FTHN LEGENDS – Wayne Gretzky Part One: The Oiler Years
To call Wayne Gretzky a legend would appear to be the understatement of all time. For some, they become a legend due to a defining moment; others it is by their sheer brute force or physicality. For others, it is for their body of work. For Gretzky though, his entire hockey life is legendary, so to single out a particular moment or moments would cast a pall on many others.
Everyone who is a hockey fan has their “Gretzky” moment. It could be the time where he did something phenomenal where the reaction was “Did I just see that?” or “What can he do next?”. He wasn’t called “The Great One” for nothing after all and let’s not forget he has 4 Stanley Cups, 9 Hart Trophies, 9 Art Ross Trophies, 2 Conn Smythe Trophies, 5 Lady Byng Trophies, 5 Lester B. Pearson Trophies in his trophy case and the list goes on and on and on.
So with so much ground to cover, lets take a look back on the hockey career of the great #99.
Gretzky, even at an early age saw the game differently than others his age. He and his brothers Keith, Brent & Glen honed their skills in their backyard rink, under the watchful eye of his father Walter, in Brantford, Ontario. Walter had his boys practice drills like flipping the puck over different obstacles to learn to gain control of the puck and he instilled in each of his sons to go where the puck is going and not where it’s been.
It was not uncommon for Wayne to play in leagues where the players were several years older, that’s just how advanced his talent was. His first team as a six-year old was in a league designated for 10-year olds, yet their was 6-year old Wayne playing with the boys.
While playing for the Brantford Nadrofsky Steelers as a ten year old, Gretzky scored 378 goals and 139 assists in just one season, which attracted media attention and put the spotlight on him. As expected, petty jealousies erupted from other player’s families and even with his teammates. It was so bad at one point that he was booed by his own hometown fans and eventually it forced the Gretzky’s to move Wayne to a league in Toronto. This wasn’t exactly a legal thing to do at that time and the Gretzky’s had to wage a court battle and they won, thus allowing Wayne to play for the Toronto Nationals.
Once in Toronto, Gretzky continued to rack up the points and won numerous awards. In 1977 at the OMJHL 16 year old Draft, 2 teams actually passed up on him. The Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds gain was the Oshawa General & Niagara Fall Flyers loss and in his only season in the OMJHL, Gretzky set the single season scoring record while winning the Rookie of the Year & Most Sportsmanlike Awards.
After that, Gretzky started his career in the WHA in 1978 with the Indianapolis Racers. In his brief tenure there – only 8 games – he scored his first professional goal. Due to the Racers financial woes however, Gretzky was traded to the Edmonton Oilers along with Eddie Mio & Peter Driscoll for $850,000. Oilers owner Peter Pocklington was ecstatic as Gretzky would help to revitalize his Oilers.
The Oilers would then go on to the WHA Finals (aka The Avco World Trophy Finals) and take on the powerhouse Winnipeg Jets (who had also been in the running for Gretzky). The Jets would go on to win the championship however and in 6 games, thus ending Gretzky’s only season in the WHA. Gretzky did finish third in the regular scoring though (behind Robbie Ftorek & Real Cloutier) and he won the Lou Kaplan Trophy as Rookie of the Year. The WHA wasn’t as fortunate though and the league folded after the season.
ENTERING THE NHL
In 1979 after the WHA folded, the NHL incorporated 4 teams – The Winnipeg Jets, the Edmonton Oilers, The New England Whalers & The Quebec Nordiques and with the expansion draft in 1979, the 4 WHA teams were able to keep 2 goalies & 2 skaters. The rest were subject to be picked up by the existing NHL teams. Teams salivated at the thought of getting someone of such superlative talent at such a young age as Gretzky.
However, Gretzky had not been signed to the standard player’s contract when he signed with Indianapolis. Instead, the Racers owner, Nelson Skalbania had signed Gretzky to a personal services contract for 7 years valued at an estimated $1.75M. So, when Gretzky went to Edmonton, the personal services contract went with him.
