Where and when did Wayne Gretzky make his National Hockey League debut? The Great One presently is on vacation from the game, a situation that begs to be rectified, but he is not averse to recollecting the evening when he launched his Hall of Fame career: October 10, 1979. Edmonton Oilers at Chicago Stadium.
“Nervous, excited,” Gretzky said the other day from his home near Los Angeles. “I was only 18. I had watched the Blackhawks and Montreal in that terrific 1971 Stanley Cup final on TV, and now I was there, walking up those stairs from the visitors’ locker room. It was the season opener, and there were only about 9,500 in the building, but it was something I’ll never forget. My dad, Walter, came down from Canada to watch. His favorite player was Stan Mikita, and who do I go up against right away? Stan. I got an assist on our first NHL goal, by Kevin Lowe, and the first Oiler penalty. I tripped somebody, maybe John Marks. Dougie Wilson was on defense for the Hawks, no helmet. We lost 4-2.”
Gretzky had been to Chicago before. His grandfather came to the Windy City from Russia, so as a child, Gretzky visited relatives on occasion with his parents. (“Don’t ask me where…I was too young,” said Wayne.) Eventually, his grandfather settled in Manitoba, and it was there that the family surname was changed. (“Somehow, when he went to Canada, the ‘S’ on his passport became ‘Z’,” said Wayne. “Until then, we were ‘Gretsky”.
The Great One’s path to the Stadium was no less involved. As a childhood phenom, he signed a personal services contract with Nelson Skalbania, who owned the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association. Gretzky played eight games with the Racers, who were coached by Pat Stapleton, a former all-star Hawk defenseman. But fiscal exhaustion prompted Skalbania to move his prodigy. Edmonton and Winnipeg, two of the more successful WHA franchises, were potential destinations.
“Bobby Hull, who left the Hawks in 1972, was in Winnipeg and he was trying to get me to go there,” Gretzky said. “I had dinner with him up there. That’s where I first met (son) Brett, who’s become one of my best friends. Bobby really wanted me to be traded to the Jets.”
“True story,” said Hull, disgust evident in his voice. “But the geniuses who ran our team thought Wayne couldn’t play. They decided he couldn’t skate well enough. And we wonder why teams fold.”
Gretzky wound up in Edmonton, where he finished the 1978-79 season with 43 goals and 61 assists, not bad for a kid who couldn’t skate. That summer, the long and costly war between the NHL and WHA ended after seven years. The established NHL annexed four WHA teams—Edmonton, Hartford, Quebec and Winnipeg—while the others dissolved.
“If that hadn’t happened, I would have stayed in the WHA for a while, because I had a personal services contract,” Gretzky said. “At the time I signed it, the NHL wasn’t accepting underage players. Don’t forget, when I turned pro with the Racers, I was barely 17. I had spent a summer pouring gravel into potholes at $5 a hour. All of a sudden, I get a $250,000 signing bonus, plus a salary starting at $100,000 a year to work for Skalbania.
“But making the NHL was a big deal. I remember the night before our opener in Chicago, talking to Mark Messier in the hotel room. ‘We’re in the NHL!’ Doug Hicks, who had played with the Hawks, was with the Oilers then. He made sure we knew that the previous year, he was Bobby Orr’s defense partner in Chicago. Right away, you could see the skill level in the NHL was better. Fast and more physical. WHA teams had maybe eight guys each who could make the NHL, but 12 or so who probably couldn’t.”
In his rookie NHL campaign, The Great One registered 51 goals, a record (he shattered one year later) 86 assists and became the youngest ever to receive the Hart Trophy as most valuable player. The rest really is history. The Oilers won four Cups with Gretzky—and another after he joined the Los Angeles Kings—often leaving the talented Hawks stranded at the altar. Gretzky broke every scoring record worth breaking in 20 seasons, averaging almost two points per game.
Since leaving the Phoenix Coyotes as head coach last fall, however, Gretzky has detached himself from hockey. “I’m spending a lot of time with (wife) Janet and the kids, watching a lot of games on TV,” said The Great One, who will play in Michael Jordan’s celebrity golf tournament this weekend in the Bahamas, then prepare for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
“I’ve been to three of them, but never seen anything except hockey,” said Gretzky. “I’ll go as a fan, just like I’m a fan now of the NHL. I really haven’t thought too much about getting back into the business, how or when. I still love the game, that’s for sure.”
Another of Gretzky’s indelible memories of Chicago Stadium involves the 1991 NHL All-Star Game. Earlier that week, the United States embarked on a real war, Desert Storm, and Gretzky was quite vocal in urging the game not be played. He thought it would be inappropriate. The game went off on schedule, surrounded by a patriotic display of flags and sparklers brandished by fans.
“I never heard or saw anything like it,” Gretzky said. “That’s all we were talking about in the locker room after. The emotion of those people in Chicago. It was unbelievable, so loud you couldn’t hear yourself think. That was some building, and from what I can see lately, there’s a whole lot of noise in the new building for the Hawks. That’s great. Just like old times back there for the fans and the team.”
Meanwhile, with Wayne Gretzky on vacation, the NHL is skating a man short.