Documenting The Great One

 

No. 99 is about to become one of the stars of 30 for 30. ESPN’s ambitious, audacious series of documentary films — 30 short films by 30 different filmmakers about 30 famous athletes, sports events and athletic controversies — will feature a profile of Wayne Gretzky.

 
 
 
 
 

PASADENA, Calif. — No. 99 is about to become one of the stars of 30 for 30.

ESPN’s ambitious, audacious series of documentary films — 30 short films by 30 different filmmakers about 30 famous athletes, sports events and athletic controversies — will feature a profile of Wayne Gretzky.

And not just any profile but a stylish, hard-hitting film by the creator, executive producer and director of the Peabody Award-winning TV drama Friday Night Lights, Peter Berg. He decided to focus his film on Gretzky’s trade in 1988 from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings, and the effect the trade had on both those cities.

Gretzky’s impact on the Kings was immediate, Berg recalled.

"The Kings were horrible, and the market was just non-existent. Pre-Gretzky, we used to buy five-dollar student seats in the nosebleeds and move down and sit on the glass, because there were so few fans there. It went from that to sellouts many nights. The Kings averaged 15,000 in Gretzky’s first season, and the arena held 16,000. We were in hockey heaven."

Other films in the series include a documentary about Marathon of Hope runner Terry Fox by two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash, as well as films by John Singleton, Hoop Dreams director Steve James, Spike Jonze, Morgan Freeman, Ice Cube and Ron Shelton about subjects ranging from controversial track runner Marion Jones (Singleton) to Michael Jordan’s brief fling playing pro baseball (Shelton).

Berg’s film career as a director includes the off-the-rails black comedy Very Bad Things, starring Cameron Diaz, and the filmed-in-Abu-Dhabi anti-terrorism drama The Kingdom, with Jamie Foxx, as well as the 2004 original feature film version of Friday Night Lights based on the book by H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger.

Hockey may seem an unlikely subject for a Chicago-raised actor/filmmaker who has made the seminal drama series of its time about high-school football. But as Berg told Canwest News Service, hockey is an uptempo, visually exciting game and Gretzky was, well, a natural.

"I played hockey as a kid," Berg explained. "I was a better hockey player than I was a football player, and I enjoyed the sport more, so I’ve always had a personal interest and been a big fan of the sport."

Gretzky was reluctant the make the documentary at first, Berg recalled.

"Wayne is a very humble and, in many ways, very shy person. He was interested, but certainly not chomping at the bit. There’s a little coaxing, a little talking you have to do in these situations. As he started reliving that experience, dusting off the memories and the emotions, he realized it was such a pivotal moment in his life, and formative, he became more interested. Now, he’s been calling and checking up and wanting to know what’s going on and if there’s anything else we need. It’s been interesting to see him get more enthusiastic as he got closer to it."

A frequent attendee at Los Angeles Kings games early in his TV and movie career, Berg was making a film in France in 1988 when a friend called him with word that Gretzky had just been traded — months after Gretzky won his fourth Stanley Cup with the Edmonton Oilers.

"Wayne f***ing Gretzky was leaving Canada and coming to our city. It felt like more than a sports trade. It felt radical and wild and unsettling — like a country’s nationalism was on the line and something was about to happen. As a fan, it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced."

Berg understood that, as exciting as it was for Los Angeles, it was a tough bodycheck for Edmonton to take.

"This community’s identity was in many ways tied up not just in hockey but specifically this one individual. To have that individual ripped from the community, at the height of his game, made me aware of the larger issues in play. It felt like a national issue, not just for Edmonton but for Canada. That was one of the aspects that me want to do a documentary about it."

Berg first met Gretzky at a charity softball tournament in Brantford, Ont. Gretzky wanted some actors to fill out his team, and Berg was best known at the time as one of the stars of Chicago Hope.

"I thought it would be a small game," Berg recalled, "but there were about 20,000 people there."

On the opening play of the game, he fielded a grounder at short and threw out the runner at first base, "and the crowd started booing me."

It turned out he had thrown out Gordie Howe.

"I was humiliated," Berg recalled. "And that began my personal relationship with Wayne."

Over the years, the two developed a close bond. "I was fortunate enough to be able to get to know someone who existed at that level as an athlete, that rare level of athlete who is just so incredibly talented. It was inspiring to me, and I wanted to pay my respects to Wayne in his greatness."

The first films in the 30 for 30 series will premiere on ESPN in October, with the series to continue through December, 2010. A Canadian broadcast date has yet to be announced.

For more coverage of the television critics’ summer press tour, go to www.canada.com/tvguy

 
 
 
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