WHA skates into history

Nelson Skalbania scooped Wayne Gretzky from the NHL in 1978 for his Indianapolis Racers WHA...

Nelson Skalbania scooped Wayne Gretzky from the NHL in 1978 for his Indianapolis Racers WHA franchise. (QMI Agency files)

MURRAY GREIG, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:04 AM ET

After three years of relative prosperity that swelled WHA membership to 14 teams in 1974-75, the economic impact of endless legal battles with the NHL, along with dwindling attendance, began to exact an unbearable toll.

Still, the rebel league endured four more years of costly litigation, constant franchise shifts and media indifference.

Despite signing exciting underage stars like Ken Linseman, Mark Napier, Mark Messier and Real Cloutier and staging outrageous publicity stunts — like when the Toronto Toros brought in motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel for a shootout demonstration — it was obvious the WHA was in its death throes.

In mid-June 1978, Indianapolis Racers owner Nelson Skalbania grabbed national headlines by calling a news conference in Edmonton to announce that he’d signed a skinny 17-year-old centre from the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds to a “personal services” contract worth $1.75 million.

The kid’s name was Wayne Gretzky, and he still had three years of junior eligibility remaining. But Skalbania defiantly defended the signing as retaliation for the New York Rangers “stealing” Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson from the Winnipeg Jets without compensation.

Skalbania’s bombshell was targeted for maximum impact. The annual meeting of NHL owners was scheduled to open in Montreal the following day, and the Vancouver millionaire wanted to send them a not-so-subtle message.

“I really don’t know if this will kill any hope of future merger talks or not, but I didn’t like going on my hands and knees begging to get into their league last year … and I don’t like the way they’re stealing our best players,” said Skalbania.

“Maybe now they will call a truce and say enough is enough. The situation is really getting ridiculous.”

Gretzky’s contract was actually signed during the flight from Vancouver to Edmonton on Skalbania’s private jet. He chose the Alberta capital to reveal the deal because he’d formerly owned the Oilers and knew the announcement would generate blanket media coverage in the hockey-mad city.

In eight games in a Racers uniform Gretzky notched a respectable three goals and three assists, but his anticipated impact on the box office never materialized.

When Skalbania made up his mind to dissolve the franchise, the first person he called was his old friend Michel Gobuty, principal owner of the Winnipeg Jets. He also called Oilers owner Peter Pocklington.

Gobuty was so excited about the prospect of acquiring Gretzky that he flew his private jet to Indianapolis on Nov. 2 to pick up Skalbania, who pitched a unique proposal on the return flight to Canada.

“Nelson came up with the idea of us playing a high-stakes game of backgammon on the flight home,” Gobuty recalled years later.

“He said he’d put up Gretzky if I put up one-third ownership in the Jets. I thought he was crazy, and after a few minutes I talked him out of it. I said we’d work out something else if my scouts thought Gretzky was worth it — but they told me he was too small.”

The backgammon gambit wasn’t the only strange twist to the deal that eventually sent Gretzky, Peter Driscoll and goalie Eddie Mio to the Oilers for $850,000.

At the time Skalbania and Gobuty were negotiating, the three players were already aboard another private jet, knowing they’d been traded — they just didn’t know if they were headed to Winnipeg or Edmonton.

When the pilot got word to fly on to Edmonton, his first question to the bewildered trio was: “Who’s paying for the extra fuel?”

Gretzky had a fat bank account, but was too young to have a credit card. Driscoll and Mio had no cash. When the pilot threatened to turn around and fly back to Indianapolis, Mio produced a credit card and reportedly signed Oilers coach Glen Sather’s name to the $8,000 bill.

Gretzky’s impact with the Oilers was immediate. In his first game with Edmonton, he scored in a 4-3 win over Winnipeg. On Jan. 28, 1979, he celebrated his 18th birthday by signing a 21-year-contract at centre ice at Northlands Coliseum (now Rexall Place).

Gretzky wound up notching 104 points in 72 games with the Oilers. He also skated on a line with Gordie and Mark Howe in the WHA All-Stars’ three-game sweep over the Soviet Union and won the Lou Kaplan Trophy as rookie of the year.

More importantly, his emergence as the most electrifying player on the planet provided the WHA with a priceless bargaining chip in the revived merger talks.

At the end of the 1978-79 season, when the league had shrunk to just six teams, an agreement was finally hammered out for the Oilers, Jets, Quebec Nordiques and Hartford Whalers to be absorbed by the NHL. The owners of the Cincinnati Stingers and Birmingham Bulls were each paid $1.5 million to go away.

The Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks, Boston Bruins and Los Angeles Kings voted against the merger to deny passage on the first vote, but the Habs and Canucks acquiesced two weeks later, allowing the deal to go forward.

An expansion draft on June 13, 1979, stocked the four former WHA clubs with players left unprotected by the 17 NHL teams. The four new members were each allowed to protect up to four priority selections from their 1978-79 rosters, while the NHL clubs gave up no more than four players each.

Edmonton’s priority picks were Gretzky, Dave Dryden, Eddie Mio and Bengt Gustafson.

Hartford selected John Garrett, Mark Howe and Jordy Douglas, while Quebec picked Richard Brodeur, Paul Baxter and Garry Lariviere.

The Winnipeg Jets — the last of the four original WHA franchises to make priority picks — selected Morris Lukowich, Markus Mattsson and Scott Campbell.

When the NHL teams signed off on the draft with a final stroke of league president John Ziegler’s pen, the late, great World Hockey Association passed into history.

Gone — but not forgotten.

murray.greig@sunmedia.ca


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