Minor miracle up north

Wayne Gretzky, 17, can't drink beer legally with his Edmonton Oiler teammates, but the youngest major leaguer is playing with the flair and finesse of an old pro
December 11, 1978

It happened a couple of weeks ago, but Wayne Gretzky still is getting ribbed about it by his Edmonton Oiler teammates. There some of the boys sat, practice over, having a few beers in the bar in the Edmonton Coliseum. And there was Gretzky, enjoying their company and nursing a ginger ale. Then the bartender came over. "Sorry, Wayne," he said, "but you've got to be 18 even to be in here." As his teammates chuckled, Gretzky was politely shown the door.

The laughter was perfectly understandable. After all, Gretzky, the Oilers' 17-year-old rookie center, hadn't ever been stopped like that before. And the way he is performing in the World Hockey Association, who knows when it will happen again.

As a 5-year-old in his native Ontario, Gretzky made a hockey all-star team otherwise composed of boys 10 and 11. At eight he was showing up 14-year-olds in Bantam League play and being hailed across Canada as the greatest phenom since Bobby Orr. By the time Gretzky was 14, he was living away from home and doing wondrous things against rivals who were 16 and older. Then last year Gretzky, having turned 16, moved to the Junior A level, where the best players are mostly 18 to 20. Playing for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, the Great Gretzky, as he was now known, scored 70 goals and 112 assists.

After all that, it came as no great surprise when the precocious Gretzky moved into the pros this season, becoming the youngest player in WHA history and the youngest big league performer right now in any team sport. The perennially struggling WHA also boasts the oldest such player, the New England Whalers' 50-year-old Gordie Howe, and Gretzky joined the league with the same sort of ballyhoo that greeted the old man when he arrived with his two sons five years ago.

Seeing Gretzky as somebody who might fill a lot of their empty seats, the foundering Indianapolis Racers signed him to a four-year, $1 million contract, sent him on a whirlwind round of promotional appearances and even organized a Great Gretzky Fan Club. Then last month, just eight games into the season, the financially shaky Racers peddled him to Edmonton, a stronger franchise that, unlike Indianapolis, entertains realistic expectations of getting into the National Hockey League. Peter Pocklington, the Oiler president, said, "We feel that if we're going to be in the NHL, we need a superstar. And Wayne is going to be one."

Gretzky's head could have been spinning over all this, but he is a composed young man. "I was sorry to be leaving the Racers," he says, placating the 1,500 bewildered members of his Indy fan club. Then, pensively stroking some blond facial fuzz that he is careful to shave at least twice a year, he adds, "But the Oilers have shown faith in me, and I'd better produce."

To judge by Gretzky's play so far, there appears little danger of his disappointing anybody. Including three goals scored during his whistlestop in Indianapolis, Gretzky has nine goals in 20 games, and he also has 11 assists. At the same time, his fancy stickhandling and accurate passes have drawn several standing ovations in Edmonton and more oohs and aahs than many players enjoy in an entire career. Still growing at 6 feet and 168 pounds, Gretzky seems to have chicken bones for arms and spindles for legs. But he avoids getting banged around excessively by wriggling and squirting through heavy traffic. Once in the open, he has an effortless, deceptive stride that belies whispers heard in the juniors to the effect that while he had savvy, balance and a lot of other good things, he was not a strong skater.

"That was always the knock on me," Gretzky says. "Well, I feel smoother and faster every day. As I get older, my legs are getting stronger."

When Gretzky joined Edmonton, the team had a 1-4 record. The Oilers are now 12-8 and contending for first place. Glen Sather, the former NHL player who coaches the club, gives Gretzky due credit. "Wayne has innate hockey sense like all the great players," says Sather, who played for Boston in 1966 when Orr was a rookie with the Bruins. "Coming out of his end, he always seems in position to take the pass. And when he gets the puck he knows where everybody is, the way a center is supposed to. I hate to put this on him, but a player like Gretzky comes along only once every 10 years. He's not up there with Orr, Hull and Howe yet, but he's not far away, either."

That Gretzky is already playing pro hockey does not sit well with Canadian amateur officials, who had been assured by both the NHL and WHA that juniors under 20 would not be signed to pro contracts. But those pledges were made by league offices, not by teams. While NHL clubs have abided by the gentlemen's agreement, WHA teams, buoyed by court rulings, have been signing underage players at will. And when Nelson Skalbania, the majority owner of the Racers, made his million-dollar offer last summer, Gretzky leaped at it. He eventually signed a personal services contract with Skalbania while they were flying somewhere over Alberta in Skalbania's private jet.

"I've got one semester of high school to go, and the only reason I could think of to stay in the juniors was to graduate," Gretzky says. "But an offer like that is hard to turn down."

