There are a lot of things Peter Pocklington could have been known for during the 27 years he lived in Edmonton.
There was, for instance, the million dollars he donated to the Jamie Platz YMCA; a similarly generous sum he gave to help establish the Glen Sather Sports Medicine Clinic; his fundraisers for Junior Achievement that brought a host of world leaders to town; and the Luciano Pavarotti concert. Then there were the Can-Am car races, the Drillers, the Trappers and, of course, the Oilers — and the nine championships his teams won.
His greatest achievement? It might well have been securing the services of Wayne Gretzky — the greatest hockey hero ever — for the Oilers. That alone would be singularly noteworthy. But it’s not why Peter Pocklington, the man who almost single-handedly brought the NHL to Edmonton, is remembered. Instead, it’s for trading Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings. It was a transaction so huge that, even now, 25 years later, people are still talking about it.
Not surprisingly, one of those people talking about that trade — at least this week — is Peter Pocklington. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” says the man known as Peter Puck, who now lives in Palm Desert, Calif.
Glen Sather, who at the time was the Oilers’ wily president and general manager, privately warned Pocklington not to do the deal. If you trade the best player in the league, Sather told his best friend, “you go from being a hero in Canada to a schmuck” — overnight. The words proved prophetic.
There were death threats against Pocklington, and public demonstrations. Effigies were hung and torched. An NDP MP, Nelson Riis, called on the government of the day to block the trade. “Wayne Gretzky is a national symbol,” argued Riis, “like the beaver.”
Yet throughout all that turmoil, and to this day, Pocklington stands by his conviction that trading Wayne Gretzky was the right thing for the Oilers to do. “I really feel I didn’t have a helluva lot of choice,” he declares. It was a question of trading Gretzky when his value was at its peak, or risk losing him to free agency in another year and getting nothing in return.
Pocklington may be a hockey fan, but as a businessman he also tended to look at his players for what they represented on the balance sheet: assets that depreciate over time. That can be a cold calculation, and there are owners who don’t look at it that way, but Pocklington is unapologetic. “The business of sport, as people have seen over the past 25 years, is a touchy-feely situation for the fans,” he admits. “Unfortunately, the business has to take precedence over what the fans feel.”
In 1988, Gretzky was making $850,000 in his final year with the Oilers. Pocklington wanted to sign him to a three-year extension, but the Great One has said he was eager to test his value on the open market. Gretzky wasn’t thinking about a move, but he had resolved not to sign any contract extension. He felt he owed it to his NHL brothers to raise the bar on salaries.
“With Wayne’s contract looming in another year, Edmonton could not compete, I could not compete with a five-or seven-million-dollar a year offer,” says Pocklington. “That was more than our total payroll.”
So he decided to move “the asset” while he could get something in return. That something turned into two players, Jimmy Carson and Martin Gelinas, three draft choices, and $15 million US. The cash was passed along to the bank to pay down the Oilers’ line of credit. Carson was traded a year later for Joe Murphy, Adam Graves and Petr Klima. Every one of them, and Gelinas, too, played critically important roles in helping the Oilers win the Stanley Cup in 1990.
“Glen did a heckuva job putting together another Stanley Cup winner,” says Pocklington.
While that may be true, Pocklington is the first to concede there was also a heaping helping of good fortune involved in the Oilers’ championship successes. “I got lucky,” he says in retrospect. “A lot of luck went into it. But there was a lot of hard work, too. We believed always, from the moment we got out of bed, that we’d win another Stanley Cup. That’s what we lived for.
“Our design, from the moment that we all got into the office, was how we were going to create the best hockey team ever. Find the best management, the best scouts, the best organization. We were looking night and day for the best. That’s all it ever was, it was all we ever thought about.”
The result, says Pocklington, speaks for itself.
“That team was the best team that ever had been or ever will be in the game of hockey.”
Terry McConnell is an author and journalist. Along with J’lyn Nye, he authored a biography of Peter Pocklington that was published in 2009. Print-to-order copies of the book continue to be available at Amazon.com. An ebook edition, as well as an abbreviated version that concerns itself solely with the relationship between Pocklington and Gretzky, is available at Smashwords.com.
Peter Pocklington autographs an Oilers’ jersey for a Fort McMurray fan who was collecting the signatures of everyone involved in the team’s Stanley Cup victories.
— Terry McConnell photo