TBT: The Great One in Indy

First in periodical series of “Throwback Thursday” pieces, where we explore a part of Indianapolis hockey history in a little bit more depth. 

Enter the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, and there’s an entire room devoted to one person.

Number 99. The Great One. Wayne Gretzky.

The Hockey News cover with Wayne Gretzky.

The Hockey News cover with Wayne Gretzky.

Whatever you call him, he’s Canada’s national treasure, and his decorated career began as an Indianapolis Racer.

In fact, when one brings up the Racers, that’s usually the first thing that gets mentioned – that’s where it all began for Gretzky, the beginnings of a 21-year pro career that saw him rewrite the NHL’s record book.

This week in 1978, Gretzky scored his first professional goal, slipping a backhand past Edmonton’s Dave Dryden at Market Square Arena. He would tally his second later in the game. They were the first two of his 940 goals in a major professional league. A couple of nights earlier, he tallied the first of his 2,027 career assists, and also the first of his 2,967 points in a major professional league. Of those, 894 goals, 1,963 assists and 2,857 points all came in the NHL, and are league records.

Gretzky’s tenure in Indianapolis was very a small blip on the radar screen of his illustrious career. He arrived as a 17-year-old with much hype. He left just 53 days after training camp began, sold to the Edmonton Oilers for very little. Within weeks, the Racers would also become a part of hockey history.

At the time, the WHA was in its final season and was trying to hang on against the older, more established National Hockey League. The older league refused to draft sign players under the age of 20, and the WHA, looking for an edge, began doing so. The league began signing a number of teenagers who jump-started their pro careers in the rebel circuit – and eventually, the NHL lowered its draft age to 18.

The Racers were one of seven teams competing in the WHA in 1978-79, and while they didn’t sign too many underagers, other teams – most notably the Birmingham Bulls – did.

Wayne Gretzky's Racers headshot.

Wayne Gretzky’s Racers headshot.

Gretzky had put up incredible numbers in junior hockey, with 182 points for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds the previous year, and so he had little to prove against juniors. But he was also 5-11, 164 pounds, a tiny player by big-league standards. But he was so elusive that he couldn’t be checked.

Gretzky’s pro career began when he signed a personal services contract with Racers owner Nelson Skalbania on a plane in Vancouver. Skalbania sent him to his World Hockey Association team in Indianapolis, a franchise he purchased a year before, and hyped the teenager. The L.S. Ayers department store had a “Great Gretzky Fan Club.” The exploits of the precocious teen were all over local media – although they needed some training. After his first exhibition game, the Indianapolis Star’s headline read “Gretsky: Looking Good.”

He enrolled in night classes at Broad Ripple High School, where he fit in as a student. Former defenseman Pat Stapleton was the newly-minted Racers coach, and was mindful of his rookie star.

According to Walter Gretzky, Wayne’s father, in his 1986 biography, Racers coach Pat Stapleton “was a good coach and a considerate man – too considerate for Wayne in his situation. He was so conscious of Wayne’s welfare that he was determined not to put him in a pressure situation” because of high expectations, but the elder Gretzky said had Stapleton turned him loose, he’d have “blossomed right away.”

Gretzky did blossom that season – he was the WHA’s Rookie of the Year, tallied 46 goals and 110 points, was a WHA All-Star and he led his team to the final round of the playoffs. Of course, he followed by rewriting the NHL’s record book over the next two decades.

But nearly all of it happened in Edmonton. Gretzky played just eight games as a Racer, scoring three goals and three assists.

He played first in front of the home crowd in an 8-5 exhibition win over Birmingham, in which he had a goal and two impressive assists. In the next day’s Indianapolis Star, underneath the headline that misspelled The Great One’s last name, Dave Overpeck wrote, “Let’s come out and say it: If you’re a sports fan at all, you owe it to yourself to come out and watch Wayne Gretzky play hockey. A generation or so from now, you can tell your grandkids, ‘I saw him when he broke into the majors as a 17-year-old kid.'”

Prophetic.

The chances to see him in Indy were few, however.

His debut came on Oct. 14, 1978 against the Winnipeg Jets. He was held off the scoreboard in a 6-3 loss. He had his first point four nights later, an assist in a 4-0 shutout of the Quebec Nordiques.

