By J Hutcherson - In 1979, two men decided the future of Canada’s greatest hockey player over a game of backgammon.
Nelson Skalbania was a Vancouver businessman, whose main interest was buying and selling just about anything, including sports franchises in the World Hockey Association and the Canadian Football League. At the time, he owned the WHA’s Indianapolis Racers, and had signed a young player named Wayne Gretzky to a record contract worth $1.7 million dollars.
Peter Pocklington was the owner of the WHA’s Edmonton Oilers, a team he had bought from Skalbania for, among other things, several paintings and a diamond ring.
With the WHA collapsing, Skalbania realized his Indianapolis franchise wasn’t going to survive. It seemed likely that Edmonton and the Winnipeg Jets would be allowed to join the National Hockey League, so Skalbania decided to determine Gretzky’s fate through a board game, one that he lost, and Gretzky joined the Oilers.
Hockey and backgammon weren’t Skalbania and Pocklington’s only interests, both men also bought troubled NASL franchises, moved them to Alberta, and tried to sell soccer to western Canada.
Buying and relocating franchises was quite common at the time, even in leagues with greater stability than the rapidly expanding North American Soccer League. In fact, the year before deciding to buy into professional soccer, Skalbania bought and moved the NHL’s Atlanta Flames to Calgary. So it was no surprise when he decided to buy and relocate the NASL’s Memphis Rogues after the 1980 season.
The Rogues had spent two years playing in front of small, but devoted, crowds at Memphis’s Liberty Bowl. The team wasn’t that good, but they did hire a notable coach, Malcolm Allison, who was fired before the team played their first game. His replacement was another product of the English League, former Chelsea standout Eddie McCreadie. The playing staff wasn’t quite up to the level of either of their two initial coaches, and aside from a notable win over the Cosmos during their first season, the club struggled. The team was sold after the 1979 season to Avron Fogelman, who attempted to keep the franchise in Memphis. Losing money and games, Fogelman lasted for one season before selling.
Skalbania took control of the franchise after the 1980 outdoor season, dropped the name and the soccer-playing elephant logo, and moved the franchise north. The Calgary Boomers entered play in 1981, and even though they managed the highest winning percentages and attendances in the franchise’s history, it wasn’t enough. The club lost $2-3 million dollars, and Skalbania wanted out, telling the Calgary community that the low attendances meant “you don’t want soccer.” The club was put up for sale for one dollar, providing that a new group of owners was willing to put $2.5 million towards stabilizing the team.
With no buyers coming forward, Edmonton Drillers owner Peter Pocklington offered to buy the team, merging it with his current club into the Alberta Drillers. The plan was for the team to play an indoor schedule in Calgary and an outdoor schedule in Edmonton.
At the time, Pocklington’s team was in an almost identical situation to Skalbania’s. At the end of the 1978 season, Pocklington bought a four-year-old NASL franchise that had already gone through two name changes and one transcontinental move.
The original Hartford Bicentennials changed their name to the Connecticut Bicentennials in 1977, and moved to Oakland as the Stompers in 1978. During their time in Connecticut, the team never averaged above 4,000 a game in attendance and never had a winning season (they did manage a .500 season in 1976, but the other two years saw below .300 winning percentages). By that storied standard, the move to Oakland was a success. Even without a marked change in on-field results, the team drew a little under 12,000 fans to the Oakland County Coliseum. It wasn’t enough to stabilize the franchise during the NASL’s boom period, and it was sold after one season in California.
Pocklington’s first act as owner was to rename the franchise (not a lot of grapes or bicentennial celebrations in Edmonton in 1979) and the Edmonton Drillers began play at the Commonwealth Stadium in 1979. Both the attendances and the results took a dip during the Drillers first season, and the club never reached the attendances it enjoyed in Oakland or reached the playoffs. The team was devoid of stars in an era when even the most unfashionable clubs could manage a few English First Division castoffs to garner some public attention.
Pocklington’s plan to combine two mediocre NASL sides was ended when the Boomers’ travel agency and public relations firm drove the Calgary franchise into bankruptcy over unpaid debts. Within weeks, Skalbania had also lost control of the NHL Flames, declaring personal bankruptcy as well, in part to protect himself from having to pay the $1 million dollars he still owed the Memphis owners for buying the franchise in the first place.
Pocklington’s franchise was in no better shape than the defunct Boomers. By 1982, the Drillers average attendance of just over 10,000 had fallen by half, and the team folded after the season.
Both owners were examples of the new money that poured into the NASL after the boom following the 1976 season. That the owners were over-extended, with sketchy financial backgrounds and obligations to other professional sports franchises made no difference. At least on the surface, they had money and the NASL wanted it. Moving two undistinguished franchises to two cities with new NHL franchises was never really questioned, and when the cities showed they didn’t want pro soccer, the owners were quick to get out.
And what of Pocklington and Skalbania? One of Pocklington’s other interests was Gainers Ltd. meat packing, which suffered through one of the worst strikes in the history of Canada in 1986. Two years later, Pockington further endeared himself to Edmonton when he sold Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings. Finally, after years of threatening to move the Oilers and extracting millions out of the city of Edmonton, Pocklington sold the team to a group of investors for $67 million dollars.
Skalbania wasn’t so lucky. After he lost control of the Boomers, Flames, and the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes, he was involved in several business deals before eventually taking over the CFL’s BC Lions. This too was a disaster, though in fairness it was during the most unstable period in the CFL’s history — a time when a franchise in Baltimore won the Grey Cup. Skalbania’s run of bad decisions continued when in 1997 he was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for using investor’s money for personal use.
As for soccer in Alberta, the name Drillers was used by Edmonton’s now defunct indoor team, and both cities have several small clubs playing in the regional Alberta Major Soccer League. It’s a far cry from the vision of a heated professional soccer rivalry between the two cities, equal to that other great rivalry that Pocklington and Skalbania gave Alberta, the NHL’s Calgary Flames vs. the Edmonton Oilers.