10/10/2014 11:28 EDT | Updated 12/10/2014 05:59 EST

Edmonton Oilers Reunion Sees Applause For Former Owner Peter Pocklington

EDMONTON - Peter Pocklington, the man who launched the Edmonton Oilers dynasty, then loathed for decades for trading Wayne Gretzky, welled up with tears Friday when he came home to a standing ovation.

"Thank you Edmonton. Thank you," said Pocklington as a full house of fans at Rexall Place stood and cheered him at a reunion celebration of the 1984 Oilers team that won the team's first Stanley Cup.

"I wasn't sure what was going to happen," said Pocklington. He then paused and added, "As you can imagine."

Paul Coffey, who played for the Oilers from 1980-1987, was impressed with the crowd's reaction.

"What just happened proved the people of Edmonton have a lot of class," Coffey said.

Pocklington, 72, told the crowd that when he owned the Oilers he likened it to what he learned while walking one day past a field in France.

There were men working in a field, he said, patiently and laboriously chipping away at stone blocks.

One by one, said Pocklington, he asked the men what they were doing.

Carving designs into the rock, they told him.

Until he got to one final rock chipper, the only one who saw not the task, but the goal.

"I said: 'What are you doing?' And he said 'Why, I'm building a cathedral,' said Pocklington.

"And this is what we wanted our team to do in this city, build a cathedral.

"Five cathedrals later, we had it done," he said to another round of applause.

Pocklington, an entrepreneur from Ontario who made his first fortune selling cars, bought the Oilers when they were still in the old World Hockey Association.

In 1978, he snapped up and signed teenage hockey wunderkind Wayne Gretzky from the Indianapolis Racers.

A year later the Oilers and three other WHA teams joined the NHL.

By 1984 Gretzky was the nucleus of a wildly talented group of kids who had taken the NHL by storm with their free-flowing criss-crossing European style of hockey.

They lost in the Stanley Cup final in 1983 but the next year they won it all, and won four more championships by decade's end.

This week, old teammates returned for a 30th-year reunion, marching Friday night to bagpipes, clad in their Oiler jerseys and holding aloft the Stanley Cup.

Gretzky, the NHL's all time leading scorer, was joined on stage by teammates including Coffey, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Grant Fuhr.

Earlier in the week, Pocklington said he debated long and hard about whether he should come at all. Writers on local social media gave him some free advice: stay home.

One newspaper ran an online poll on whether Pocklington should be booed. Two thirds said yes.

To them, the man known as "Peter Puck" will always be the one who sold Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988 for $18M Cdn.

The Gretzky sale came after the Oilers had won four cups and were only getting stronger.

The sale was a gut punch to Edmonton. Diehards burned Pocklington in effigy. Radio stations doctored the popular Bobby McFerrin song to soothe a savage fan base ("Ooh oo-ooh ooh ooh oo-ooh. Don't worry. Wayne's Happy Now.")

In Ottawa one politician demanded the trade be stopped as Gretzky was a national treasure.

Earlier this week, Pocklington kept a low profile during reunion festivities, granting only one interview to a select group of journalists.

During it, he reiterated the mantra that the sale was inevitable. Gretzky was a "depreciating asset" sure to command a stratospherically large contract that could not be sustained, he said.

What about the angry masses, he was asked in Wednesday's interview.

"I don't really give a damn what the unwashed have to say," he replied.

It was a fairy tale Stanley Cup run that didn't have a happy ending.

Gretzky's departure marked the launch of a star exodus that had actually begun a year earlier, when an unhappy Coffey was traded to Pittsburgh in 1987.

After the final cup win in 1990, the players were sold off or traded en masse to cut costs in a league that was seeing the gap widen between the haves and haves not.

By 1992 Pocklington threatened to move the team to Hamilton unless he got a better revenue deal on the home rink. By 1997, awash in debt, he sold the team and moved to southern California.

There he has continued to dabble in various enterprises while running afoul of the law.

Currently he faces possible jail time in the U.S. for violating the terms of his probation stemming from his 2010 admission of perjury in a bankruptcy fraud case.

Those troubles still loom.

But for one brief moment Friday, a hard-headed businessman and a city that had felt abused and betrayed let bygones be bygones and joined as one to remember the glory of their times.

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