|Born||Peter Hugh Pocklington
November 18, 1941
Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada
|Residence||Palm Desert, California|
|Known for||former owner of the Edmonton Oilers from 1976 to 1998|
The one-time head of a business empire that spanned auto dealerships, food-processing companies, real estate, a trust company and professional sports teams, Pocklington is perhaps best known as the owner of the National Hockey League's Edmonton Oilers and as the man who traded the rights to hockey's greatest player, Wayne Gretzky, to the Los Angeles Kings.
Pocklington's life experiences were extensively documented in the 2009 biography, I'd Trade Him Again: On Gretzky, Politics And The Pursuit Of The Perfect Deal, written by Terry McConnell and J'lyn Nye. The book's title was inspired by Pocklington's ongoing conviction the Gretzky trade was the right deal at the right time and was good not just for the Oilers and the Kings, but for hockey itself.
- 1 Early life and career
- 2 Philanthropy
- 3 Leaving Canada for the U.S.A.
- 4 Controversies
- 5 In film and print
- 6 Health challenges
- 7 References
Early life and career
Pocklington was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, to Basil Pocklington, an insurance executive who had immigrated from England as a young man, and his wife, Eileen (Dempsey), and grew up in London, Ontario.
The greatest influence on young Pocklington was the legendary motivational speaker Earl Nightingale and his best-selling recording, The Strangest Secret. "It literally stated, 'You become what you think about,' " Pocklington told his biographers. He says he still has the record today.
One of his earliest business ventures was to find old cars on the farms around his maternal grandparents' home in Carberry, Manitoba, buy them for $25, then ship them to Ontario by train, where he sold them for upwards of $500. Because of the West's dry, cold climate, the cars, many of them 25 to 40 years old, were in better shape than comparable vehicles that had been driven on Ontario's salted roads.
By the time Pocklington was 25, he owned his first car dealership, Westown Ford in Tilbury, Ontario. At the time, he was the youngest Ford dealer in Canada. Within a few years he had sold the Tilbury dealership and bought another in nearby Chatham. By 1971, when Pocklington was only 29, he left Ontario and moved west, where he bought Shirley Ford in Edmonton, Alberta.
Within a few years, Pocklington was running the most successful Ford dealership in Canada. He also had the cash flow to buy Edmonton's fledgling team in the World Hockey Association.
Pocklington would come to operate several businesses over the next several years, but he has always said owning sports teams gave him the most satisfaction.
The man who came to be known as "Peter Puck" bought part ownership of the Edmonton Oilers in 1976. According to his biography, he offered a diamond ring his wife was wearing to dinner as his downpayment. Within a year, Pocklington bought out his partner, Nelson Skalbania, who would later own the WHA team in Indianapolis, the Racers. It was also from Skalbania that Pocklington acquired perhaps the greatest hockey player ever. In the fall of 1978, Skalbania offered Pocklington the rights to a 17-year-old phenom named Wayne Gretzky. The Oilers' owner did not hesitate to do the deal. A few months later, Pocklington parlayed the Gretzky signing into a merger between the WHA and the National Hockey League. Edmonton had its NHL franchise. Five years later, the Oilers would win their first of five Stanley Cup championships they'd capture under Pocklington's ownership.
Over the next 18 years, Pocklington also owned the Edmonton Trappers of baseball's Pacific Coast League, the Edmonton Drillers of the North American Soccer League and the National Professional Soccer League, and the Kamloops Junior Oilers of the Western Hockey League.
Edmonton in the 1970s was experiencing explosive growth fuelled by an oil boom and several fortunes were made. Among the most successful entrepreneurs was Pocklington, whose business empire eventually exceeded $2 billion in sales. Among his ventures: a second car dealership, Elgin Ford, in downtown Toronto; massive real estate holdings throughout Alberta and Ontario; Fidelity Trust, one of Canada's largest trust companies; Palm Dairies, one of the largest retailers of dairy products in Western Canada; Canbra Foods, a canola manufacturer; Magic Pantry, which sold prepared foods that did not require refrigeration; Kretschmar Foods, which serviced restaurants; Green Acre Farms, a chicken-processing company with plants in Texas and Mississippi; and Gainers, an Edmonton-based beef- and pork-packing company.
"I thought I was bullet-proof — until I was shot," Pocklington told his biographers. In April 1982, a gunman later identified as Mirko Petrovic, a Yugoslav immigrant, broke into Pocklington's Edmonton home and took hostages. Among them: Pocklington's wife Eva; a babysitter for the couple's young son; a housekeeper; and Pocklington himself.
