The Canadian media knew about the lanky, thin kid that the Oilers acquired from the Indianapolis Racers, and it was clear that he was special. The young man in the image to the left is the greatest scorer in NHL history, and it's amazing to think that he started his professional ice hockey career as a 17 year-old. How Wayne Gretzky was signed to a contract by the WHA's Indianapolis Racers and eventually dealt to the Edmonton Oilers is a bit of a crazy story. And he almost ended up as a Winnipeg Jet! But the greatest player in NHL history to be denied the Calder Trophy has a pretty good tale about how he became the face of the Edmonton franchise.
Jerry Kirshenbaum's article in the December 11, 1978 edition of Sports Illustrated brings to light the story of Gretzky getting settled in with his new city and team after the deal that sent him from Indianapolis. Again, it's a story that really has its own history, and I want to point out a few facts presented by Mr. Kirshenbaum in this article.
Seeing Gretzky as somebody who might fill a lot of their empty seats, the foundering Indianapolis Racers signed him to a four-year, $1 million contract, sent him on a whirlwind round of promotional appearances and even organized a Great Gretzky Fan Club. Then last month, just eight games into the season, the financially shaky Racers peddled him to Edmonton, a stronger franchise that, unlike Indianapolis, entertains realistic expectations of getting into the National Hockey League. Peter Pocklington, the Oiler president, said, "We feel that if we're going to be in the NHL, we need a superstar. And Wayne is going to be one."Was Peter Pocklington clairvoyant? More than likely he was not as the Oilers probably just took a look at his Junior A stats from Sault Ste. Marie, and wanted him as an Oiler almost immediately.
What isn't told, though, is that Racers owner Nelson Skalbania had two teams vying for Gretzky's services: Edmonton and Winnipeg. Skalbania had signed Gretzky to a personal services contract worth a reported $1.75 million, but the Racers were hemorrhaging money. To get stop the bleeding, Skalbania offered up the star to the Jets and Oilers. If the legend is true, after Winnipeg owner Michael Gobuty turned down a high-stakes game of backgammon with Skalbania where Gretzky's rights were on the table, Peter Pocklington offered up big cash to Skalbania in the form of $700,000 for Gretzky's rights. Along with Ed Mio and Peter Driscoll, Gretzky was traded to Edmonton for the cash, and the rest, as they say, is history.
It does, however, seem more plausible that Gretzky's agent recommended he choose Edmonton because of the oil boom happening in that province considering what the Racers were going through. But this is the WHA, and the backgammon story doesn't seem so far-fetched when you consider everything that went on in the WHA.
When Gretzky joined Edmonton, the team had a 1-4 record. The Oilers are now 12-8 and contending for first place. Glen Sather, the former NHL player who coaches the club, gives Gretzky due credit. " Wayne has innate hockey sense like all the great players," says Sather, who played for Boston in 1966 when Orr was a rookie with the Bruins. "Coming out of his end, he always seems in position to take the pass. And when he gets the puck he knows where everybody is, the way a center is supposed to. I hate to put this on him, but a player like Gretzky comes along only once every 10 years. He's not up there with Orr, Hull and Howe yet, but he's not far away, either."The bar was set very high for Gretzky by Glen Sather in those comments, but Sather clearly saw the potential. Of course, a lot of high-scoring junior players show ample potential, but Gretzky had nine goals and eleven assists in his first twenty professional games as a seventeen year-old! If anyone had the foresight to know that Gretzky would rewrite the record books a few short years later, Sather's words could be considered almost prophetic.
His teammates, who nicknamed him Brinks because of his big contract, took a liking to him, as did the members of the Great Gretzky Fan Club. However, after an encouraging turnout of 11,728 for the Racers' opening game—a 6-3 loss to Winnipeg in which Gretzky went scoreless—attendance dropped to the 5,000-to-7,000 level.I found it funny that the Gretzky's teammates in Indianapolis called him "Brinks" because of his massive contract, yet Skalbania claimed the sale of Gretzky, Mio, and Driscoll was necessary to keep the Racers afloat. If only Gretzky's teammates had known what was brewing behind the scenes, the nickname given to Gretzky could have been all the foreshadowing the Racers franchise needed in terms of their existence.
Might it be that Skalbania had actually planned to unload Gretzky for a fast profit all along? Suspecting as much, some irate season ticket holders in Indianapolis reacted to the sale by filing a class-action suit, and the Indianapolis Star taunted the club's absentee owner with the headline HEY NELSON, GO BACK TO SKALBANIA. Meanwhile, the last-place Racers are 4-15-2 and apparently trying to hang on until such time as the NHL might absorb choice WHA franchises like the Oilers, at which point less choice franchises such as their own would be indemnified for consenting to pack it in.There was, indeed, a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of the season-ticket holders of the Indianapolis Racers, but not over the trade of Gretzky. Instead, Skalbania was hit with a class-action lawsuit because the team folded on December 15, 1978 after just 25 games. Without getting into the legalese of that linked article, it appears that Skalbania escaped the charges made against him that he owed the season-ticket holders roughly $20 million in "damages". In any case, the last-place Racers wouldn't make it through to the end of the season, folding four days after Mr. Kirshenbaum's article was published.
Gretzky was scoring goals on professional goaltenders before he had graduated high school. There aren't many players who can claim that today. But there probably aren't too many players who can say that they signed their first professional contract at age 17, and then was traded just a few games into the season for cash before playing against the team that traded him a few days before that franchise folded! Gretzky's start to his professional career is pretty unique, just as his talent set him apart from everyone else.
It's just another one of those crazy WHA stories that needs to be told!
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!