Peter 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.