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AIR FORCE GREAT ONE

AN OILERS ORAL HISTORY ON WAYNE GRETZKY'S PATH TO EDMONTON

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ditor's Note: Indianapolis Racers owner and Oilers part-owner Nelson Skalbania signed unproven 17-year-old forward Wayne Gretzky to a personal service contract in the summer of 1978, making Gretzky an Indianapolis Racer for the upcoming '78-79 World Hockey Association season.

Less than 10 games into Gretzky's career with the Racers, the team was on the verge of folding, causing Skalbania to sell the teenager and other Indianapolis Racers skaters. For Skalbania, Gretzky's destination was going to be either the WHA's Winnipeg Jets or the Edmonton Oilers.

Here's the story, as told by WHA franchise owners, Oilers alumni, Edmonton media and archived articles about the deal and flight that brought the National Hockey League's greatest player to the Edmonton Oilers.

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Indianapolis, 1978

Wayne Gretzky (Forward, Edmonton Oilers): Nelson had signed me in June of '78, I guess it was. He really didn't know a lot about hockey but that was OK. He was a businessman.

 

Jim Matheson (Sports Reporter, Edmonton Journal): Skalbania had phoned me in June and said to me he was going to sign Gretzky. That was when owners actually talked to the media.

 

Gretzky: He was really heavily involved in trying to grow the game and make the WHA as good as you could. So, he signed this 17-year-old-kid.

 

Matheson: Rod Phillips was over, we were having dinner and Skalbania phoned me and asked, "Do you know anything about Gretzky?" 

And I said, "I've read stuff, I've never seen him play."

He said, "Oh, I'm going to sign him."

 

Gretzky: Part of the problem was that I was really somewhat of an unknown. At that point in time, Indianapolis wasn't, by any means, a great hockey city. Although, it was a good sports city. He thought this 17-year-old kid could sort of turn that around and make an impact in the community. 

 

Matheson: I remember watching Gretzky play in Indianapolis and they had him with a couple sluggers to look after him. So, he really didn't do a whole lot. (Ed. Note: Gretzky scored three goals and six points in eight career games with the Racers).

 

Eddie Mio (Goaltender, Edmonton Oilers): Remember, no one knew what Wayne was going to be in the pros. He was a hell of a junior player but he left at 17.

 

Gretzky: After about the fifth game, he (Skalbania) came and met with me, and said he was going to trade me. It wasn't the right situation or the right scenario.

 

Nelson Skalbania (Former owner, Indianapolis Racers) (via): At that time, Indianapolis was struggling badly. I think we had 2,000 season-ticket (holders). After announcing Gretzky, relatively unknown at the time in Indianapolis, the season tickets roared from 2,000 to 2,100. So, I knew I was in trouble.

 

Michael Gobuty (Former Part-Owner, WHA's Winnipeg Jets) (via): I'm at home. I get a phone call. (Skalbania) says, "Michael, I'm folding. It'll be my last game in Indianapolis. Why don't you take Wayne?"

 

Matheson: The whole (WHA) league was that way. Anything went in that league. The owners got along well enough to say, 'I think this player on our team would be more beneficial in your market. Nobody's going to watch this guy, so, let's get him somewhere else.'

That's how Gretzky ended up in Edmonton.

 

Skalbania (via): I called up Michael Gobuty and said, "I'm going to fold the team. If you want Gretzky, I promised him to you first. You can have Gretzky." 

I was always going (to offer Gretzky to) Winnipeg because they had the first right. It was a verbal handshake.

 

Gretzky: Nelson was really upfront with me and couldn't have been nicer about it. In a lot of ways, he felt bad but he thought it was the right thing for me, the right thing for the team and for him.

 

Gobuty (via): We did crazy things (in the WHA). If we needed a trade, we'd say, "I need your guy, you need my guy," and the trade was done. No money, nothing. Just friendship. We knew nothing about hockey, but we had camaraderie like you would not believe.

 

Gretzky: There was about a four- or five-day period and we played a game in Winnipeg while I was with Indy. After the game, Bobby Hull grabbed me and took me to dinner. He was really trying hard with Gobuty to get me to go to Winnipeg. He told Nelson to move me to Winnipeg. He wanted me to play with him and felt very confident that I could step in and be a centreman at 17. 

Obviously, when Bobby Hull tells you something, your eyes light up. I was intrigued about playing with Bobby Hull. 

 

Gobuty (via): Bobby said that if the opportunity arose that we should take Wayne Gretzky. He was very important to the team. Bobby made the Winnipeg Jets and Bobby made the WHA. There's no Bobby Hull, there's no WHA.

My GM at the time was one of the top two or three in the business, Rudy Pilous. He'd won Stanley Cups and everything. 

"No, Gretzky's too skinny," he said. "He's too light. They'll kill him."

 

Gretzky: The reality was the owner (Gobuty) and their captain (Hull) wanted me to go there but their general manager (Pilous) wasn't certain that I could play in professional leagues, so he convinced them to stay out of it. Consequently, Winnipeg was sort of taken off the table.

