This was 1978, and Mike Fornes, the TV/radio voice of the World Hockey Association’s Indianapolis Racers, was given an errand: He was to choose up a slight, 17-year-old Racers hockey participant named Wayne Gretzky at his billet household’s house in suburban Indy and take him to close by Castleton Mall for an autograph signing.
Fornes did as he was advised and headed down Allisonville Road, carrying a younger man who would go on to attain essentially the most targets and assists in NHL historical past, win 4 Stanley Cups as a member of the dynastic Edmonton Oilers and earn the easy nickname, The Great One.
But this was 1978. And this was Indianapolis, a metropolis finest recognized on the time for basketball and motorsports. (The Colts didn’t arrive till 1984.) At that time, solely the hockey cognoscenti, those who frequently learn the again pages of The Hockey News, knew that Gretzky was the Next Great Player, having put up ridiculous statistics in all places he had performed, together with 70 targets and 182 assists in 63 video games in junior hockey’s Sault Ste. Marie.
The metropolis shrugged.
“People kept coming up to me — ‘Can you sign this for me?’” Fornes recalled. “I’m saying, ‘Wait, get this kid to sign for you.’ They’d say, ‘Who’s that?’ Nobody knew who he was. I mean, nobody. It was early in his tenure, but nobody had any idea, and it was embarrassing to me because I thought the focus should be on him.”
It’s a bizarre footnote in Indianapolis sports activities historical past; Gretzky, the best participant ever to lace up a pair of skates, started his skilled profession proper right here, working towards on the Coliseum and enjoying at Market Square Arena.
“The city had no clue,” former Racers teammate Peter Driscoll mentioned. He was not out there for this story however spoke to me in 2018 when Gretzky returned to Indy for an ECHL All-Star Game. “Not in the least. It’s probably not much different now than it was back when we were playing; you have your hardcore 5,000 fans every night, and some nights we had more than that, but this isn’t a great hockey town. I wish that it was; I live here and all, but I’m just being honest.”
One 12 months earlier, Gretzky had torn up junior hockey and now, at age 17, his choices had been dwindling. He was able to make the subsequent transfer up the ladder, however the NHL had a rule that gamers couldn’t be drafted till they had been 20. The upstart WHA allowed gamers to hitch its league at age 18, however for Gretzky, the league skirted the rule by permitting the Soon-To-Be Great One to signal a private providers contract with Indianapolis proprietor Nelson Skalbania.
Now he was in Indy, taking some lessons at Broad Ripple High School, dwelling with a household within the Brookshire growth in Carmel. “I went periodically,” Gretzky mentioned with fun again in 2018.
He would play simply eight video games with the Racers, however his impression was muted. Indy had, and nonetheless has, a small hardcore contingent of hockey followers. Gretzky was a little bit of a curiosity, however exterior of the insular world of hockey, no person actually knew who he was or what he would finally be.
In truth, the native paper, the Indianapolis Star, spelled his surname “Gretsky” in a headline.
But Gretzky’s curious tenure in Indianapolis was brief. And virtually as shortly because it began, it was over. Gretzky and a few teammates had been quickly offered to the Oilers, the place Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Grant Fuhr and so many different stars turned Edmonton into an NHL dynasty.
What might need been in Indianapolis …
Al Karlander and Ken Block, two former Racers who loved lengthy skilled hockey careers and at the moment are primarily based in Indy, sat on the again porch of Prairie View Golf Club in Carmel not too long ago. Their first impressions of Gretzky?
“He looked fragile,” mentioned Karlander, who was Gordie Howe’s roommate when Karlander was a rookie with the Detroit Red Wings.
“Yes, fragile,” he agreed. “I didn’t expect him to be that good. He was an OK skater, not great. He didn’t shoot the puck very hard. But as time went on, you started to see, he just knew where to be.”
Karlander: “He looked out of place out there in a lot of situations; he really did.”
Driscoll, who taken care of Gretzky throughout his time in Indy, shared his first impressions after we spoke again in 2018.
“First, I thought, ‘Man, he’s got to pop some of those zits, this kid,’” he mentioned. “Then you saw him play and the sense he had on the ice, it was a pleasure to watch him skate and play.”
He was skinny, possibly 165-170 kilos on the time. He wasn’t an ideal skater and he didn’t have a Bobby Hull howitzer. But he had one thing else that made him transcendent: He understood time and area, had unimaginable imaginative and prescient, knew the place the puck was going, and never the place it was. He was a hockey prodigy, blessed with a next-level understanding of the sport. Larry Bird in Daoust Skates.
At that time, although, he had not but confirmed he might play with grown males, and each Karlander and Block puzzled if opponents may take runs at him.
