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IN DEPTH: Air Force Great One

An Oilers oral history on the deal and plane ride that brought Wayne Gretzky to the Edmonton Oilers

by Staff /

Editor'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.

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. 


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