November 23, 2009

Gretzky: Almost A Whaler, Eventually An Oiler

Did you know Wayne Gretzky was almost a Hartford Whaler?

It was back in the late 1970s when 17 year old Gretzky wanted to leave junior hockey and turn pro. He was living far away from home in Sault Ste. Marie, playing for Greyhounds coach Paul Theriault, a man who was hell bent on changing Gretzky's style of play. With the NHL not allowing players under 20 years of age at the time, Gretzky feared stagnating with three more seasons in the Soo. His only real option was to jump to the fledgling WHA, the NHL's rival league near death that was happily exploiting junior talent.

Gretzky ultimately signed with the Indianapolis Racers of all teams. I've always wondered why Gretzky chose to go there. No one's hockey dream ever was to play in Indianapolis. Money appears to be the biggest reason, not surprisingly. Owner Nelson Skalbania offered him a 7 year contract $1.75 million including a $250,000 signing bonus. Now Gretzky would one day be making that type of money in a month, but at the age of 17 he must have felt like had won the lottery, especially after spending that summer working at a job where he filled potholes for $5 an hour.

Interestingly, the deal was agreed upon in an airplane and announced as soon as the plane touched down in . . . Edmonton.

Of course the Indianapolis offer was not Gretzky's only offer. Birmingham was first in line, low-balling Gretzky with a 1 year, $80,000 offer. Fortunately Gretzky's agent Gus Badali wisely turned that down.

Perhaps the most attractive offer came for the Whalers, then known as the New England Whalers. The Whalers were said to be offering an 8 year contract. I do not know how much it would have been worth per season, but it was reported to have included a $200,000 signing bonus. More importantly, the Whalers were a stable franchise and had a great trump card: Gordie Howe still playing for them. You would have to believe that Gretzky would have been ecstatic to join his boyhood idol, even if it meant taking less money than what Indy was offering.

Ultimately Gretzky never had a chance to decide. The WHA was really on its death bed at that time. The NHL and WHA were in talks for some time about merging the strongest franchises into the NHL. The Whalers were certain to be included in the NHL jump, which caused the franchise to, perhaps foolishly, withdraw the offer to Gretzky at the last minute. They were worried about committing a lot of money to an underage player when NHL rules at the time clearly prohibited players under 20 to play in the NHL.

Gretzky would go off to Indy, but eight games into the season, financially troubled Racers owner Nelson Skalbania decided to fold the team. However since Gretzky was on a personal services contract, he first had to trade the teenage phenom.

Skalbania had two deals going, one with the Winnipeg Jets and one with the Edmonton Oilers. Both deals also involved Eddie Mio and Peter Driscoll. Things were moving so quickly that all three were put on a private jet headed to western Canada, though they didn't know where the plane was going to land.

Needless to say the pilots were as confused as the passengers. They wanted to know who was paying for the flight.

"Who's paying for this flight?" they asked.

They looked at one another. Gretzky had lots of money in the bank, but was too young to have a credit card. The other two were broke.

So Eddie Mio reached into his pocket, pulled out his VISA card with the $300 limit, and signed for a $10,000 trip on a Learjet.

Somewhere in midair, the pilot got the word: They were Oilers.

They landed in Edmonton. Mio of course was more concerned about his credit card.

BallHype: hype it up!

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