Public outrage grew as three of Wayne Gretzky's former teammates insisted the hockey superstar was forced into a trade to the Los Angeles Kings.
Oiler owner Peter Pocklington vehemently denied the comments Wednesday, saying he'll swear an oath that Gretzky initiated the National Hockey League trade.But while insisting he didn't force Gretzky to surrender his Oiler sweater, Pocklington admitted he would likely have traded the hockey legend in the next few years.
"Gretzky never initiated any deal," said Eddie Mio, a long-time friend and best man at Gretzky's July 16 wedding in Edmonton to Hollywood actress Janet Jones.
"Wayne loves Edmonton," Mio said during a television interview. "Anyone who knows him knows that. He never wanted to leave.
"It's really important people know this wasn't Wayne and Janet's idea."
Ex-Oiler Paul Coffey, who was also in the Gretzky wedding party, lashed out upon hearing news of the blockbuster trade.
"I talked with Gretz after the Stanley Cup and he said, `I'm happy, I'll play here forever,"' Coffey said.
Along with Gretzky, Mike Krushelnyski, Marty McSorley and John Miner have been traded to the Los Angeles Kings, in exchange for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, and Craig Redmond. The Oilers also get three first-round draft picks and more than $10 million US.
Gretzky was "just a piece of meat" traded for hard cash by Oiler management, charged Coffey, the defenseman who was traded from Edmonton to the Pittsburgh Penguins last season after a bitter contract fight.
Gretzky asked to go to the Kings only after finding out that the Oilers were talking trade and he made the request so he could have a say in his future, Mio said.
Those comments were echoed by another former teammate, Dave Lumley, who said he heard from several sources that Pocklington asked Gretzky to say he requested the trade.
Since coming to Edmonton a decade ago The Great One, as he is called, has become the city's best-loved son, leading the Oilers to four Stanley Cups in five years.
Shocked after the deal was announced, angry fans blistered the airwaves of Edmonton radio talk shows Wednesday. The Edmonton Sun reported more than 600 callers jammed the newspaper's switchboard to complain.
Fans also swamped telephone lines at Edmonton Oiler's offices, some threatening to cancel season tickets.
Gretzky, 27, cried in front of a packed media audience at a news conference Tuesday when the deal was announced. But he told reporters he asked to be traded because of his new family, including an expected child next year.
Pocklington said Wednesday he knows fans would "like to string me up beside the Stanley Cup banners.
"I'd swear on a court document, a statutory declaration, anything you wish, that Wayne wanted to be traded," said the Oiler owner, who wasn't aware Gretzky had said in Los Angeles later Tuesday that he was "forced to be sold."
Pocklington said he gave Gretzky one last chance to change his mind before the trade was announced.
According to the Edmonton owner, Gretzky's departure was inevitable.
"I'd just as soon have a hot team 10 years or seven years or five from now, rather than get zero in compensation if he'd become a free agent."
An Oiler spokesman said management should decide this week what to do with season-ticket holders demanding refunds.