 

Skalbania (via): I flew to Winnipeg, landed at the airport, and Gobuty brings his GM (who) says, "Are you crazy paying that kid those kinds of dollars?"

 

Gobuty (via): Nelson was a backgammon expert. And my wife was a backgammon expert. I was just an average player. And he says, "Let's play backgammon for Wayne."

"Are you crazy?" I said. "No, no, I can't do that. It's impossible."

Nelson slept at my house, and the next day he said, "What are you going to do (about acquiring Gretzky)?"

"Nelson, my partners say no," I said. "Rudy Pilous says no."

Biggest mistake. Huge mistake. Because, as you know, Wayne was the best. And I didn't do it.

 

Mio: It could have been completely different had he gone to Winnipeg. We ended up losing the Avco Final, believe it or not, to Winnipeg. So, that's a bit of history, too. 

Ironic Wayne doesn't go to Winnipeg but Winnipeg beats Edmonton for the Avco Cup - and the last Avco. Now, that would have been nice to put on Wayne's resume. Winning the last Avco Cup and then doing what he did in Edmonton, for the NHL, and for the game of hockey.

 

Gretzky: Nelson said to me, "Where would you like to go, Winnipeg or Edmonton?"

It was Gus Badali (Gretzky's agent at the time) who actually told me to go to Edmonton because Edmonton had a better chance of getting into the NHL in his mind because they had a newer arena, a bigger arena than Winnipeg had, and he thought that Edmonton had a better opportunity than anybody at some point in time to get into the National Hockey League.

So, I told him "Edmonton" and I guess the rest is pretty much history.

 

Matheson: When he (Gretzky) came to Edmonton, nobody was that surprised because Skalbania owned two teams. That seemed to be the natural spot for him to go. He was the part-owner here (in Edmonton) with Pocklington and the full owner in Indianapolis.

 

Pocklington (Former Owner, Edmonton Oilers) (via): The whole thing took about five minutes on the phone to finish off. I paid $325,000 to get the players and another $500,000 as part of a prior arrangement with Nelson that he'd get paid off should Oilers ever make it into the NHL.

 

Gretzky: I've heard a thousand stories (about the deal). I've never really asked one of them (Skalbania or Pocklington) what transpired or what happened. I heard everything from backgammon games, to paintings, to apartment buildings, to whatever. 

November 2, 1978

Ed. Note: After an Indianapolis Racers practice concluded, Gretzky, Mio and Peter Driscoll had been told they were being sold. The three were directed to pack their suitcases and head straight to the airport, although it was still a mystery as to where they would be going - Edmonton or Winnipeg.

The players were to board a private Learjet and head to Minneapolis, figuring they would know their final destination by the time they got there. There were issues, however, as not only did they not have a clue where they would end up, but someone also had to pay for the expensive private flight.

Mio: I remember probably everything about that day.

First of all, we started off at practice and after practice, we were told to go home and pack some clothes, make sure we got our equipment and that we were being sold. We didn't know quite where we were going. It was between Winnipeg and Edmonton but be at the airport by 2:00 O'clock. 

So, when we got to the airport with all our stuff, they still had not known where we were going and we waited around and waited around. Finally, there was a decision made to fly as far as Minneapolis, and they should know by then.  

We loaded the plane up, it was pretty much filled up because it was a small Learjet. Private. They wanted us there as quick as we could.

 

Gretzky: It was like a Learjet 35 or 25. I'm not sure exactly. I just remember I was really excited about the opportunity about going to Edmonton. 

 

Mio: As soon as we took off, the pilot opened the door and kind of asked who was paying for the flight. Everybody looked around. Wayne's making the most between me and Peter but we know he doesn't have any bank account, credit card or whatever. Somebody is in control of his money. 

 

(Ed. Note: Mio and Gretzky had formed a friendship in Indianapolis, with Gretzky describing Mio as an older brother. The former Oilers keeper was later Gretzky's best man at his wedding).

 

Gretzky: Eddie sort of looked out for me like a big brother. I was 17 years old and not only away from home but in a new country. 

 

Mio: The decision had to be made, so I asked the pilot if he took credit card. The pilot said, "Yes" and he had one of those old swipers on the plane. He swiped it. Gave it back to me for me to sign and my jaw dropped open looking at the price. 

 

Gretzky: All I remember was the pilot saying, "Who's paying for this?" 

And Eddie said, "I got a credit card but it's got a $500 limit." 

The pilot said, "OK, I'll take it."

 

Mio: Peter Driscoll was sitting beside me and kind of said, "Well, what's the matter?" 

I said, "Well, do you think they'll check the card?" 

Peter said, "I don't know, why?" 

I said, "Well, it's a $500 Canadian limit from Toronto Dominion." And the flight was over, I can't really recall but anywhere from $8,000 to $10,000 dollars. And that's not even knowing where we were going. 

 

Gretzky: Fortunately, guys like Eddie, Peter and a few other guys on the team treated me extremely well and took care of me.

 

Mio: Long story short, not only were we panicking about where we were going, I was wondering if they were going to put the purchase through and it would have been declined right away because we said to him, "We don't know who's going to pay for it, we don't know where we were going." 

