Book says Oilers-Leafs almost traded places


EDMONTON — A new hockey book says the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs almost traded cities in the early 1980s.

The biography of one-time Oilers owner Peter Pocklington says the scheme called for the entire team to move to Toronto to play in Maple Leaf Gardens.

The Leafs, in turn, would have found a home in Edmonton’s new arena, which at that time was called the Coliseum.

In the book "I’d Trade Him Again," Pocklington says Leafs owner Harold Ballard was having financial troubles and made the proposal in 1980.

Ballard also wanted Pocklington to pay him $50 million in cash.

Pocklington, who was vilified in Edmonton when he traded Wayne Gretzky in 1988, says he was all for the market swap, but Ballard backed out in the end.

"I was actually pretty excited," Pocklington says in the book, which hit store shelves last week. "I did the numbers. Christ, I would have made a fortune in Toronto."

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 a young player named Gretzky 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.

But the blockbuster deal never happened.

Pocklington isn’t sure what went wrong.

"I don’t know," he says in the book. "Ballard backed out. He was a crazy old bugger."

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.

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

Bob Stellick held a number of positions with the Leafs from 1986 to 1998, including public relations director and director of business operations.

While he said he had never heard about the proposed super swap until now, he added that it made sense in light of Ballard’s circumstances.

"The timing of Mr. Ballard’s financial crises certainly does coincide with that," Stellick said when reached on Sunday.

He suggested the proposal was beyond crazy.

"That sounds wild because he would have lost his house, too. You’ve got to remember he lived in the Gardens. He had no ties to Edmonton. He was a Toronto boy."

Bob’s brother Gord Stellick, who joined the Leafs’ front office full-time in 1980 and eventually became GM eight years later, echoed his brother’s scepticism.

"I was there with them and I never heard of that in any way shape or form. 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."

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

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."

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.

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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