching On
My Life On and Off the Air
The Best of Stephen Brunt
A collection from Sportsnet magazine’s award-winning back-page columnist
Searching for Bobby Orr
The Way It Looks from Here
Contemporary Canadian Writing on Sports
15 Fighters, 15 Stories