There's no crying in baseball, as we know. But hockey? Hockey rests, apparently, on a whole great sloshing aquifer of tears. In Montreal in the late 1940s, they used to boo Bill Durnan, their own goalie; game after game, they'd boo, and he'd sit there in the dressing room, afterward, inconsolable.
Or how about - these tears hurt, somehow, even more - Edmonton defenceman Steve Smith, in the 1986 Stanley Cup playoffs, plonking the puck off his own goalie to kill the Oilers dead. What could he do but sob? And, of course, Bobby Orr, at the age of 28: He cried when he announced in 1978 that his poor old knees had finished him as a hockey player.
If that last one seems a familiar scene, it's because it comes from the end of Globe and Mail columnist Stephen Brunt's previous book, Searching for Bobby Orr (2006), and also because it opens his provocative, painful new one, Gretzky's Tears, with such a, well, sniffling whimper.
I'm not sure why we would have any illusions left regarding NHL hockey - if I may speak for the group. When it comes to the National Hockey League, the game is so smutched and stained that it's hard to watch any more. Our game, we like to say, although there's another version of this, as markered on a sign held up by an American fan during the 1996 World Cup of Hockey:
You breed 'em We buy 'em.
That's only some of Brunt's story, but not to worry: As there was in the excellent Searching for Bobby Orr, there's plenty more here to dispirit even the most heavily Cooperall'd true north patriot love of the game. Gretzky's Tears is as penetrating a book, and as sure in its navigation of hockey's cultural currents, even if it isn't so much a biography as an annotated receipt of sale. It's a book about assets and bottom lines, market forces and bank frauds, wheelers and dealers, a story played out in Ford dealerships and the offices of public relations executives rather than Gretzky's familiar on-ice suite, behind the net, waiting for Jari Kurri to swoop into the slot.
Going in, I thought it was going to make me mad. I thought it was going to be Russ Conway's Game Misconduct all over again, or maybe Net Worth redux, by Alison Griffiths and David Cruise, another exposé of hockey's crassness and venality, stirring up my reserves of righteous Canadian, how dare these people toy with the game, who are they to treat it with anything other than complete respect and honest stewardship. But no. Gretzky's Tears didn't make me mad. It just increased my dismay. It's a different dismay than I knew in 1988. I think that must be because, as Brunt makes so clear, it was all so sadly inevitable.
We thought we knew the story. With Brunt's account, we know that we only had the ugly half of it. His is the most detailed account yet, and it makes for an unforgettable set-piece that is at the centre of book. We hear from Glen Sather and - a great get - from Jeffrey Goodman, the Toronto PR man Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington hired to spin the deal that must have seemed as unspinnable as it turned out to be. He talks to Edmonton Oilers of the day, Craig Simpson and Kevin Lowe. From Los Angeles, there's L.A. Kings president Roy Mlakar and - maybe most interesting of all - that most affable of fraudsters, the man who bought Gretzky, former L.A. owner Bruce McNall.
Gretzky didn't want to talk: What else could he say? Pocklington excused himself, too, because, well, why would he sell someone else's book when he was working on one of his own?
In Brunt's telling, what it all boils down to is a bitter reduction indeed: Gretzky was a 26-year-old asset, powerful, yes, the best there ever was, but with every shift he took, with each astounding assist, he was depreciating in value. So, in 1988, even as Gretzky was leading the Oilers to a Stanley Cup - not to mention looking forward to his upcoming wedding - Pocklington was shopping him around. Gretzky's agent got wind of this but he and Walter Gretzky thought it best to wait to tell Wayne. When he heard, he didn't believe it.
But then he did.
Emotions rose, fell.
Money began to move.
And it was done. After that, it was all over but the crying. Oh, and the lying. Because Gretzky, having apparently refused (according to Goodman) to read from Pocklington's script, ended up delivering his lines all the same. Let's see: Pocklington's Pedalling gave way to Gretzky's Fiction + his Tears, followed by Sather's Ire, ending up with the Media's Easily Parried Questions. God's Nice Touch: Storm clouds came through as the press conference got under way before clearing the skies again.