When we hear the name ‘Wayne Gretzky’ today, we automatically think of the amazing Number 99 who rewrote all of the National Hockey League’s scoring records and surpassed the incredible and ageless Gordie Howe by potting his 802nd goal back in 1994 on a pass from his old pal Marty McSorley against the Vancouver Canucks.
We think of the guy who scored 50 goals in 39 games back in the 1980-81 season. We think of the player who, when he wasn’t scoring goals, he was setting them up with staggering regularity. From the season in which he joined the NHL in 1979-80 until 1991-92 – thirteen straight years – he collected more than fifty assists each season. In eleven of those campaigns, all consecutive from 1980-81 to 1990-91, he posted more than 100.
Over the course of twenty NHL seasons, Gretzky played in 1,487 games, he scored 894 goals and added 1,963 assists for a total of 2,857 points. His Oilers won four Stanley Cups in five seasons and then, after he was dealt to the Los Angeles Kings in the summer of 1988, he led the once sad-sack Kings to another Cup final. He won nine Hart Trophies as the league’s Most Valuable player and was an All-Star fifteen times. He was the league’s leading point-getter on ten occasions and won a pair of Conn Smythe Trophies as the top player in the playoffs. He garnered countless other awards and accolades as well.
And he did it all with an apparent ease.
It’s well documented that Wayne’s first minor hockey experience occurred when he was six. He was playing with ten-year-olds. The jerseys the ten-year-old kids were given were much too big for the younger Gretzky. So, he tucked it in on the right side at the back. His coach on that team was Dick Martin. Years later, Martin spoke of his young protégé. “Wayne was so good that you could have a boy of your own who was a tremendous hockey player, and he’d get overlooked because of what the Gretzky kid was doing.”
Given how he could both score prolifically while also being an expert facilitator with the puck, people in the game were moved to superlatives. Former star goaltender and renowned hockey writer Ken Dryden was one of those. “He was, I think, the first Canadian forward to play a true team game.” A great example of that was the famous Canada Cup winning goal in 1987 by Mario Lemieux, in which Gretzky got the puck to Big Number 66 who put it over the shoulder of the Soviet goalie Sergei Mylnikov with Larry Murphy as the decoy on the right wing.
He was the epitome of confidence as he staked out his ‘office’ – the spot behind the opposition net --from where he conducted so much crucial offensive business. He and his Oiler teammates often could win games seemingly just by showing up. That team was one of the greatest collection of players ever assembled and had pretty much everything. Paul Coffey was one of the game’s best skaters ever and he anchored a blueline that also included Kevin Lowe, Charlie Huddy, Lee Fogolin and Randy Gregg.
Up front were players like Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri, Craig MacTavish, Kevin McClelland, Ken Linseman, Mike Krushelnyski and Mark Napier. Between the pipes was the stellar duo of Andy Moog and Grant Fuhr. That dynastic Oilers’ team took the league’s championship reins from the powerhouse New York Islanders and stayed there for the next several years.
But what a lot of hockey fans tend to forget is that when Gretzky and the Oilers joined the NHL after the dissolution of the World Hockey Association, the team from Northern Alberta was pretty much a group of kids. Many were still teenagers when they joined the new league, including the very young Number 99.
The World Hockey Association began play in the fall of 1972. That summer, their signature transaction was luring the great Bobby Hull away from the Chicago Black Hawks and the NHL. He would play for the Winnipeg Jets and would be a part of the team courtesy of a five-year, $1 million contract. Of course, by signing with the Jets, Hull was forced to forego the Canada-Russia Summit Series in September of 1972. Canada would eventually win the series on Paul Henderson’s goal with 34 seconds left in the final game on September 28.
Two weeks later, the new rival league would play their first meaningful regular season games. The league would last seven years. The New England Whalers were the champions in the first full campaign. The next year, with Gordie Howe and his sons, Mark and Marty, the Houston Aeros won their first of two consecutive league titles. Then, in three of the next four years, Hull and his Jets’ teammates showed the rest of the loop how it was done in winning the Avco World Trophy. Their streak was interrupted in 1976-77 by the Quebec Nordiques.
The last season for the WHA was 1978-79. Over the last few years that the league existed, there were behind-the-scenes negotiations going on that would see some teams from the rebel group join the National Hockey League. There were owners and governors from the senior league, though, who vehemently opposed allowing any of the WHA teams into the NHL. They were upset that the new league had either stolen many of their stars or had driven up their cost of doing business and wanted nothing to do with having to allow them a seat at their boardroom table.
Eventually though, four teams would move over from the ashes of the old WHA and join the National League for the fall of 1979 – the Edmonton Oilers, the New England Whalers, the Quebec Nordiques and the Winnipeg Jets. The NHL did a bunch of things to try to hamstring their newest members. One was that the four new teams could only protect two skaters and two goaltenders. The rest of their players could be reclaimed by their previous NHL clubs.