“There were guys (throughout the league) who had no problem trying to take him out,” Karlander recalled. “And we really didn’t have anybody who would back him up. We didn’t have a Dave Semenko (the Oilers enforcer who protected Gretzky in Edmonton) at the time. We didn’t have that kind of guy on our roster.”
Fornes heard whispers of doubt within the room.
“First few days of camp, I kept hearing, ‘He’s not that good,’” Fornes mentioned. “I don’t know what they had been anticipating. Were they considering he was going to be like Bobby Hull and shoot the puck from heart ice and hit the highest nook of the web?
“I mean, we didn’t have any idea of what he would become, especially in the sense of setting up his office behind the net, and how he would dictate the game from there. Nobody had done that before, but Wayne did. And the impressions changed daily. Every practice, every game, you saw more and more.”
Gretzky survived and slowly discovered his footing. And even when he lacked top-end skating pace, he was extremely elusive and affected person with the puck. He additionally had the flexibility to provoke offense from behind the web, one thing no person else had actually finished.
“Once he got to Edmonton, they tested the players’ strength and speed and everything else, and he was near the bottom in everything,” Karlander mentioned. “But you’d watch him, and also you’d see these flashes. He performed extra of a psychological sport; you can see the wheels turning. He knew what he needed to do whether or not he had the puck or not. He didn’t have the time and area within the execs, which was his sport, the upper tempo and the scale drawback and all of that, however you can slowly see it coming.
“I thought, ‘He’s going to be a good hockey player,’ but I couldn’t see him becoming the player he eventually became.”
Racers coach Pat “Whitey” Stapleton wasn’t fairly positive what to make of him.
“I think Whitey thought the whole thing was a bit gimmicky,” Karlander mentioned. “He was old school; he wanted someone with experience.”
Karlander was involved the WHA, which was desperately making an attempt to determine its personal id within the hope of merging with the NHL, was throwing younger gamers to the wolves.
“I thought, ‘Are we going too young?’” he mentioned. “We had a kid our first year of the Racers, guy named Craig Hanmer, he was 18, and he wasn’t ready for it. It destroyed him. I’m thinking, ‘Slow down with the underaged kids.’ I saw some 18-year-olds come into our league and it ruined them.”
It didn’t wreck Gretzky. Or Mark Napier with the Birmingham Bulls. Or Mark Messier, who really performed 5 video games for the Racers.
It took just a few video games for Gretzky to search out his footing in Indy, however he completed with three targets and three assists in eight video games, the primary two targets coming in his fifth sport.
“I watched some video of his first few goals for us yesterday; his first and second goals were total flukes, awful goals,” Karlander mentioned, smiling. “One was a backhand that the goalie (Dave Dryden) flat missed and the other was a shot (four seconds later) from the corner that went off somebody’s knee and into the net. But he was crazy happy. I think there was a lot of pressure on him to produce.”
Gretzky was not made out there for this story, however 4 years in the past, he returned to Indy and spoke about his time right here.
“We were probably all a little ahead of ourselves,” Gretzky mentioned on the time. “I in all probability wasn’t sufficiently old or ok to be a flag bearer for a younger franchise, so possibly I used to be in a bit of over my head …
“But I lived with a family in Carmel, they were wonderful to me, treated me like one of their own children. It was the most comfortable part of being here. When I was at the rink for practice and games, I was playing with grown men, so it was a whole different animal. My memories are good. I wish I could have been a better player at that age; maybe I still would have been here.”
When Gretzky arrived in Indy, the older Racers advised him to shed the Jofa helmet he at all times wore and play with out safety; these had been the occasions, and for those who needed to appear to be you belonged, you performed and not using a bucket.
Well, in the future, Gretzky’s father, Walter, got here all the way down to Indy from Ontario to observe the Racers observe. His son was not carrying a helmet. Walter pounded on the glass.
“Put that helmet back on,” Walter yelled to his son.
He put the helmet again on.
Gretzky could have been a highschool pupil, however he was a professional hockey participant, and that meant … hitting the bars. You observe, you’ve just a few pops. You play, you’ve just a few pops. Gretzky, age 17, was one of many boys.
“We snuck him in all the time,” Block mentioned, laughing. “I remember one time in Birmingham (Ala.), there was a bar right across the street from the rink. We snuck him in there. We did that all the time, at home, on the road. He just walked in with a bunch of guys on our team, have a few beers with us. He learned how to drink, that’s for sure.”
Gretzky was a quiet type — Fornes recalled that Gretzky wasn’t terribly upset that no person on the mall acknowledged him — however he made himself at house in Indy.
“One day, he comes into Whitey’s office, he sits down, puts his feet up on the secretary’s desk and calls his girlfriend at the time back in Sault Ste. Marie,” Karlander mentioned. “Which is an international call and was probably five dollars a minute. And he’s chatting away, running up the bill.”
