The good citizens of Edmonton should be pleased to know that Peter Pocklington forgives them. In the 21 months since he sold the great Wayne Gretzky, Pocklington, the owner of the Oilers, has been vilified for having disposed of a civic treasure. But Pocklington has proved to have a hide as tough as a rhino's and all the conscience of a ledger book.
As he stood in Boston Garden's visiting locker room last Friday night, after Edmonton had taken a two-games-to-none lead over the Bruins in the Stanley Cup finals, Pocklington granted Oiler fans absolution for their initial refusal to acknowledge the wisdom of his master plan. Never mind that some silly people in Edmonton had fallen in love with Gretzky. "I don't ever buy friendship," Pocklington said. "I do what's right businesswise. If they like it, fine. If they don't, I understand. The people on the street are starting to say hello to me again."
A half hour earlier, the Oilers, winners of four Stanley Cups in the last six years, had served up Pocklington's vision of the future with an astonishingly easy 7-2 win over the Bruins in Game 2. Now Pocklington served himself with his comments. "I know that this is almost sacrilegious to say," he said, "but if you look at the depth we are going to have in the next three years, we're going to have an awful lot of talent. And the talent will be broad-based rather than on the shoulders of four or five people."
Less than two years after having sent Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings for $15 million, two players and three No. 1 draft choices, Edmonton, though it dropped Game 3 to Boston at Northlands Coliseum by a score of 2-1, was playing as well as ever—and working more cheaply, too. Actually, the Oilers, as good as they are, had to play almost three games to win the first two. They required 115 minutes and 13 seconds of playing time, and five hours and 32 minutes of Eastern Daylight Time, to subdue the Bruins in a first game that was for all time. At 1:23 a.m. on the morning of May 16, Edmonton wing Petr Klima, who had played only six shifts during the game, beat Bruin goalie Andy Moog in the third sudden-death overtime period to give the Oilers a 3-2 win. Which team scored almost didn't matter. The effort produced by both clubs, while roasting in the 90� oven of Boston Garden, was so extraordinary that the competition produced far greater glory than the result.
The game was the longest in the 72-year history of the Stanley Cup finals. From the middle of the second period, it was played in a thin mist that hung a foot and more above the ice, a result of the interaction between the frozen playing surface and the hot air. Bruin center Craig Janney became dehydrated and had to be taken to a hospital after the game. The Garden's electrical system became so overheated that a circuit tripped during the third OT, knocking out television lights and forcing a 25-minute cooling-and-resetting delay. Even the players seemed to step out of their drained bodies and take note of the extraordinary circumstances. "We were sitting in here before the third overtime and somebody said, 'Can you imagine being a kid watching this on TV?' " said Bruin center Dave Poulin after the game. "There's no way your dad could make you go to bed."
Three nights later Boston was equally determined but no more fortunate. Though still carrying much of the play, the Bruins broke down far too often on defense and in goal. As a result, they went to Edmonton hoping to become only the fourth team ever to surmount a 2-0 deficit in the Cup finals.
Boston took one step toward that objective on Sunday night. It got the first goal, a bolt of lightning 10 seconds into the game by little-used rookie John Byce. When Greg Johnston made it 2-0 shortly before the end of the first period, the Oilers had to play catch-up and strain for breaks. "We got all of them the other night, and tonight they got all of them," said Edmonton left wing Esa Tikkanen after the Bruins had hung on for a 2-1 victory in the final period.
The Oilers still held the home-ice advantage, however, and Pocklington wasn't waiting for the required two more wins to declare vindication. He had done that two series ago, when the Oilers had avenged last season's first-round loss to the Gretzky-led Kings in four straight games. "This proves that the Oilers were never a one-man team," he said.
Because it had long been acknowledged that Gretzky was merely the brightest among what may have been the greatest collection of stars in NHL history, the only point of Pocklington's statement was to test his players' tolerance for nausea. He has never admitted that losses in his myriad financial holdings may have forced him to sell Gretzky, but his recent default on an Alberta government loan for expansion of his meat-packing operation is evidence that he has financial difficulties, though he denies it. One part of Pocklington's empire that's definitely not in trouble is his hockey club—only because Oiler president and general manager Glen Sather knew how to rebuild it.
"If I would tell you that I expected us to get back to the finals this soon," says Sather, "you'd say I'm a jerk with that smirk on my face again. But if I say no, then I'm a hypocrite. One thing I found out long ago is that if you don't believe in something, you're never going to convince your team that you're going to get there."