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From Saturday's Books section

Hockey: the real crying game Add to ...





The events of August, 1988 unleashed forces into hockey's market from which there would be no turning back




Why did Gretzky decide to bolster Pocklington's lie and make it his own? Because Pocklington asked him to? Just being polite? Sorry, but Gretzky isn't saying, because even though (as it turns out) he has quite a lot to say about his former boss, and is saying it in Pocklington's new book, which just happens to be out this month, too - well, that's not one of the things he's saying.

He does say, for the record, that of the feelings he has, none of them are hard. Also that Pocklington is "not a jerk."

On Pocklington's side, everything you need to know about his book is on the cover. The title is I'd Trade Him Again: On Gretzky, Politics, and the Pursuit of the Perfect Deal (by Terry McConnell & J'Lyn Nye with Peter Pocklington, Fenn). In the presale photo below the title, Pocklington and Gretzky hug at centre ice - although the owner does look as if he's grabbing on tighter than Wayne.

About the sale, Pocklington reports that he had a big line of credit funding the team and the good people over at Alberta Treasury Branches wanted it paid down and so, ka-ching! "God," he chuckles, "I should really blame it on the ATB."

So Gretzky is at peace and Pocklington - well, he's mired in some legal troubles right now, but once they're squared away, the world will once again be his oyster.

Gretzky's Tears can't summon up quite so sunny a mood. The man himself takes on the taint of an inglorious post-retirement career that no Olympic gold can brighten. (He's at his best here where else but on the ice, in two artful interludes that Brunt offers up to help us remember him on skates.) Gretzky's hometown, Brantford, Ont., may as well have burned the boy in effigy for all the glory it gets here, accused more or less of running him out of town because he was so much better than all the other kids.

Walter? Our most beloved former Bell Canada lineman? Prince of all hockey dads, marquis of the backyard rink? Even he acquires a shadow, at the darker edges of which he takes the shape of a meddler and a taskmaster. And don't think you're not to blame either, pal - you and me, actually, because aren't we all complicit in creating Gretzky, depriving him of a childhood, us with our needy, star-struck mythmaking?

Mostly, though, Brunt is guiding us in and around the weepery. Afterward, Gretzky was a star in L.A., and with his help, the game flourished, because, well, just ask Gary Bettman about hockey's no cold-weather game: Everybody loves it! Bruce McNall had a plan to spread hockey, and as chairman of the league's board he spearheaded the effort. Right: Nashville? Sunrise, Florida? Sorry, Winnipeg. See you later, maybe, or never. Hey, Phoenix!

And then it all started to fall apart for hockey. Gretzky retired. McNall went to jail. Quebec City lost its team; so did Winnipeg. The league began to falter. There was a lockout in 1995. U.S. TV deals dried up and blew away. Brunt sketches out the game's "phony economy," which only kept on getting phonier, right up until the big ugly labour war of 2004.

Now? The game may be stronger than ever here in the north but down below the border, it has just gone south.

This can't all be hung on Gretzky's hook. His tears didn't start the flood. And yet they did moisten an undeniable watershed. Just as Bobby Orr before him led his generation out of serfdom and into the 1970s, Gretzky was the vanguard for a new breed of athlete/entrepreneurs. He was a product of his times - and as Brunt points out, they just happened to be greedy times.

What he's arguing is that the events of August, 1988 unleashed forces into hockey's market from which there would be no turning back. Though here the book does seem to be in a bit of a quibble with its own subtitle. Because isn't The Day Everything Changed in fact the one in 1978 when the Gretzkys decided to snub the NHL and hitched Wayne's skates to the World Hockey Association? Isn't that when Gretzky and the game he so ennobled with his gifts both set out for the parched suburbs of Arizona, on their way to the rendezvous they would eventually make there, all these years later, so far from home?

Stephen Smith is a writer in Toronto. His book about the culture of hockey (and vice versa) will be published next year.

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