Petrovic's plan was to kidnap Eva Pocklington, but she escaped. The other two people in the house were released, leaving Pocklington, who was with the gunman for 11 hours while he negotiated a $2-million ransom. However, before the ransom could be paid, police sneaked into the house and shot both Petrovic and Pocklington, wounding both men.
They each made a full recovery and Petrovic served five years in an Alberta prison before he was released and returned to Yugoslavia.
In 1983, the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada staged a leadership convention to elect a new leader to challenge the governing Liberal party and its leader, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Among the candidates was Pocklington. A libertarian at heart, he campaigned on a platform of free trade with the United States, privatizing government-owned Crown corporations like Air Canada, Petro-Canada and Canadian National Railway, retiring the national debt and, most radical of all, a flat tax — a fixed rate of income tax everyone who earned more than a minimum salary would pay.
In his autobiography, ''Gretzky'', the Oilers' star talked about how he reluctantly stood behind Pocklington at the latter's campaign appearances, not wanting to "say no to (my) boss". In the end, Pocklington fell far below his expectations of delegates; one advisor jokingly guessed "99", Gretzky's sweater number, when asked how the Oilers' owner would do in the balloting. (He wasn't far off; Pocklington received 102 delegates and failed to make the second ballot, supporting eventual winner Brian Mulroney.)
Pocklington was an active philanthropist for many years in Edmonton. Among his gifts: $1.5 million he helped raise for the Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Foundation; $1 million for the Jamie Platz YMCA; $300,000 for the Glen Sather Sports Medicine Clinic at the University of Alberta; $250,000 to establish a free-enterprise chair at the U of A's School of Business; and upwards of $2 million for Junior Achievement. It was through his charitable works he became close friends with former U.S. presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush
Leaving Canada for the U.S.A.
Pocklington has been active in business and philanthropic pursuits since settling in the U.S. He was a long-time member of the board of the Betty Ford Center, and has lectured on the merits of the free-enterprise system in local schools.
While Pocklington's business empire realized its successes, it suffered its failures, too. Prime interest rates in the early 1980s topped out at 18.5 per cent, a development that sapped the oil boom of its strength, collapsed the real estate market and sank Fidelity Trust in a sea of declining property values.
But perhaps Pocklington's most notorious setback was the result of a six-month strike that crippled Gainers, which at the time was Canada's second largest meat packer. Pocklington used non-union labour, primarily from Quebec, to keep the plant operating despite the picket lines, a decision that earned him the enmity of Canada's labour movement. Eventually, he agreed to settle the strike and rehire the striking workers at the request of the Alberta government. In return, says Pocklington in his biography, the Alberta premier of the day, Don Getty, agreed to give Gainers an interest-free loan for $50 million. Gainers would give the province 10 per cent of its operating profit every year for the next four years, and repay a conventional mortgage after that. Pocklington also insisted the province disband its pork marketing board, which fixed prices on pork at a rate higher than what the meat packers could sell it in the marketplace.
Instead, the government gave Gainers $55 million at 10.5 per cent interest, and didn't get rid of the marketing board. "They said, 'Take it or leave it,' " Pocklington told his biographers. Crippled with a debt-servicing cost it did not anticipate and handicapped by inflated production costs created by the marketing board, Gainers immediately began to drown in a sea of red ink. Loan repayments were missed and within three years, the Alberta government took over Gainers. The province lost $89 million on the venture in the four years it operated Gainers — more than double the rate of loss in Pocklington's last few years at the helm — and eventually sold the company for 1/20th of the price Pocklington paid for it 11 years earlier.
After the Edmonton Oilers won their first Stanley Cup in 1983–84, Peter Pocklington included his father, Basil Pocklington, on the list of people and players who were to have their names engraved on the trophy. The NHL did not check the validity of the names on the list, and the Cup was engraved as usual. NHL executives, via the Hockey Hall of Fame, had the engraver strike out the name of the senior Pocklington by engraving a series of Xs over his name. Of the two dozen engraving errors that appear on the Stanley Cup all but one are spelling errors. Basil Pocklington is the only name that is covered. When Peter Pocklington was confronted with the issue, he protested that it was the engraver's fault, not his, that the engraver had mixed up the people who were actually technical members of the team (Basil was not one of them) with a list of individuals who were to receive miniature replica Cups (Basil was one of them). After this error, the NHL and Hockey Hall of Fame adopted policies to confirm the roster and the relation of the people on the engraving list to the championship team.
On August 9, 1988, Pocklington shocked hockey fans by trading Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, $15 million cash, and the Kings' first-round draft picks in 1989, 1991 and 1993. One member of the Canadian House of Commons demanded the government block the trade, another man burned Pocklington in effigy, and Gretzky's bride, actress Janet Jones, was branded hockey's Yoko Ono.