The four new teams would be treated as expansion clubs and would be able to select from a pool of players that were made available by the existing NHL members. When it came to the 1980 NHL Amateur Draft, the four WHA organizations would pick last in each round. This was all done by the NHL clubs to basically say, ‘We are admitting you but you will suffer under our rules for as long as possible’.
The New England Whalers were able to hold on to Gordie Howe and Dave Keon, who had played with the Whalers the season before. The team also changed their location name from ‘New England’ to Hartford at the behest of the NHL. (The Boston Bruins were not thrilled with the idea of having to share New England with these new upstarts.)
The Winnipeg Jets were able to retain the services of Bobby Hull and left winger Morris Lukowich. The Quebec Nordiques held on to wingers Real Clouthier and Marc Tardif. The Edmonton Oilers were able to keep veteran defenseman Alan Hamilton and 18-year-old centreman Wayne Gretzky.
Hamilton had broken into the NHL back in the 1965-66 season with the New York Rangers as a 19-year-old. He managed to get into just four games with the big club that year. He played two games with the Rangers the following year and 16, the season after that. In his fourth year in the organization, he found his legs and played 59 games with the Rangers.
In the summer of 1970, the NHL expanded by two teams as the Vancouver Canucks and Buffalo Sabres joined the big boys. Hamilton was left unprotected by the Rangers and was chosen by the Sabres. In two seasons in Buffalo, he played 69 and 76 games respectively. But in the summer of 1972, the new league and bigger money saw Hamilton move to Alberta to join the Oilers. He played every WHA season in Edmonton and became an icon in Northern Alberta. He was so beloved there that his Number 3 was the first to ever be retired by the Oilers in October of 1980.
In 1978, the WHA’s Indianapolis Racers were owned by Nelson Skalbania. The Racers first joined the league for the 1974-75 season. In 1976-77, the Racers were not a good team and failed to make the postseason. The next year, Skalbania, almost in an act of desperation, signed a 17-year-old Wayne Gretzky to the Racers. The team folded after their 25th game in late 1978. Before the team folded, he sold Gretzky’s contract to Peter Pocklington and the Edmonton Oilers.
In the eight games he played in Indy, Gretzky scored three goals and added three assists. He would play the rest of the season in Edmonton. In 72 games with the Oilers that year, he scored 43 goals and totaled 104 points. Not bad for a kid who turned 18 just past the halfway mark of the season. You can see why the new NHL Oilers protected him from the expansion draft.
That summer of 1979 was an interesting experience for the young Gretzky. The previous January, on his 18th birthday, January 26, he had signed a personal services contract with Pocklington that would make him an Oiler until the end of the 1998-99 season. He signed the deal at centre ice with his parents, his brothers, and his teammates all around him. The 21-year, $5 million contract had 12,321 witnesses in the stands as well.
He had torn up the WHA in 1977-78. Surely, playing in the NHL would be a lot tougher for the now-18-year-old. “That’s all I heard all summer,” Gretzky told the Edmonton Journal’s Terry Jones in September of 1979, several weeks before the season started. “As the summer went on, I heard more and more talk about how it’s going to be a different story this year. Every year, people have told me how I’m going to be in trouble at a higher level. I heard more of that talk this summer than I heard all my life.
“I knew I’d hear all that stuff again. Different guys told me how everybody is going to try to ‘run’ me in the NHL. One guy bragged that it took him ten years to ‘run’ Bobby Orr, but that he finally did it. Some of it was a psyche job, but most of it was serious. A lot of guys I met want me to be prepared,” he told Jones. “But not many people questioned my skating and hockey ability like they did before. I’m pretty confident. I don’t think it will be that big of an adjustment.”
Some may have wondered if that big contract he signed back in January would change Gretzky as a person. There may have been some back in his hometown who felt that way. That threw the 18-year-old somewhat over the summer. “People reacted a bit different to me at home in Brantford. I’d walk down the street and see people I used to know, and they’d be a bit edgy. I think they wondered if I’d still talk to them or something dumb like that. That’s a funny feeling.”
One interesting thing was Gretzky’s living situation in Edmonton. In junior hockey, it’s common practice for the players to stay in billet homes. Billets were volunteers who would give up part of their homes to one or more players and give them a place to stay for the season. The billet families often become like a second family for the players.
When Gretzky played in Sault Ste. Marie, he billeted with Mr. and Mrs. Jim Bodner. He enjoyed his time with the Bodners. When Wayne moved to Edmonton from Indianapolis, he discovered that Jim Bodner’s brother Ray lived in Oil Country. So, Gretzky moved in with Ray and his wife. There were rumours that Wayne would try to find an apartment or a house, and he had thought about that. But he was happy with the Bodners and figured, he’d allow circumstances to play out however they did.
