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New book about Peter Pocklington says NHL's Oilers-Tor almost swapped cities

Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington shakes hands with Los Angeles Kings centre Wayne Gretzky after a press conference in Edmonton, Oct. 15, 1989. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Buston

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Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington shakes hands with Los Angeles Kings centre Wayne Gretzky after a press conference in Edmonton, Oct. 15, 1989. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Buston

EDMONTON - Peter Pocklington says Harold Ballard came calling in the early 1980s with an unprecedented offer that would have bailed the former Toronto Maple Leafs owner out of financial trouble, and might have had Wayne Gretzky parading the Stanley Cup down Carlton Street .

In a new biography about the one-time Edmonton Oilers owner, "I'd Trade Him Again," Pocklington recalls a deal he almost made where the Leafs and Oilers would have swapped cities.

"Harold phoned me and said, 'Would you consider moving to Toronto with your team and I'll move to Edmonton with mine, and I'll need $50 million," Pocklington told The Canadian Press when reached Sunday at his Palm Desert, Calif., home.

"So I thought about it and said, 'Yes Harold, I'll go for that."'

The scheme called for the entire team to move to Toronto to play in Maple Leaf Gardens while the Leafs, in turn, would have found a home in Edmonton's new arena, which at that time was called the Coliseum.

According to Pocklington, Ballard was in financial straights when he made the proposal in 1981. However, a short time later Ballard backed out of the deal.

"He just said he needed $50 million and I guess I was one of the ways to resolve and solve the problem," said Pocklington. "Within a week or two he called back and said I solved my $50-million problem and we'll continue the way we were."

When asked if raising the large sum to make the deal possible was an option for Pocklington at the time, the former NHL owner tersely responded: "It certainly was."

"I thought he was kidding at first, but he was serious," he recalls. "He said he loved to do the deal and it sounded like a heck of a deal to me.

"Economically, it was a tremendous deal for me looking backwards."

The Oilers had joined the National Hockey League in the 1979-80 season and played their first game in Toronto on Nov. 21 against the Maple Leafs. The young Edmonton team would hoist its first Stanley Cup just five years later and win it five times by 1990.

But Gretzky, one of the game's greatest players, and the other young rising stars on the Oilers were attracting attention long before that first Stanley Cup win.

Gretzky scored 55 goals and had a total of 164 points in his second NHL season.

The book points out that the Oilers were league leaders in attendance and were playing in a new building with more seats than Maple Leaf Gardens. As well, those were the heady days of Alberta's first big oil boom and there were plenty of people with cash in their pockets to expand ticket sales.

The Leafs, on the other hand, didn't look so good. The book says the roster was being gutted by general manager Punch Imlach, and the team was losing ground in the standings after he traded away fan favourites Lanny McDonald and Tiger Williams. The Leafs only won 28 games in the 1980-81 season and finished last in their division.

And Maple Leaf Gardens, which was 50 years old at the time, was crumbling.

The book's authors, J'Lyn Nye and Terry McConnell, suggest Ballard probably found another source for the cash. They point out it was around the same time that he recruited Molson Brewery as a partner in the Leafs.

"I believe he raised the $50 million from Molson and did a pre-sale to a lot of his rights to Molson," said Pocklington.

That deal, however, would lead to a decade of power struggles, lawsuits and familial strife that wasn't resolved until Ballard died in 1990.

Known as being a controversial figure in hockey, Pocklington has no shortage skeptics in revelation of the possible deal with Ballard.

Gord Stellick, who joined the Leafs' front office full-time in 1980 and eventually became GM eight years later, finds the proposal hard to believe.

"I was there with them and I never heard of that in any way shape or form," said Stellick. "I think I would have, I travelled with the team and got to know Harold extensively. I got to know what was going on and not going on, and that never ever came up.

"He was unpredictable, but Harold loved the Maple Leafs. He loved being the owner."

Jim Gregory was hired as the Leafs' GM in 1969 and held the position for about a decade. He said it's hard to imagine such a proposal being discussed.

"Anything's possible," Gregory said with a laugh. "But I certainly never heard anything about it."

Kevin Lowe, a defenceman in the early Oiler years and now the team's general manager, declined comment.

Pocklington basked in his team's glory until Aug. 9, 1988, when Oilers fans were stunned by his announcement that he was trading Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings. "I'd Trade Him Again" takes another look at what went on behind the scenes to negotiate a deal that left Gretzky crying in front of the microphones and fans burning effigies of Pocklington in the streets.

Pocklington says he's been unfairly vilified in the press over the years and that the reason for the book was to set the record straight.

"There's another side to me," Pocklington said in the interview. "I've read a lot of the press at the time and thought, God I wouldn't like this guy either.

"(The press) build people up and spend the rest of their time tearing them down, especially if they're right of centre. They didn't correctly tell who I was."

Gretzky, who wrote the foreward for the book, appears to hold no ill will against Pocklington.

"I have no hard feelings whatsoever," he writes. "I consider Peter a friend, and I hope he feels the same way."

By 1997, Pocklington was mired in his own money difficulties. His bank called in his loans and he eventually sold the team to a consortium of local buyers and moved to the United States.

He is currently facing a trial in California on charges of bankruptcy fraud.

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