There is debate as to whether Gretzky "jumped" or was "pushed." A book by former Kings owner Bruce McNall quotes Pocklington as saying Gretzky had become impossible to deal with since he began dating Jones, who let it be known that she was not going to live in Edmonton after they got married. Pocklington claims he has had only nice things to say about the couple, yet he has repeatedly defended the trade as being a sound business decision that he would not hesitate to make again. However, he would later admit the trade to be a difficult decision, but necessary to keep the team financially afloat.
Losing the Oilers
By the late 1980s, success was also killing the Edmonton Oilers. Players' salaries began to skyrocket, and Gretzky was traded in large part because Pocklington had come to realize he would not be able to keep his star player and would lose him to free agency. More players were parceled off as their salary expectations exceeded the team's ability to pay: Paul Coffey, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Kevin Lowe and Grant Fuhr.
By the mid-1990s, the Oilers were still losing money and Pocklington expressed an unwillingness to use his other businesses to bankroll his hockey team. He publicly threatened to move the team — Hamilton and Minneapolis were among the destinations contemplated — but Pocklington never made good on the threats. He was committed to keeping the team in Edmonton and used the possibility of a move to gain improvements to the arena where they played.
Pocklington operated the team on a line of credit, paying 19-per-cent interest to the Alberta Treasury Branches. He asked the ATB to convert the outstanding amount, about $120 million into a conventional mortgage he could pay down. The ATB refused, and instead called his loan. His remaining business empire was sold off piece by piece, including the Oilers and Trappers and Canbra Foods. "Losing the Oilers was like having my heart torn out," Pocklington told his biographers.
Pocklington invested in several businesses in the U.S., including the nutraceutical maker Naturade, and golf club manufacturers Golf Gear and Sonartec. However, those investments yielded more heartache than profit, and what he claims was fiduciary malfeasance by some partners in these ventures left Pocklington the target of numerous lawsuits. In the summer of 2008, one of those suits resulted on three raids of the Pocklington home in Indian Wells, California, where a number of items belonging to his wife, including gowns, shoes and purses, were taken. They were eventually returned.
That same summer, Pocklington decided to declare personal bankruptcy. It was one way to stave off what he considered scurrilous lawsuits and "to save myself hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees," he told his biographers. He declared assets of $2,900 and liabilities of $19.7 million.
That significant gap attracted the attention of prosecutors and the bankruptcy trustee. In the spring of 2009, Pocklington was charged with bankruptcy fraud. He blames himself for the fact his list of assets wasn't more comprehensive. "Unfortunately, my bankruptcy lawyer did a very poor job and didn't list the paperwork properly," Pocklington told his biographers. "And I didn't ask the proper questions before I signed off on it. I should have. I was wrong not to."
In the fall of 2010, Pocklington and the prosecutors agreed to a plea bargain that resulted in probation and house arrest. The bankruptcy is now proceeding. On September 19, 2013, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reported that Pocklington "could be sentenced to up to five years in prison on Friday for breaching the conditions of his release on a previous bankruptcy-fraud conviction" after a Riverside, Calif., judge ruled Pocklington had breached the conditions of his probation by failing to disclose tens of thousands of dollars he received from his involvement in several gold-mining businesses. CTV News reported that same day that sentencing arguments would be heard Friday, September 20, 2013.
Allegations of security fraud
In April 2012, investigators with the Arizona Corporation Commission alleged Pocklington and an associate, John McNeil, had engaged in securities fraud related to a mining venture near Quartzsite, Arizona. Though no charges were laid, the story was leaked to media outlets in Edmonton and widely reported across Canada. Pocklington vigorously denied the allegations, insisted he and McNeil had done nothing wrong, and that investors in the mining venture were not being misled. The geologists associated with the project were, according to the mining company newsletter, also vigorously defending their data. Those geologists “boast impeccable reputations and have been conscientious and thorough in their testing,” Pocklington wrote in a letter to the Edmonton Journal. “We do not tell our investors anything their data is not telling us." A hearing date in the matter of docket number S-20845A-12-0134, before the Arizona Corporation Commission has been set for "October 22,2012, at 10:00 am.,at the Commission’s offices, 1200 West Washington Street. Hearing Room No. 1, Phoenix, Arizona" It has further been ordered that the parties shall also set aside October 23,24,25,26,29,30 and 31, and November 1 and 2, 2012, for additional days of hearing, if necessary, as previously ordered.
