SUN Hockey Pool

Puck stops with Puck

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 7:12 AM ET

If you hate Gary Bettman for presiding over an NHL marketplace that made Edmonton a ninth-place farm team that can barely keep its head above water, blame Peter Pocklington. If you love Gary Bettman for fighting harder and tougher than anyone else to fix the problem and ensure Edmonton's long-term survival, then you can thank the former Oilers' owner.

Either way, it looks like Peter Puck's legacy here includes more than five Stanley Cup championships, selling Wayne Gretzky and a bitter, controversial exit.

I HIRED BETTMAN

"I was the one, I guess, who hired Gary Bettman,'' the 63-year-old said in a telephone interview from California yesterday. "I was on the five-man selection committee and I pushed everyone towards Gary.''

It was 4-1 for somebody else when the owners were looking to replace Gil Stein in 1993, but Pocklington won them over.

"When we interviewed Gary I was very impressed. He had more energy than 10 people. There were five of us on the committee and the others were strongly with someone else. But if you look at the league Gary came from (NBA) and how successful they were, to me it was a no-brainer."

Eleven years later, with the NHL on the brink of losing an entire season to a work stoppage, Pocklington defends his choice.

"He could only work with the tools he had to work with and under the old rules there's not a chance he could have gotten what was best for the game. I think he can now (needing only eight ownership votes to pass his agenda) and will.''

Pocklington, who brought Wayne Gretzky to Edmonton and Edmonton to the NHL, saw all the signs this league was headed for Armageddon a decade ago.

"Absolutely, I was just wondering why the hell it didn't happen sooner,'' said the last of the NHL's Mom and Pop owners. "The only time you change a democracy is when you have some kind of disaster - that's where we're at now.

"When the players understand the seriousness of this, they'll settle it. It's really up to them. Of course, a lot of the players don't really give a damn, but I think they will eventually.

"I don't believe the owners are going to bend, period. Nor should they.''

Pocklington has a hunch the silent majority of NHL players would be back tomorrow if it was up to them.

"If you had a secret ballot, I think they'd be back right now. How much of the high-priced talent is controlling the vote? Trevor Linden? Bill Guerin? Give me a break. They're not the average player.''

Fifteen years after Edmonton's last championship, Pocklington is still angry he couldn't keep the Boys on the Bus together longer.

His other business struggles aside, he said rising salaries made it impossible, even with a mid-80s payroll of just $8 million Cdn.

"It was extremely frustrating,'' he said. "I love the game, I love the business, but, excuse the vernacular, you can only piss into the wind for so long. It didn't work, as much as I wanted it to.

GREATEST TEAM EVER

"There's no question it was probably the greatest team that ever was. That isn't to brag, that's just the fact. You couldn't even put that team together under the current conditions today. God, it would be nuts. It would cost you $100 million US.

"But you do it could under (the NHL's) new proposal, and then you'd get real hockey back. Then you could have some fun again and that's what it's about. It's not a cure for cancer, it's strictly entertainment.''

It was only six years ago that Pocklington left Edmonton in as bitter a split as any owner and city have experienced since Robert Irsay sneaked the Colts out of Baltimore in the middle of the night in 1984. It seems longer.

"It seems like forever, as a matter of fact,'' said Pocklington, who chuckles when you ask about his reputation as the evil owner who sold a small market's beloved dynasty piece by piece. "I kept it together longer than I should have.''

Pocklington is still a businessman - he's in the midst of "rolling up some medical companies'' and his golf company has a licensing deal with Nike.

"I've never felt better,'' he said. "The US is a different place to do business, I rather enjoy it.''

Would he ever own a team again?

"I don't know. I had a lot of energy when I was younger. But having been there and done that I'm not sure I'd want to go back.''


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