He said, "If somebody doesn't pay for it, we're going to turn around and land back in Indianapolis."

That's when I made the decision and forced the credit card on him. Thankfully, he didn't check it. 

 

Gretzky: We had to make a stop in Minnesota. At that point in time, we still weren't sure if we were going to Winnipeg or Edmonton.

 

Mio: We got to Minneapolis and the pilot came back. We all got off the plane to stretch our legs and refuel. 

The pilot came back and said, "Edmonton it is, you guys. That's where you're going."

 

Ed. Note: Once the plane took off, there were two moods in the cabin. Gretzky was excited for the new opportunity on a new team, and potentially, new league.

Mio and Driscoll, two veterans who became part of the community in Indianapolis over two seasons, were upset they had to leave.

 

Gretzky: Peter and Eddie had a different sort of mindset at that point in time because they really cemented themselves in Indianapolis. They loved it there and were living together and enjoyed playing in Indy. 

 

Mio: That was absolutely true. Because, remember, Peter and I were there for two years. We had a house that Wayne came and visited all the time because he was close to us. 

You know how you build friendships and you're a big part of the team? We had been there for two years. We didn't know Indianapolis was going to fold.

 

Gretzky: I think they were really shell shocked when the deal transpired. I was really excited about getting the opportunity to go to Edmonton. 

 

Mio: We were stunned. Wayne had only been there since August because he had to go to high school. Peter and I had already been spending summers there. We were part of the community, played softball and baseball games. We had a pretty good grasp on Indianapolis and the place.

 

Gretzky: So, the plane had two different mindsets: I was really excited and those guys didn't really get excited until they got to Edmonton because they were so disappointed in Leaving Indy, which is natural.

 

Mio: We got to Edmonton but it's not over yet because when we flew in, we got to the airport and the airport was dark. We were late. I think it was now around 10:00 o'clock Edmonton time. Maybe even later. 

Finally, the plane pulled up to where the customs guy comes on and he said, "Hey, you're at the wrong airport. They're all waiting for you at the city airport."

So, we get back on the plane, we take off and we go to the city airport. Well, again the pilot looks back and says, "I'm going to need that credit card again." 

I said, "For what! We're right here (laughing)!"

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Ed. Note: Eventually, Gretzky, Mio and Driscoll arrived with reporters waiting for them.

 

Matheson: I just remember waiting, waiting and waiting. It was a long night. As a newspaper guy, I was just worried about deadlines. Like, let's get this show on the road.

 

Mio: As soon as we landed in the city, (Oilers Public Relations Director) John Short, I think, came racing up. The pilot opened the door and John said, "Come on guys, they've all been waiting for you. You got to get in and get welcomed to Edmonton."

 

Matheson: I just remember us waiting at the downtown airport with a crush of people. It wasn't like we were waiting for Gordie Howe to come in. It was a 17-year-old kid and the buzz around the kid was that he was a Hall of Famer. As it turned out, he was the greatest player to ever live.

 

Mio: Wayne got out, Peter got out, they started walking and I waited. 

He (Short) said, "What do you want, what are you doing?" 

I said, "Here. I'm not leaving until you take care of this." 

I gave him my receipt and he said, "No problem, here." 

He gave the pilot their credit card and sure enough, ripped my copy up, which probably was the worst thing that we did because it would have been not knowing what Wayne was going to do in Edmonton. It would have been a nice keepsake to mount it up, give it to Wayne, put it in his place, his dad's place or trophy room.

 

Matheson: Then Gretzky finally arrived and he looked exactly like he did four or five months earlier: Long hair and skinny - not looking like he would set the world on fire but of course, he did.

 

Mio: So, we had the press conference and off Wayne goes with a billet family, while Peter and I went to a motel that was close to Northlands.

I remember saying to Peter, "Boy, I thought we were in the big leagues being sold to Edmonton. Look at the place they got us put up in (laughing)."

 

Ed. Note: Gretzky went on to play nine seasons with the Orange & Blue in the National Hockey League, compiling 1669 points in 696 games, while also winning the Stanley Cup four times with the franchise. The Oilers Legend holds or shares 61 NHL records, including most goals, most points and most assists.

 

Gretzky: My dad always said to me, "Life happens for a reason." 

It was meant to be that I was to go to Edmonton. It was meant to be that I started in Indy and had Peter, Eddie, and we ended up all together in Edmonton. 

Mio: When something like that happens, it's hard to forget.

Gretzky: from Day 1 when I met Glen (Sather), the first meeting I had with him, he told me that - and I'll never forget this. 

He said, "One day, we're going to merge with the NHL. We're going to be in the NHL, I think by next year. One day you're going to be captain of this team and one day, we're going to win a Stanley Cup." 

I remember thinking, "Wow, we got a lot to do in the next few years (laughing)."

But it all did come true.

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This oral history was pieced together by EdmontonOilers.com. Special thanks to Jim Matheson and Derek Van Diest of Postmedia and Oilers Director of Alumni Relations Barrie Stafford.