Pocklington was thinking long term when, in the summer of 1988, he negotiated a Gretzky deal—money, players and draft choices—with Los Angeles owner Bruce McNall without telling Sather all the details. Pocklington figured Sather could not effectively direct the Oilers if the players believed he had plotted the trade. "The players had to be upset with me, not Glen," says Pocklington.
Still, Pocklington insists that Sather took the thunderbolt like a true asset manager. "It's an understatement to say Glen wasn't happy," Pocklington says. "But I told him I had thought it out, worked it out and believed it was the best thing for the club. The fact that Wayne would be a free agent in four years, at which point we could get absolutely nothing for him, would have left us as another has-been hockey club, the way the Islanders became. They let their players get old without trading for new blood."
Sather says he was stunned by Pocklington's news, and he concedes that "it took me awhile to view it as an opportunity. We got a lot of players out of the deal, and they helped us win again last season, but the question of whether it was the right thing to do will never really be fully answered. From strictly a coach's point of view, no, I never would have done it. From the point of view of reality, there wasn't any choice. Peter had his reasons."
Pocklington denies that those reasons included needing cash for his businesses. At the time of the trade, Pocklington had recently acquired a food and dairy business with help from the Alberta government. Pocklington says he had negotiated an exchange of Gretzky, center Mike Krushelnyski and winger Kevin McClelland for left wing Luc Robitaille and No. 1 draft choices in 1989, '91 and '93, but Sather wanted to substitute Carson for Robitaille. Sather also asked for left wing Gelinas, who had been the Kings' first-round choice two months earlier.
"I'd gone back and forth with Bruce McNall for six weeks," says Pocklington, "but Glen talked to McNall and the G.M. [Rogie Vachon] and got more than I thought was possible."
So it was done. The Oilers, suddenly defending champions in name only, slid to third place behind the Calgary Flames and the Kings in the Smythe Division in 1988-89 and then blew a three-games-to-one lead over L.A. in that first-round playoff defeat. "Glen knew the players who had grown up with Wayne would go through an emotional turmoil," says Pocklington. "In fact, he coached one more year than he wanted to because it wouldn't be fair to turn it over to John [Muckler, Sather's longtime right-hand man, who became coach last season] right after a deal like that. It turned out to be tragic, even worse than I thought. I'd hoped the players would get over it in a few months. I believe subconsciously they wanted Wayne to win that series."
The Oilers, who finished second in their division in 1989-90, went into last year's playoffs as a dark horse to some, the smart favorite to others. This time they smoked the Kings in four straight on their way to another Cup. Gelinas, Graves and Murphy performed well throughout the playoffs, and Klima scored the triple-overtime goal in Game 1 of the Cup finals, which was pivotal to Edmonton's victory over the Boston Bruins.
When Gretzky was traded, certainly the Oilers' skill level dropped, but Messier stepped in and became the leader that Sather anticipated he would be. Both Anderson and Kurri were solid, as usual, and with the contributions of Gelinas and the trio acquired in the Gretzky-Detroit spin-off deal, Edmonton retained its trademark speed and much of its explosiveness. Sather had rebuilt the Oilers by pursuing one quality above all others: raw talent. "You can't have enough of it," he says.
He also knew when to play it safe. Midway through last season Sather had a substantial trade offer for Kurri (who in July signed a two-year contract with the Milan Devils of the Italian league) and declined to make the deal. "I knew Jari would be gone at the end of the season, and I could have traded him for something that could have helped us in the future too," says Sather. "But I couldn't do it, not when our players finally had the Gretzky trade behind them. We had to try to win last year."
While other general managers paint with a thin brush, upgrading their right wings with one deal, hoping to glue together a defense for one more season with another, Sather attacks the canvas with broad strokes. He figures he can always fill in the details later. He makes smaller moves for the same reasons that all general managers do—to fill roles and tinker with the team's chemistry. Sather constantly revamps his third and fourth lines. "He does it to reenergize his stars, too," says Mike Keenan, the Chicago Black-hawks' coach and general manager. "When the Oilers won in 1988, Gretzky was more excited about the enthusiasm Keith Acton [a nine-year forward acquired from the Minnesota North Stars in midseason] showed for winning than I think Wayne was excited for himself. He couldn't wait to pass the Cup to Acton. Glen is clever enough to see those players needed another reason to win."