“I was thinking about going to look for an apartment or something, but I don’t know. A lot of guys in Junior A are still boarding. I’ll take my time and see what happens.” So, there, you had the unquestioned star of the new NHL team and he’s billeting with a local family. It’s hard to imagine that happening today, but that was how the situation existed for Wayne Gretzky as he and the Oilers began their NHL journey.
Two weeks after Gretzky spoke to Terry Jones, he was preparing for his third NHL preseason game. The Oilers had played two before this and had lost them both. Winnipeg dumped them 4-2 and the Canadian Olympic team had blanked Edmonton 5-0 two nights previous. To this point, Gretzky had been kept off the scoresheet. Oilers’ coach Glen Sather had suggested he might sit Gretzky just to give him a rest.
But the reality of the team’s situation was that they were, for all intents and purposes, a new team with guys still learning how to play with a whole bunch of new people. “It’s going to take time for us to start to play together as a team,” Sather told Tony Gallagher of The Vancouver Province. “We only have eight guys who played on a team together before. They are out having their first beer together as a group tonight.
“It doesn’t matter how good players are, you have to play together. I don’t want to say to these guys we have to win a game. But at the same time, I don’t want to lose our exhibitions because you get used to losing.” The Oilers and the Canucks tied 4-4. Gretzky got an assist as he sent Brett Callighen in on a breakaway. The Vancouver Sun’s Arv Olsen called Gretzky a ‘boy wonder’ and ‘a magician with the puck’. He pointed out that on February 4 of the previous season, Callighen had seven goals. He was then put on a line with Gretzky and finished the season with 31.
After their night out for beers together, the Oilers strung together three wins and in their dressing room, optimism was abounding. Pat Price was a former New York Islander and an Oilers’ defenseman who was gushing about his team’s prospects. “We’re going to win our division,” Price told the assembled media after a preseason 5-4 win over the Los Angeles Kings on October 1.
“I’ll not only be surprised if we don’t win our division, I’ll be disappointed. Edmonton ought to expect a whole lot more out of this team than just the last playoff spot. I’m not saying we’re another New York Islanders. But I think we’re going to be almost as good. I’ll tell you, Wayne Gretzky is as good as Bryan Trottier and our other two centres are better than their other two centres.”
Dave Dryden, brother of Ken, and as pensive and serious as his brother, had a lot of positive thoughts as well. “(W)e won’t be an expansion team. Not in the true sense of the word ‘expansion’ as it relates to hockey. We’re not a team that has no nucleus and virtually no system. I think the fan should expect this team to make the playoffs. And personally, I think 16th is too low to aim.”
But Jim Harrison, a former Leaf centre and an Oiler in 1979, had possibly the lone dissenting opinion. “Even with sixteen teams in the playoffs, it’s going to be tough. I hope the four wins over Vancouver and Los Angeles don’t fool the players. It’s no indication at all. It’s not the way it’s going to be.”
The Oilers’ 1979-80 season would start on October 10 in Chicago, a Wednesday.
There was a buzz in the Windy City about this game. Chicago reporters went directly to the boy wonder who would (supposedly) one day lead the league. How would this first NHL game feel? “When they play the National Anthem, I’m probably going to get butterflies. Wednesday is going to be a special night in my life. For the first time, I’m going to play against Tony Esposito and Stan Mikita.”
But, on the Black Hawks, there were two men who had played for the Winnipeg Jets the year before in Terry Ruskowski and Rich Preston. The Jets beat the Oilers for the Avco Cup. Preston had some thoughts on what Gretzky might be able to do. “For the first month and a half, he didn’t impress me much. I thought he was overrated. Then he started to come on, and I realized he had the potential to be a great player. He has a tremendous mind for hockey, great puck sense, and very shifty lateral movement. He’s hard to hit.
“One of the keys to Winnipeg beating Edmonton in the playoffs was shutting down Gretzky by going after him every time he got the puck. Once he puts on twenty pounds and gains more strength and stamina, he’s really going to be fantastic. He’s hard to hit. He’s so shifty. He has that great puck sense, and in a player his age, it’s something else.”
Ruskowski was also conciliatory towards the young man. “The key thing I found about him is that he’s so deceiving with his stickhandling and his shooting. You think you’ve got him, and, all of a sudden, you don’t have him.”
On October 10, the Hawks jumped out to a 2-0 first period lead only to have the Oilers tie it up before the 15:00 mark. Before the end of the first period, John Marks scored his second of the game to give Chicago a lead they would not relinquish. A Bob Murray goal with less than five minutes remaining in the game gave the home side a 4-2 win. Kevin Lowe and Dave Hunter got the Oilers’ goals. Wayne Gretzky recorded an assist on the Lowe goal.
