November 3, 2009

I'd Trade Him Again by Peter Pocklington, Foreword by Wayne Gretzky

One of the biggest hockey books of 2009 is without doubt Stephen Brunt's Gretzky's Tears: Hockey, Canada, and the Day Everything Changed.

Canada's leading sports journalist digs deep to recreate the events of the day Wayne Gretzky was traded from Edmonton to Los Angeles in 1988. He leaves almost no stone unturned as he expertly looks at what may be the most important event in the past 20 years of hockey history.

I say almost no stone unturned because there were two people Brunt was not able talk to about that infamous day - the Edmonton Oilers owner - the man who traded Wayne Gretzky - Peter Pocklington, and Wayne Gretzky himself.

Why is that? Pocklington would not talk, to no surprise, because he has his own book out now about his life and specifically about hockey, the Oilers and Gretzky. It's confrontationally called I'd Trade Him Again: Peter Pocklington on Gretzky, Politics and the Pursuit of the Perfect Deal.

Gretzky would not talk to Brunt claiming after 2 decades he had nothing left to say. Well it turns out Gretzky does have something more to say, because he curiously writes the foreword for Pocklington's book!

Buy The Book: Amazon.ca - Chapters - Amazon.com

It turns out Gretzky and Pocklington are still friends, having patched things up over the years. This in itself probably shouldn't be a big surprise, as Gretzky has always been unfailingly loyal to his friends in the past. When Bruce McNall, the other important figure in the Gretzky trade, was in jail, Gretzky remained his friend, even visiting him in the slammer. And for a good portion of Wayne's life Pocklington was a very big part of his success, and vice versa.

But why Gretzky would choose to publicly re-align himself with the most hated hockey man in Alberta if not all of Canada is downright strange. Gretz has always been fiercely protective of his own squeaky clean image, although that sure has taken a beating with this whole Phoenix Coyotes bankruptcy case, hasn't it? Chumming it up with Peter Puck won't do his image any favors.

It's just odd, almost as odd as the foreword itself.

Gretz has written a number of forewords and afterwords for various books, including books by Jean Beliveau, Cassie Campbell, Roy MacGregor, Ron Finn, Bob Costas and even Theo Fleury's new book Playing With Fire. Now Gretzky likely has someone actually write it for him and he just approves it and puts his name to it. After all, when does he have time to write forewords, until recently that is. But they all have a certain genuine sincerity to them. For this book, either Gretzky has a new writer or Pocklington has a strange control over him. Maybe it is just my own prejudices, but it reads more like something Pocklington wants Gretzky to be saying.

After all it is Gretzky's comments that in many ways sell this book. Only his words adorn the back of the book. It seems all preordained to benefit book sales.

Enough about Gretzky and the book's foreword. Let's get down to the author/subject of this book - Peter "Puck" Pocklington.

Pocklington does not so much write this book, as he contributes to it. It is actually written by Terry McConnell of the Edmonton Journal and J'Lyn Nye of Global Television. You get the feeling though that Pocklington has strong editorial control.

The authors present the story, but certainly not in the same hard-hitting fashion Stephen Brunt would have. They mostly set the scene as Pocklington sees it. They then let him fill in the blanks with his own commentary. The book is careful to tell only the story that Pocklington wants told, which is fine but disappointing. When forced to cover controversial material such as bankruptcy fraud charges or the Gainer's strike, he seems to conveniently leave issues aside, or at least discuss them with a revisionist twist.

Of course Pocklington's reputation in Canada is pretty much ruined. He insists the press and politics did a great smear job on him, but I'm sure he'd admit he didn't always do himself any favors. And again reader prejudices come into play here. Regardless, he is regarded in this country as a ruthless, greedy, scheming businessman always after the next big pay day. I think he has more of a heart than his reputation suggests, but he is far from trustworthy in Canadian eyes. Certainly not after all the controversies and now legal charges against him regarding bankrupty frauds.

So when in the book he says he almost traded franchises with Harold Ballard's Maple Leafs, or that he could have had a NBA team in Edmonton for just $6 million, I do not believe him. I believe there was probably something to it, but certainly nothing imminent as he lets us believe. Pocklington is a great story teller that way.

As for Pocklington's commentary on the Gretzky trade itself, the reason most people would be picking up this book, he comes across as quite believeable. He and the authors do a good job of recounting his lifelong business acumen to the point that he is actually quite admirable. He simply sums up the Gretzky trade as a necessary business transaction to keep the Oilers alive in Edmonton.

Now there is going to be a lot of belly-aching on that point, as a lot of Edmonton fans hate Pocklington to no end. But if you read the book with an open mind, especially with a mind shaped in the past 20 years where the Gretzky trade changed hockey for everyone - including fans - from a sport to a business, you will see Pocklington's point. It was necessary to trade Wayne Gretzky. Grabbing all that cash certainly didn't look good, but Pocklington was a smart enough visionary to see the coming hockey landscape. He knew salaries were about to explode, and that the Oilers dynasty could not survive.

Of course, Pocklington probably could have eased his problems over the years in Edmonton had he been able to swallow his pride and bring in business partners with the necessary cash infusion. But he was vain to do that. He wanted to be the star of the show, and though he brought the Oilers to the NHL and did his best to keep them there, he was unable to bring himself to do what he ultimately had to do.

It's funny. After putting this book down I do have more respect for Peter Pocklington as a businessman and as a hockey man. And I think that is all Pocklington was after in doing this project, you know, plus the money grab. Some things never change.

I also have a slightly different vision of Wayne Gretzky. I don't think it is this book that changed my impression so much as the recent tarnishing of Gretzky's reputation in Phoenix as well as Stephen Brunt's painting him with a shade of greed.

I guess ultimately that is why Gretzky and Pocklington are still good friends - they both love hockey, and they both love the pursuit of the perfect deal.

2 comments:

Larry Mitchell December 19, 2009 at 6:44 PM  

This is a great book and was especially a good ead as I am from the Edmonton area and know many of the people mentioned.

Anonymous,  January 15, 2010 at 12:02 AM  

This book was probably the worst book I have ever read.
I sense that it should be labeled as "fiction", as the tales are far too tale.
I grew up in Edmonton, lived through the highs and lows of Peter Pucks antics, and had a family member work at Gainers during the strike fiasco. Needless to say, Pocklington destroyed the lives of many people, as he refused to negotiate in a rational manner.
According to the stories in this book, Pocklington attempts to portray himself as a "poor" misunderstood hero to all!!
On the contrary... he was/is an ego-maniac, with a penchant for exaggerating facts.
To be this great, as he describes himself, you can't help but wonder why he doesn't head o Afghanistan to battle the Taliban. He would like you to believe that he could single handed beat them and end the conflict on his own!!
Save your' money, or buy a magazine!!

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