Businessman Peter Pocklington on the politics of envy, legal battles, and why trading Gretzky was the right thing to do

A conversation with Jonathon Gatehouse

Businessman Peter Pocklington on the politics of envy, legal battles, and why trading Gretzky was the right thing to doPeter Pocklington has had enough ups and downs for several lives. The former Edmonton Oilers owner was once among the country’s most successful businessmen, and ran against Brian Mulroney for the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives. But to most Canadians he’ll always be the guy who dealt away Wayne Gretzky. A new book, I’d Trade Him Again: On Gretzky, Politics, and the Pursuit of the Perfect Deal (H.B. Fenn), offers Pocklington’s take on his controversial career. Today, the 67-year-old awaits trial in California on charges of concealing assets in his US$19.6-million 2008 bankruptcy—sparked by a series of lawsuits over failed health-product and golf ventures.

Q: This book’s stated purpose is to show the other side of Peter Pocklington. Do you think you’ve been unfairly portrayed over the years?

A: [Laughs.] Well, I guess if I had read the press that most had written about me, I would have hated me too.

Q: What do you think is behind that?

A: I have no idea, nor do I care. I suppose most of it is associated with the politics of envy in North America.

Q: In the book, you identify that as one of Canada’s problems. What do you mean?

A: It’s not just Canada, I’m afraid it’s probably the whole civilized world. The press loves to build people up, and then spend the next few years tearing them down.

Q: But you also acknowledge that you have always had a healthy ego.

A: No question.

Q: So you must have enjoyed the buildup.

A: I suppose so. I was young then. I didn’t realize, or know any better.

Q: If you had known that the other side of the equation was the tearing down, would you have behaved differently?

A: I’ve told all of my youngsters to keep a low profile. Aggrandizing one’s ego obviously doesn’t work.

Q: You also say that you believe that the culture of envy even extends to government.

A: Oh, without question.

Q: And that the Alberta Treasury Branches [a provincially owned financial institution] forced you into bankruptcy back in 1998 as an act of revenge?

A: Well, look at it realistically. I was the only one that they took on. They took me on for a number of reasons. Number one, I was vulnerable. Anybody that trades Wayne Gretzky, in the eyes of the populace, they’re really not going to care what the government does to me.

Q: But what was it in particular that you think made the government angry enough to go after you?

A: I think it was the whole result of the Gainer’s situation. [In 1986, the province stepped in to broker a settlement to a bitter strike at the Pocklington-owned meat-packing company, offering a $67-million aid package. Three years later, it assumed control of the debt-ridden business, eventually selling it at a massive loss.] I took them on publicly on the hog marketing board. It was totally against free enterprise—pure socialism. They destroyed nine packers in Alberta. I bought some TV time . . . they were very upset.

Q: Did anyone say they’d get you for that?

A: No. But I watch behaviour rather than listen to what people say.

Q: You’ve mentioned the Gainer’s dispute and the 1988 Gretzky trade to the L.A. Kings. Both certainly gave the public reason to be bitter about you. Do you regret those events?

A: No I don’t. Trading Wayne was the right thing to do. There’s a new ESPN documentary where Wayne says, “I understand why the trade was made. My contract was coming due in a year and a half and the Oilers would have gotten nothing, unless they matched the bid.” The Oilers weren’t in a position, as a small-market team, to do that—pay six or seven million dollars for one player, when the whole payroll was about seven million.

Q: In the book, you say that the trade was good for everybody . . .

A: It was good for everybody.

Q: . . . but the $18.5 million you got went to pay your debt to the ATB . . .

A: Is this an adversarial interview?

Q: I don’t think so. Do you?

A: I’m just curious. The money went into the current account of the Oilers, and we paid down the loan.

Q: The money went to pay down the loan. People boycotted your dairy, they egged your house, you received hundreds of death threats. How was it good for you?

A: I didn’t say that. I said it was good for the Oilers. The Oilers would have lost Wayne and got nothing for it. This way we got draft picks, and players, $18.5 million Canadian, and won another Stanley Cup [in 1990].

Q: But was the trade good for you?

A: It had nothing to do with me. My business was the Oilers, and I had a fiduciary responsibility to run it properly, and the public would have been outraged if Wayne had gone and we’d gotten nothing for him.

Q: In the book, Wayne says he came close to backing out of the deal at the last minute. Did you know that at the time?

A: I offered him that two or three minutes before we went public with it. I said, “Wayne, I’ll call it off, if that’s what you want.”

Q: What did he say?

A: He said no.

Q: Did you sense that he was wavering, or has he changed his story?

A: I don’t believe that he was wavering at all.

Q: At the time, you put some of the blame on his wife, Janet.