Eventually Peter Pocklinton amended that deal by signing Gretzky to a 10 year personal service deal worth $3M with options to extend it another 10 years, thus allowing the Oilers to keep him upon their entry into the NHL.
Upon entering the NHL, Gretzky still had many critics. They cited his lack of size and any physical aspect to his game as reasons to why he would not come anywhere near the success he had reached in any of the prior leagues he had participated in. Keep in mind, the NHL was still a rough & tumble type of league. It was only 6 seasons removed from the heyday of Philadelphia’s Broad Street Bullies. Someone with as small a stature as Gretzky couldn’t possibly survive. However, he proved them wrong and then some.
Gretzky won his first Hart Trophy after posting 137 points (51 goals, 86 assists), tying him with Marcel Dionne for the league lead. Dionne would capture the Art Ross Trophy though based on him posting more goals (53) than Gretzky. He was then also denied the Calder Trophy (one of the very few honors that eluded his grasp) based on the fact that he wasn’t considered a “true rookie” due to his WHA experience, Raymond Bourque of the Boston Bruins won that honor instead.
In his second season, Gretzky would again win the Hart Trophy, but this time he also took the Art Ross Trophy as he set then NHL single season records for assists (109) & points (164).
Future seasons in Edmonton would see even more accolades come Gretzky’s way and see him surpass many records. One record was that of achieving 50 goals in 50 games, a record that had been held by Maurice “Rocket” Richard of the Montreal Canadiens & Mike Bossy of the New York Islanders. Gretzky obliterated that though by scoring 50 goals in a mere 39 games.
Gretzky also shattered the single season goal record when he notched 92 goals thus shattering the mark previously held by the Bruins Phil Esposito with 76 goals. He would also break a few of his own records for points and assists in a single-season before setting the gold standard at 163 assists and 215 points (both in 1985-86). He would become – to this day – the only player to surpass the 200 point mark in the regular season and he even did it twice (1981-82 with 212pts, 1985-86 with 215pts).
The Oilers led by brash GM/Head Coach Glen Sather turned the NHL on its ear with their high flying ways led by #99. Sather had shrewdly surrounded Gretzky with a young, speedy supporting cast which would boast future Hall of Famers – Paul Coffey, Mark Messier, Glen Anderson, Jarri Kurri & Grant Fuhr. He also had rugged foot soldiers in Dave Semenko, Dave Hunter, Lee Fogolin, Kevin McClelland & Randy Gregg to keep opponents honest and not take liberties with Gretzky and others.
Teams dreaded taking penalties against the Oilers and their high octane offense. Gretzky would set up shop in “his office” behind the net and you knew it was just a matter of time before the red light was lit. The Oilers and Gretzky even forced a rule change in 1985 whereby the NHL called offsetting penalties therefore teams did not have to skate 4-on-4 or 3-on-3. The Oilers had excelled in this area as they had utilized their speed and up-tempo game and it was not uncommon for them to score multiple times. Thankfully the league reversed this rule, but it took 7 seasons to do so.
The Oilers would go on to compete in the Stanley Cup Final 5 times in their “Gretzky Era”, winning 4 Stanley Cups over a 6 year period. Edmonton’s only blemish in the Final was in their first trip as they were defeated by the dynastic New York Islanders in an embarrassing 4-game sweep (1982-83).
Gretzky’s dominance in the regular season only continued into the playoffs and that was obviously one of the biggest keys to the Oilers success. He would set playoff records for points in a playoff season (47 in 1984-85) & assists in a playoff season with 31 (1987-88). Twice he captured the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
Wayne Gretzky had the hockey world by the balls and there was nothing anybody could do about it… Then “The Trade” happened.
Thank you for enjoying Part 1 of FTHN Magazine’s three-part series on NHL Legend, Wayne Gretzky. Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3 to be released later this week.