November 03, 2009

How did he end up with #99?

That's a young Wayne Gretzky embracing his junior coach Muzz MacPherson of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.

Believe it or not, the Greyhounds selected Gretzky with the third overall selection in the 1977 OHA midget draft. Partially because the Gretzky family had announced Wayne would not play too far from their Brantford home, Oshawa selected Tom McCarthy while Niagara Falls selected Steve Peters.

The Gretzkys had hoped Wayne would slide to 4th where nearby Peterborough drafted. Wayne had even played three games for the Petes in 1976-77 as an underage player. At the time the OHA permitted teams to use local underage players for a maximum of three games. Gretzky had three assists.

Refusing to adhere to the family wishes, Sault Ste. Marie selected Wayne before the Petes could. You could not find a OHA city farther away from Brantford if you tried.

Off to the Soo

Gretzky did end up reporting to "the Soo," but only after close family friends had moved there and he was granted permission to live with them. Gretzky fit right in with linemates Paul Mancini and Dan Lucas and future NHLers Craig Hartsburg on defense and Greg Millen in goal. Gretz scored 3 goals and 3 assists in his very first game. He went on to record 70 goals and 182 points in 64 games.

There was only one problem. Sweater number 9, the number Wayne always wore in honour of his hero Gordie Howe, was already taken. Team veteran Brian Gualazzi was not about to give it up, either. He wore it because his birthday was November 9th.

So coach Muzz MacPherson consoled Gretzky by giving him #19, but after noticing Phil Esposito switching to 77 and Ken Hodge to 88 after their big trade to New York, MacPherson suggested taking #99.

"Wayne was really worried that people would laugh at him if he wore number 99," remembered MacPherson in Terry Jones' 1982 book, The Great Gretzky. "But I convinced him to try it. They didn't laugh at him."

The Great Hazing

Though he was a bit of a big shot in the Soo, Gualazzi never amounted to much in hockey. He had a monstrous 20 year old season in 1978-79, the same year 17 year old Gretzky left the Soo and turned pro in the WHA. He was drafted by the Minnesota North Stars 111th overall in 1979, but headed off to Dalhousie University. He did turn pro with the Salt Lake Golden Eagles for 20 games in 1983-84, but quit to go to law school. He eventually returned to the Soo, and became a prosecuting crown attorney.

Forcing Wayne Gretzky to jersey #99 may be Gualazzi's legacy, but he is remembered for one other incident in the Soo, again involving Gretzky.

Gualazzi was behind the rookie initiation involving Gretzky in which the veterans took the rookies' clothes and stuck the new players in a car:

"So there were seven guys sitting in the car naked, including Wayne," Gualazzi recalled for the Edmonton Sun years later. "We had it all set up with the police so, all of a sudden the paddy wagon pulls up and somebody knocks on the window (of the car). The police arrested them with indecent exposure."

Gretzky uncharacteristically tried to appeal to the police based on his star status.

"He said, 'Do you know who I am? I'm Wayne Gretzky.' And the policeman said, 'I don't care who you are. Get in.' "

The team veterans later showed up at the police station and let the rookies in on the orchestrated prank.

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