On Oct. 20, 1978, he played the fourth of his eight games in Indy, against the Edmonton Oilers – a team he’d be playing for just a few days later – when Kevin Morrison’s feed sprung Gretzky free and he beat Dave Dryden on the backhand at the 6:37 mark of the second period. Gretzky pumped his fist and jumped to the boards with the crowd at Market Square Arena roaring. Racers broadcaster Mike Fornes said “I have a feeling that’s the first of quite a few that we’ll be seeing from Wayne Gretzky.”

Gretzky scored his second goal on the same shift, fetching a puck in the corner and banking it off Dryden and into the net 34 seconds later to give the Racers a 3-1 lead. Edmonton rallied with three third-period goals and beat the Racers 4-3. A crowd of 6,286 at MSA witnessed it.

Gretzky’s tenure lasted just four more games. The next game, he assisted on a first-period goal by Peter Driscoll, then ripped a wrist shot past John Garett late in the third period of a 6-3 loss to the New England Whalers. Gretzky’s final point as a Racer came on Oct. 27, an assist in a 4-2 loss in Birmingham. Gretzky’s last home game at MSA was the next night, a 3-2 win over Winnipeg at MSA. A trip to Winnipeg the next day netted a tie. The Racers sat 2-5-1 when “the sale” happened.

“The Indianapolis Racers today announced the sale of Peter Driscoll, Wayne Gretzky and Ed Mio to the Edmonton Oilers. In keeping with Nelson Skalbania’s words to preserve major league hockey in Indianapolis, the above sale was consummated. In addition, the front office staff was reduced.” 

With that tersely worded press release handed out at a Nov. 2 press conference, Wayne Gretzky was no longer an Indianapolis Racer.

Skalbania needed money to keep the franchise afloat. So, he sold his greatest asset to the Edmonton Oilers for $850,000 and for Edmonton’s Peter Pocklington to assume Gretzky’s personal services contract – one that was signed with Skalbania, not with the team.

The Indy Star’s longtime sports editor Bob Collins said in his usually-blunt style “the sale price was undisclosed … I’ll tell you what it was – the last shred of Skalbania’s credibility.”

It caused waves in Indy, where the Indy Star’s Bill Pickett called it “Skalbania’s Thursday Massacre.” Stapleton said the players they took the sale “like a death in the family.”

The lineup sheet from Wayne Gretzky's first pro hockey game.

The lineup sheet from Wayne Gretzky’s first pro hockey game.

Gretzky was actually given the choice to go to either Edmonton or Winnipeg, and he chose Edmonton, where he would star for the Oilers for a decade and win four Stanley Cups after the NHL-WHA merger. Gretzky also led the Oilers to six league finals – in addition to their four Cups, they were in the Stanley Cup Final in 1983, and the WHA’s Avco World Trophy Final in 1979, where they lost the league’s final championship series to the Winnipeg Jets. He also led the Los Angeles Kings to the Cup final in 1993, playing alongside two other players who were stalwarts in Indy – Warren Rychel and Kelly Hrudey.

The Racers’ future would be brief. On Dec. 12, Angie Moretto scored a late goal in a 7-4 loss to the New England Whalers at MSA as the team’s record dropped to 5-18-2. Three days later, a spokesperson for Skalbania announced the team was folding immediately.

Gretzky would return to Indianapolis eight years later. He played for the Oilers in an exhibition game against the St. Louis Blues on Oct. 5, 1986, a game Edmonton won 3-1 – which was the only game Gretzky played in that Bob Lamey broadcast play-by-play for, as “Hockey Bob” called the game for WIBC. Later that year, the Oilers would win their third of four Stanley Cups with Gretzky on the roster.

Gretzky holds 60 NHL records, was the league’s MVP nine times in his first 10 NHL seasons – from 1980-87 with Edmonton and again in 1989 with Los Angeles. He was a 10-time NHL scoring champion – and tied Marcel Dionne for the title in his first NHL season, and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1999. His 92 goals in 1981-82 are the most all-time in a season, as are his 163 assists and 215 points in 1985-86.

But his pro career all began right here – with a flash – in the Circle City.

Postscript: To clear up some myths, Gretzky wore his famous No. 99 as a Racer. There are some photos that show him wearing different numbers (including here), but they are either from practice or preseason games. He began wearing 99 in junior hockey when the number 9 – which he wore to honor Gordie Howe, his boyhood hero – was taken by a teammate, and asked Phil Esposito (who began the practice months earlier by switching from 7 to 77 when he went from Boston to the New York Rangers) for permission to do so.

Click to listen to Mike Fornes’ radio call of Gretzky’s first professional goal on WIBC.

(Quotes from issues of The Indianapolis Star, and “Gretzky” by Walter Gretzky)