Gretzky trade was 'no fun,' Pocklington recalls
Ex-Oilers owner's hands were tied by small market, soaring player salaries
The man who shipped Wayne Gretzky out of Canada wonders if several American markets would be calling the NHL home today if not for his "tough" decision on Aug. 9, 1988.
Trading the Great One, along with Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski, from Edmonton to the Kings for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, $15 million US and first-round draft picks in 1989, 1991 and 1993, revived hockey in Los Angeles.
Some would say Gretzky's arrival eventually paved the way for expansion franchises in Sun Belt markets like San Jose in 1991 and Anaheim in '93 as well as those in Tampa Bay (in '92) and Sunrise, Fla. (in '93).
"I think it brought [expansion] on very quickly," former Oilers owner Peter Pocklington told Hockey Night in Canada Radio host Jeff Marek in a wide-ranging interview on Wednesday. "I'm not so sure it would have ever happened the way it's gone when you look at some of the teams that came in like Nashville [in 1998].
"Miami [Florida], I'm not sure they ever would have come into the league without the notoriety that Wayne had.
"If you look at the league today," continued Pocklington, "there is really no one of that excitement. There's lots of great players in the league, but I don't believe there has been anyone as exciting as Wayne Gretzky."
'I had no choice'
Pocklington said he never wanted to make the trade but felt he had no choice with Gretzky's contract set to expire at the end of the 1989 season and the Great One expected to command a salary of $4 million to $5 million per season. At the time, the team payroll for the small-market Oilers was only $7.5 million.
"When I recall the commotion that [the trade] raised, I don't think anybody understood, at least understood that I had no choice," said Pocklington, who bought the Oilers in 1976. "The Edmonton Oilers would have been without a great array of players that we picked up in the trade, plus the $18.5 million Canadian that small markets definitely need.
"I wasn't looking forward to breaking up the greatest team, probably, that ever was in the hockey business. But that's the reality of economics."
Vilified in the media over the years, Pocklington has co-authored a new biography titled I'd Trade Him Again — on Gretzky, Politics and the Pursuit of the Perfect Deal. It's his way of setting the record straight.
By the end of the 1987-88 season, the Oilers were no longer profitable as Pocklington began funding the team from a line of credit he carried with the Alberta Treasury Branches. Player salaries were also on the rise.
Pocklington told HNIC Radio he approached Gretzky and his agent, Michael Barnett, several times during the 1987-88 season about renegotiating the player's contract, but talks never reached a serious level.
'How high are they going to hang me?'
At the time, Pocklington remembered thinking it would be tough justifying to the Oilers faithful and millions of other Canadians that trading one of the greatest players to ever play the game was the right move.
"What is the public going to say? How high are they going to hang me?" Pocklington told HNIC Radio. "It was no fun."
In fact, Pocklington said minutes before he announced the trade at the Molson House in Edmonton, he gave Gretzky one last chance to nix the deal, but "he pretty much had made up his mind that the move to Los Angeles was probably good for his family."
In 1997, Pocklington was in financial trouble and forced to sell the Oilers to a consortium of local buyers. He moved back to the United States and is currently facing trial in California on charges of bankruptcy fraud.
Memories of the Gretzky trade, though, came flooding back two weeks ago at the airing of Peter Berg's Kings Ransom, a one-hour documentary examining the trade that is scheduled to air in Canada in November.
"We were glad to see each other," said Pocklington of Gretzky, who wrote the foreword for I'd Trade Him Again.
The 1987-88 Stanley Cup champion Oilers, led by Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson and Grant Fuhr, are considered by many to be the greatest hockey team ever assembled.
Pocklington, who rarely watches the NHL until playoff time these days, agreed.
"I believed we had [five 35-plus goal scorers] on the one team," he said. "That's pretty sensational. Nowadays, I don't think any team could afford it. They'd all be $6-7 million [US] players."