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How Gretzky became an Oiler 

Wayne Gretzky was named one of “The NHL’s 100,” the top 100 players in the history of the National Hockey League’s 100 years of existence. This is the first in a series featuring the six Ukrainian hockey stars selected to this elite group.

On August 9, 1988, the Edmonton Oilers traded Wayne Gretzky, Mike Krushelnyski and Marty McSorley to the Los Angeles Kings for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, millions of dollars and three first-round draft picks. Did you know this was not the first time Gretzky was moved?

Gretzky started his professional career with the World Hockey Association’s Indianapolis Racers, not Edmonton. The Oilers’ Stanley Cup dynasty between 1984 and 1990 was born on a backgammon table in 1978 as part of a bet. It was part of a financial deal intended to bail out a struggling franchise with monies to ensure players would not miss paychecks.

The summer of 1978 saw a 17-year-old Wayne Gretzky, a Canadian icon since he was 6, sign a personal services contract with Indianapolis owner Nelson Skalbania. His Racers career would last all of eight games. On November 2, 1978, Gretzky would be the centerpiece of one of sports’ strangest trades.

Indianapolis was not a thriving hockey hotbed, while Gretzky’s new home of Edmonton was a “destination” city. The NHL was rumored to be interested in relocating one of its financially failing franchises there as early as the mid-1970s. Edmonton was most receptive to either a relocated team or being part of a future NHL-WHA merger.

Skalbania offered Edmonton owner Peter Pocklington an opportunity to add a Canadian icon in Gretzky, which probably would strengthen the Oilers’ chances of getting into the NHL. There were two additional factors: Skalbania also offered Gretzky to the Winnipeg Jets and the “Gretzky sweepstakes” would involve a game of backgammon. Winnipeg owner Michael Gobuty declined. Pocklington agreed to the challenge, putting up some of his valuable artwork.

Over time, some have verified the backgammon bet as true, while others have opined the bet was a fable. One reliable source said the trade did happen over a backgammon board.

Larry Gordon, Oilers’ general manager in 1978, shared the details in an August 2008 discussion with NHL.com. Skalbania and Pocklington were on a private jet playing a backgammon game with high stakes. Pocklington won the match, a wager was made, some money changed hands and Gretzky, Eddie Mio and Peter Driscoll became Edmonton Oilers.

“Yes, they were part of the stakes of this backgammon game. There were some trades mentioned, actually we had our choice on the third player between Driscoll and Blaine Stoughton, and we took Peter Driscoll,” Gordon said in 2008.

Gordon witnessed the high-stakes backgammon game on the plane, rooting for his owner to win. He saw the game in progress and knew the stakes were high. There was some art involved from Pocklington’s side, hockey players from Skalbania’s side. Pocklington kept his artwork and ended up with hockey players to build the Oilers’ foundation. Some cash was paid out in the transaction.

It was hoped the reported $850,000 cash would keep the Racers afloat until the end of the year and maybe be bought out by the owner’s WHA partners as a thank you should the NHL and WHA merge.

There was a prior history between Skalbania and Pocklington. The former had once owned the Oilers and brought his old real estate partner in as a 50-50 partner in 1976. Pocklington bought him out in short time, while Skalbania resurfaced in Indianapolis months later as the owner of the Racers.

The 17-year-old Gretzky was rather small, slightly built with less than spectacular abilities. He was not a fast skater, nor did he have an overpowering shot. His game was based on natural ability, hockey intelligence and a knack for always being in the right place on the ice. His passing was superb. The Indianapolis Racers soon folded after the Gretzky deal. It was said Winnipeg passed on Gretzky because of his size and the $1.7 million personal services contract with Skalbania the Jets would have to assume.

At the time, Gretzky was not viewed as someone with the ability to become hockey’s No. 1 force and change the perception of the sport from an American regional game to a national entity. Scouts agreed he had the potential to be a tremendous player. Very few pegged him as a dominating force in the game of hockey. In the long run, once Gretzky ended up in Los Angeles, it was arguably one of the best things ever for professional hockey.

Gretzky scored 46 goals and 110 points in his first pro year and was WHA rookie of the year. He had 43 goals and 104 points as an Oiler. The Indianapolis Racers ceased operations on December 15, 1978, and in the spring of 1979 the NHL expanded to Edmonton, Hartford, Quebec City and Winnipeg.

The Gretzky transaction was undeniably the fundamental building block that started Edmonton on its way to winning four Stanley Cups between 1984 and 1988, and a fifth without Gretzky in 1990.

Running with Gretzky

Indianapolis Racers owner Nelson Skalbania flew Gretzky, his parents and his agent, Gus Badali, to Vancouver when he decided to sign the 17-year-old to a contract with his World Hockey Association club. At the time Skalbania had not yet seen the youngster play, knew enough about him, but worried about his health and physical conditioning.

To see if Gretzky was up to snuff, Skalbania took Wayne for a run. Thinking he had the advantage, being a fairly good long-distance runner at the time, Skalbania was in for a surprise. The man who ran 80-100 miles per week was beaten by the kid who wasn’t much of a runner in a six-mile challenge. The personal services contract between the two was inked later the same day.

Gretzky technically worked for Skalbania, rather than the team, and was given some odd jobs such as a ribbon-cutting at a brewery that Skalbania had opened in Prince George, British Columbia.

Gretzky played in only eight games for the struggling Racers before being sold to the Edmonton Oilers.

Ihor Stelmach may be reached at iman@sfgsports.com

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