Wayne Gretzky : biography
At 16, in his single year at the major junior level, Gretzky surpassed the OMJHL single-season scoring record, winning the OMJHL Rookie of the Year and Most Sportsmanlike awards.
World Hockey Association
In 1978, the World Hockey Association (WHA) league was in competition with the established NHL. The NHL did not allow the signing of players under the age of 20, but the WHA had no rules regarding such signings. Several WHA teams courted Gretzky, notably the Indianapolis Racers and the Birmingham Bulls. Birmingham Bulls owner John F. Bassett wanted to confront the NHL by signing as many young and promising superstars as possible and saw Gretzky as the most promising young prospect, but it was Racers owner Nelson Skalbania who, on June 12, 1978, signed 17-year-old Gretzky to a seven-year personal services contract worth $1.75 million US. Gretzky scored his first professional goal against Dave Dryden of the Edmonton Oilers in his fifth game, and his second goal four seconds later. Skalbania opted to have Gretzky sign a personal-services contract rather than a standard player contract in part because he knew a deal to take some WHA teams into the NHL was in the works. He also knew that the Racers could not hope to be included among those teams, and hoped to keep the Racers alive long enough to collect compensation from the surviving teams when the WHA dissolved, as well as any funds earned from selling the young star.
Gretzky only played eight games for Indianapolis. The Racers were losing $40,000 per game. Skalbania told Gretzky he would be moved, offering him a choice between the Edmonton Oilers and the Winnipeg Jets. On the advice of his agent, Gretzky picked the Oilers, but the move was not that simple. On November 2, Gretzky, goaltender Eddie Mio and forward Peter Driscoll were put on a private plane, not knowing where they would land and what team they would be joining. While in the air, Skalbania worked on the deal. Skalbania offered to play a game of backgammon with Winnipeg owner Michael Gobuty, the stakes being if Gobuty won, he would get Gretzky and if he lost, he had to give Skalbania a share of the Jets. Gobuty turned down the proposal and the players landed in Edmonton. Mio paid the $4,000 bill for the flight with his credit card. Skalbania sold Gretzky, Mio and Driscoll to his former partner, and then-owner of the Edmonton Oilers, Peter Pocklington. Although the announced price was $850,000, Pocklington actually paid $700,000. The money was not enough to keep the Racers alive; they folded that December.
One of the highlights of Gretzky’s season was his appearance in the 1979 WHA All-Star Game. The format was a three-game series between the WHA All-Stars and Dynamo Moscow played at Edmonton’s Northlands Coliseum. The WHA All-Stars were coached by Jacques Demers, who put Gretzky on a line with his boyhood idol Gordie Howe and Howe’s son, Mark. In game one, the line scored seven points, and the WHA All-Stars won by a score of 4–2. In game two, Gretzky and Mark Howe each scored a goal and Gordie Howe picked up an assist as the WHA won 4–2. The line did not score in the final game, but the WHA won by a score of 4–3.
On Gretzky’s 18th birthday, January 26, 1979, Pocklington signed him to a 10-year personal services contract (the longest in hockey history at the time) worth C$3 million, with options for 10 more years. Gretzky finished third in the league in scoring at 110 points, behind Robbie Ftorek and Réal Cloutier. Gretzky captured the Lou Kaplan Trophy as rookie of the year, and helped the Oilers to first overall in the league. The Oilers reached the Avco World Trophy finals, where they lost to the Winnipeg Jets in six games. It was Gretzky’s only year in the WHA, as the league folded following the season.
Gretzky made his first international appearance as a member of the Canadian national junior team at the 1978 World Junior Championships in Montreal, Quebec. He was the youngest player to compete in the tournament at the age of 16. He went on to lead the tournament in scoring with 17 points to earn All-Star Team and Best Forward honours. Canada finished with the bronze medal.