On June 4, 2013, Decision #73864 was rendered by the Arizona Corporations Commission, which include the following:
"Therefore, on the basis of the Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Respondents consent the entry of this Order... the Commission finds that the following relief is appropriate, in the public interest, and necessary for the protection of investors:
"IT IS ORDERED... that Respondents(CRYSTAL PISTOL RESOURCES, LLC, CRYSTAL PISTOL MANAGEMENT, LLC, LIBERTY BELL RESOURCES I, LLC, PETER POCKLINGTON and JOHN M. MCNEIL), and any of Respondents' agents, employees, successors and assigns, permanently cease and desist from violating the Securities Act.
"IT IS FURTHER ORDERED... that Respondents shall pay restitution to the Commission in the principal amount of $5,149,316. .... The Commission shall disburse the funds on a pro-rata basis to investors shown on the records of the Commission.
"IT IS FURTHER ORDERED... that Respondent shall, jointly and severally with all Respondents against whom orders are entered pay an administrative penalty in the amount of $100,000.
"CRYSTAL PISTOL RESOURCES, LLC, CRYSTAL PISTOL MANAGEMENT, LLC, LIBERTY BELL RESOURCES I, LLC, PETER POCKLINGTON and JOHN M. MCNEIL neither admit nor deny the Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law contained in the Order."
A statement by Pocklington's company was included in Canadian media accounts, which stated “the allegations of wrongdoing… have been laid to rest” with the commission’s decision.
“We have done nothing wrong,” Pocklington said in the release. “We have worked diligently and honestly with all of our investors and have been conscientious in guiding the company through the necessary regulatory frameworks. We are committed to raising capital in accordance with existing rules and regulations.”
He added that any errors were “born of inexperience and naivete, not malice or avarice,” and were quickly rectified. " 'Nowhere in this whole situation did anybody lose any money,' said Pocklington spokesman Terry McConnell, adding agreeing to pay the fine is less costly than continuing to fight the allegations."
On September 20, 2013, a California judge sentenced Peter Pocklington to six months in prison, followed by a further six months’ house arrest for breaching his probation on a previous perjury conviction related to a bankruptcy fraud case. The court had earlier heard evidence that Pocklington had, over a 19-month period, failed to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars of consulting fees paid to a company controlled by his wife, Eva. The money came from gold-mine and stock-promotion companies owned by Pocklington. That information was only disclosed to the court in the week preceding the sentence. The judge in Riverside, California, gave Pocklington until Dec. 9, 2013 to report to prison.
Stanley Cup rings
In May 2012, Pocklington announced his family was auctioning memorabilia from his time as owner of the Oilers, including his rings from their Stanley Cup championships. According to the Edmonton Journal, this was the second time the rings were put up for auction. In 2008, an anonymous bidder offered $272,829 for the rings, but withdrew his bid amid rumours the rings were not the only set Pocklington had commissioned. Pocklington later claimed in his biography the confusion stemmed from a set of rings he had made for his father, and were sold by his father’s estate in 2001. The rings offered in 2008 and again in 2012 have been certified as authentic, he said.
In film and print
Pocklington has appeared as himself in several television series:
- 30 for 30: King's Ransom (2009)
- The top 5 reasons you can't blame... The Edmonton Oilers for trading Wayne Gretzky (2005)
- ESPN SportsCentury: 1988 (2002)
- ESPN SportsCentury: Wayne Gretzky (2000)
A movie treatment has been developed and a screenplay is in production based on Peter Pocklington's life story. A production deal has yet to be finalized.
Pocklington is also the subject of several books:
- I'd Trade Him Again: On Gretzky, Politics, and the Pursuit of the Perfect Deal by Terry McConnell, J'Lyn Nye, with Peter Pocklington (Fenn Publishing: First hardcover edition, 2009; Second paperback edition, 2010)
- The Puck Talks Here, The amazing life and turbulent times of Peter Pocklington by Terry McConnell, J'Lyn Nye, with Peter Pocklington (Terry McConnell, publisher: Paperback, April 2012; Smashwords eBook, April 2012)
- I'd Trade Him Again: Wayne Gretzky & Peter Pocklington by Terry McConnell, J'Lyn Nye, with Peter Pocklington (Terry McConnell, publisher: Smashwords eBook, 2012)
Pocklington has been diagnosed with macular degeneration. As a result, he no longer drives and requires others to assist in reading memos or other business correspondence to him.
- McConnell, Terry; Nye, J'lyn (2009-11-24). I'd Trade Him Again:On Gretzky, Politics, and the Pursuit of the Perfect Deal.
- Harrison, Doug (2009-10-29). "Gretzky trade was 'no fun,' Pocklington recalls". Cbc.ca. Retrieved 2010-04-29.
- Pocklington, Peter (2012-04-24). "Pocklington denies fraud". Edmonton Journal. Retrieved 2012-05-29.