Three nights later, the Oilers were at Northlands Coliseum to face the Detroit Red Wings. After twenty minutes the Oilers held a 1-0 lead on a goal by Blair MacDonald. After forty minutes, the game was tied 1-1. The game ended 3-3 after Mark Messier scored the tying goal with 2:24 left in the game. Blair MacDonald had a pair of goals on the night. Wayne Gretzky did get an assist on his first tally. So, after a couple of games, the anointed Great Gretzky had two assists but had yet to bulge the twine with a puck.
After their first two games, the Oilers had lost a game and tied their second. The night after Edmonton tied Detroit, the Vancouver Canucks were at Northlands to take them on. The Canucks had just come off a 3-1 win over the Red Wings two nights previous and had the right to feel kind of good about themselves. The satisfaction that the Oilers’ players had been feeling during the preseason had been replaced with the realization that this game was a little tougher during the regular season than it had been in the exhibition games.
Ron Chipperfield was the second-line centre and was flanked on his line by ‘Cowboy’ Bill Flett, who was 36 years of age, and Mark Messier, who was 18. The way the game was played in the National Hockey League, as compared to what he experienced in the WHA, opened his eyes. “They played so tight in Chicago. Everyone went up and down their wings. I didn’t have a man free all night. I just have to adjust and get used to the tighter checking.”
The Oilers and Canucks were playing on the first Saturday night of the season. It was October 14, 1979.
The 15,000 fans at Northlands were shoved into their seats in a hurry. The Canucks jumped into a 2-0 lead less than seven minutes into the opening frame on goals by Don Lever and Curt Fraser. But the Oilers answered back and less than five minutes later, the score was tied after Stan Weir and Risto Siltanen got pucks past the Canucks’ Glen Hanlon. Edmonton fans could breathe again.
Siltanen scored the only goal of the second period and the Oil went into the final twenty minutes with a 3-2 lead. But just over six minutes into the final stanza, goals by Lars Lindgren and Jere Gillis put the visiting Canucks into the lead 4-3.
The game clock was ticking down. There were less than two minutes remaining when the Canucks’ Stan Smyl was called for tripping Gretzky at 18:11. A little bit after that, Gretzky had just straightened the pictures in his office behind the net when he got a pass from Brett Callighen. He stepped out and caught Glen Hanlon coming across with the two-pad-stack or the double-leg slide, or whatever you want to call it. But Gretzky threw the backhand through the scissoring leg pads of the Vancouver goalie and tied the game. It was his first ever National Hockey League goal. The game ended 4-4.
Wayne, how did you see your first NHL goal?
“I fanned on it…..just like I did last year on my first WHA goal with Indy against Dryden. But, I guess, by the time the details get back to Brantford, I’ll have scored on an end-to-end rush.” Years later, he would talk a little differently about the marker. “I just came out and I kind of got it through his legs. He made a move early and I got it through his legs, and it went in. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, I finally scored!’ to take the pressure off myself,” he told the NHL Network.
It’s hard now to imagine Wayne Gretzky ever feeling pressure at any time in his career. But if you put yourself into the skates of an 18-year-old kid who only wanted to do the best that he could do and be the best that he could be for his team and his teammates, the fact that he was feeling pressure to score a goal is testament to the player he was and his wanting to play well and win.
During the preseason, Terry Jones emphatically declared that the Edmonton Oilers would finish in the 16th and final playoff spot. That was exactly where they placed. Their reward for making the NHL postseason was to play the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers lost only twelve games all season and finished with 116 points to be the runaway leader in the Patrick Division and, indeed, in the entire NHL.
Philly made short work of the Oilers and swept them three games to none. The Flyers then defeated the Rangers and the Minnesota North Stars to advance to the Stanley Cup Final Series against the New York Islanders. The Isles won the Cup in six games. That started them on a course that saw them win four consecutive championships. It would take that period of time for the Oilers to mature and eventually defeat those same Islanders in the spring of 1984. They would win four Cups in five years.
Individually in the 1979-80 season, Marcel Dionne and Wayne Gretzky finished the season as the points leaders in the NHL with 137. Dionne won the Art Ross Trophy, though, on the strength of his 53 goals scored. Gretzky notched 51. But what the Edmonton centre did accomplish was to win the Hart Trophy as the league’s Most Valuable Player.
The next season, 1980-81, saw the Montreal Canadiens finish at the top of the Norris Division with 103 points. They played the Oilers who finished six games under .500 in the first round of the playoffs. Edmonton dumped the Habs in three straight games. Sadly, the Oilers were beaten by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Islanders who won their second consecutive title.
We all know how Wayne Gretzky’s career turned out. He’s the greatest player to ever play the game. He had a skillset that was very unique and though there have been generational players to come and go since him, none have ever carried the entire collection of abilities that he had. Some of his records may fall, but it’s doubtful that any of the players that we see will ever be able to claim the entire hockey mind that Wayne Gretzky had.
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