Gretzky hoped to get his diploma while playing with the Racers and, in fact, enrolled in two courses in the adult division of Indianapolis' Broad Ripple High School. His teammates, who nicknamed him Brinks because of his big contract, took a liking to him, as did the members of the Great Gretzky Fan Club. However, after an encouraging turnout of 11,728 for the Racers' opening game—a 6-3 loss to Winnipeg in which Gretzky went scoreless—attendance dropped to the 5,000-to-7,000 level.

That settled matters for Skalbania, a Vancouver entrepreneur who formerly owned the Edmonton team. He sold Gretzky, Winger Peter Driscoll and Goalie Eddie Mio to his old club for $850,000. Having paid Gretzky just $60,000 so far, and since Driscoll and Mio were essentially throw-ins, Skalbania reaped a windfall; he insisted, though, that the sale was his only hope of keeping the Racers afloat.

Might it be that Skalbania had actually planned to unload Gretzky for a fast profit all along? Suspecting as much, some irate season ticket holders in Indianapolis reacted to the sale by filing a class-action suit, and the Indianapolis Star taunted the club's absentee owner with the headline HEY NELSON, GO BACK TO SKALBANIA. Meanwhile, the last-place Racers are 4-15-2 and apparently trying to hang on until such time as the NHL might absorb choice WHA franchises like the Oilers, at which point less choice franchises such as their own would be indemnified for consenting to pack it in.

Despite his diplomatically correct expressions of regret over leaving Indianapolis, Gretzky knows that the future is brighter in Edmonton. The NHL is interested in oil-rich Edmonton because it is a good hockey town, with a new 15,248-seat arena. The NHL also could use another western franchise or two for geographical balance. The Oilers led the WHA last season with an average attendance of 10,222, and while this year's figure is running about the same, team officials expect Gretzky's presence to send it upward as soon as the people in Edmonton stop celebrating their Eskimos' victory over Montreal in the Grey Cup two weeks ago.

In the meantime, Gretzky has made himself at home. On arriving from Indy he entered the Oiler locker room, took one look at the strapping form of Dave Semenko, a 6'3" left wing nicknamed "Cement," and cracked, "I want this guy on my line so I can look after him." Gretzky cavorts around the ice at practices with a smile on his face and actually sings along when O Canada is played before games.

But Gretzky realizes that his youth sets him apart from other pro players. He will be able to drink with the boys when he turns 18 on January 26, but the fact remains that the next-youngest Oiler, rookie Wing Dave Hunter, is nearly three years his elder, and that other teammates are old enough to be his father. Last week Pocklington ran Oiler players and their wives through a three-day "positive thinking" course for executives that dealt with subjects such as child rearing and family finances. When the final all-day session ended, Gretzky wearily admitted, "I wondered what I was doing there."

With his parents 2,100 miles away in Brantford, Ontario, Gretzky is boarding with a family in Edmonton. Except for a 1979 Thunderbird, he has few extravagances and, rather than squander his newfound riches, submits to an allowance so stringent that teammates applauded the other day when he decided to buy a plastic scraper for cleaning ice off his windshield. Gretzky hopes to enroll in high school next month and—finally—graduate. And, he says, he means to pal around with people his own age. Of course, that didn't prevent him from taking an older woman of 18 out for dinner the other night, his first date in Edmonton.

"When I'm 23 I don't want to look back and feel I missed being a teen-ager," Gretzky says. "I want to be a hockey player and a normal 17-year-old. People say, 'Aren't you missing something playing hockey?' The way I look at it, I'm not missing anything. I'm getting extra."

Gretzky's level-headedness is matched by his faith in his abilities. "He's confident as hell," says Sather. "He firmly believes he's going to be the best player in the world." To gauge his frustration during the Oilers' 8-2 rout last week of Gretzky's former Indianapolis mates in the Coliseum, it can't happen fast enough to suit him. He played well and picked up an assist on a goal by Wing Bill Flett, but couldn't buy a goal himself despite several good chances. One was a breakaway on which he was stopped by Racer Goalie Gary Inness. On the bench, Sather said, "You'll get the next one."

The following day Gretzky was still brooding about the missed breakaway. "In the juniors the goalie wouldn't have stopped that shot," he said, shaking his head. "The goaltending is better in the pros—that's the big difference." He brightened. "Otherwise, there isn't as much slashing and highsticking as there was in the juniors, and they let you play hockey more. I'm actually getting more opportunities than I ever did. In that way, playing here hasn't been that much of an adjustment." He was smiling now. "In fact, it's been pretty easy."

So far, that seems to be the story of the Great Gretzky's life.

PHOTOGretzky and an Oiler twice his age, Bill Flett.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)