A: No, that wasn’t me that put it on [her], it was the press.

Q: Well, you did say she didn’t want to spend another winter in Edmonton. Right?

A: I believe that was correct. I’m not sure that people from the south want to spend a lot of time where it’s 30-below. She was an actress, and obviously L.A. would have been a far better spot than Edmonton.

Q: Do you think he would have stayed if he hadn’t been married, or married to her?

A: Of course he would have stayed. If we could have extended the contract, he probably would have played out his career there. But unfortunately, with rising salaries that wasn’t possible for a small-market team.

Q: In the end that’s free enterprise, isn’t it?

A: I suppose it is. But look at the NFL. Those teams get about $85 million each in TV revenue. So you can afford to pay your players if you’re Green Bay. Unfortunately, in the NHL you had New York, Toronto—big markets—the little markets couldn’t compete.

Q: Two years after the trade, the Oilers won their fifth—and at present, last—Stanley Cup. Did you feel vindicated?

A: I never felt either way. It was just exciting to win another Cup.

Q: On the 20th anniversary of the trade last year, an Edmonton Journal poll found one third of respondents were still bitter. Do you think Edmontonians will ever forgive you?

A: I really don’t know. And quite frankly, I don’t care. It was the right thing to do. I really had no choice.

Q: You don’t think Wayne would have given you a “hometown” discount?

A: Not with a salary going from $850,000 plus bonuses to four or five million dollars, which would have been market by then. That would have been 80 per cent of Edmonton’s payroll. And you have to look at the thing in total. If Wayne got three million or four million dollars, we also had Mark Messier and Jari Kurri. We had more stars than any other team. The escalation would have destroyed us in one season.

Q: There’s a story in the book about a $50-million deal with Harold Ballard in 1980, that would have seen you take the Leafs, and him the Oilers, and entirely switch the rosters. Why didn’t that end up happening?

A: He got the $50 million he needed from Molson’s.

Q: Do you think the NHL would have approved a deal like that?

A: It had nothing to do with the NHL. It was a question of market. If he wanted to buy mine, and I wanted to buy his, we were both NHL governors already. They couldn’t have said much.

Q: Do you ever wish it had happened?

A: No question. I would have loved Toronto. I was born in the East.

Q: By the ’92-’93 season you were openly considering moving the team. You went as far as checking out the arena in Minneapolis, meeting with Minnesota’s governor, and consulting with the owner of the NFL Colts about the logistics of moving a team. But you say that you were never really prepared to do it. Why?

A: A lot of it was a way to put pressure on the group that controlled the Northlands Coliseum. We had to find a way to get a proper rent deal, get some money spent on the building and create new income. We needed fresh income from concessions and luxury boxes.

Q: Was there an emotional element? That at some level you weren’t prepared to move that franchise out of Edmonton?

A: I didn’t want to see the Edmonton fans lose the team. They are great people.

Q: You say that when you were forced to sell the team in 1998, it “tore a hole” in your heart. How long did it take you to recover?

A: I have no idea. I don’t live in the past.

Q: You did look at getting back into hockey when the Nashville Predators were up for sale in 2007. But you believed the natural place for that team was Las Vegas. Why?

A: It’s an inward-looking city, and cities that are inward-looking do extremely well in hockey. L.A. is an outward-looking city—the ocean, the mountains, lots of things to do. Chicago, Toronto, Edmonton—all inward-looking. Las Vegas also has 100,000 people a day coming through. And a lot are fans from other areas. The casinos would also purchase thousands of tickets for their high rollers.

Q: If you were still an owner and sitting around the table with the other governors, would you be advocating retrenchment?

A: I would certainly advocate moving some franchises that are having tough times. Vegas would be a good location. Hamilton would be outstanding. And I’d also consider some heavy promotion in the U.S. Look at the other pro sports: they have a star on every team.

Q: Do you still keep in touch with Wayne?

A: Yes.

Q: Were you able to offer him any advice about the situation in Phoenix?

A: I don’t want to say.

Q: Can you give me a sense of what your relationship with him is like these days?

A: Very friendly and fond both ways.

Q: Do you still watch hockey?

A: Occasionally. I wait until the playoffs. I enjoy the finals.

Q: You’ve said you’ve learned more from your failures in life than your victories. What have you learned from your current bankruptcy and legal problems?

A: I would never allow myself to become a public person. It’s poison, and the politics of evil are pretty tough. That’s the reason I have legal problems here. California is salted with lawyers, and this country needs tort reform badly. In Canada if you sue and lose, you pay the costs. Here it’s open season.

Q: When you were arrested in March, a lot of people suggested that this was the end of “Peter Puck.” Why are they wrong?

A: The press is normally wrong. This is just a passing phase. It will be over shortly.