Money was at all times an issue for the Racers and particularly their proprietor, Skalbania. They had been dropping $40,000 per sport, even with Gretzky within the lineup. Skalbania hoped — foolishly, it turned out — that Gretzky’s presence would goose attendance, nevertheless it by no means occurred.
“I actually made sure guys went straight to the bank when they got paid,” Karlander mentioned. “I don’t remember the year, but we were on the road in Cincinnati, we checked into the hotel and they asked who was paying for it. I actually used my Amex card to pay for the rooms. I got paid back — eventually — but (the Racers) were undercapitalized from the beginning.”
After his eight video games for the Racers, Gretzky was offered to the Oilers together with goalie Eddie Mio and Driscoll for a reported $850,000. The group was bleeding pink. The nice experiment was failing.
“That was the end for us,” Karlander mentioned. “When the trade was made, we knew it was over.”
Mio and Gretzky had by no means crossed paths till they arrived in Indianapolis however they shortly clicked. Management requested Mio and Driscoll, who lived a couple of mile away from Gretzky’s host household, to regulate the wunderkind.
“First time I met him, he was this scrawny little kid, and I know everybody else was thinking the same thing,” mentioned Mio, who’s at the moment a participant agent and dwelling in Windsor, Ont. “We all thought, ‘Well, he better be one hell of a player because he’s so small.’ I imply, I anxious he’d get worn out, particularly within the WHA, which was a tough league, a brawling league.
“We liked the kid right off the bat. We knew he’d be hanging around with his high school buddies, we’d drive around the Steak ‘n Shake (in Carmel) or his high school (Broad Ripple), we’d yell at the kid, ‘Hey, you need anything?’ and it built from there.”
Mio finally grew to become one of the best man in Gretzky’s wedding ceremony and vice versa, and Mio labored for certainly one of Gretzky’s companies after he retired. Mio had seven years on Gretzky, however they established their relationship throughout that brief time in Indy, then grew to become fairly shut throughout their days in Edmonton.
Despite Gretzky’s burgeoning fame as a younger participant, teammates recalled there was little to no jealousy towards the younger heart. He was making good cash, he was getting used because the face of the franchise (with little success), however his Racers teammates appeared to heat as much as him.
“We all liked him, and we did whatever we could to make him more comfortable,” former Racers teammate Blaine Stoughton mentioned. “I had a girlfriend at the time, now my wife, and we would do whatever we could to make sure he was OK. Every practice, we’d ask him if we could do anything. And he was always fine. Always.”
Said Fornes: “Wayne bought this brown Trans-Am, and it was the only thing you saw from this kid that said he was carrying around some money. The guys used to tease him, call him ‘Brinks.’ Funny thing, a couple of years later I was talking to him, he told me his first two checks from the Racers actually bounced. But he never said a word. He turned it over to his agent and that’s it. Not only did he see the ice in a certain way, but I think he saw life in the big picture; he knew this wasn’t going to be the end of the trail. He knew big things were coming, just to bide his time and do his job.”
If there was strain, it didn’t typically present.
“I can’t speak for him, but we’re talking about a 17-year-old who, for the last 13 years, has been touted as the best player to come out,” Mio mentioned. “He had a lot of pressure on him, everybody was talking about him, so I’m sure he was a little nervous. But he had a great support system around him, starting with his family, and we tried to help him the best we could.”
In Indy, Gretzky took the primary child steps on his skilled journey, nevertheless it didn’t take lengthy for Mio to see the ethereal expertise that will make him nice.
“It was only eight games here (in Indy), but each game, you saw the potential and saw him growing into his game,” Mio mentioned. “I remember a game after the (Indy-Edmonton) trade, we were in Cincinnati, for some reason he didn’t play much in the first and second period, but the third period, he got ice time, and he took over completely. … When you piss him off, he’s going to make you pay. (Then-Edmonton coach Glen) Sather pissed him off, Wayne went off and he never looked back. That’s when I really knew this kid was something.”
This, although, was the start of the tip of big-time skilled hockey in Indianapolis, which now options the ECHL’s Indy Fuel.
With funds getting messier by the day and gamers speeding to the financial institution within the hope of cashing their checks, Skalbania reached an unpopular conclusion. After promoting off Gretzky in November, the Racers folded in December.
“After practice, Whitey called the three of us outside the dressing room, said go home and pack, take your equipment and meet at the airport at 2,” Mio recalled. “He told us, ‘You’re being sold.’”
Where? they requested.
Not positive, they had been advised. Either Winnipeg or Edmonton.
“So we bought to the airport, no phrase, no phrase, sat there and hour and a half, lastly Whitey bought a telephone name: ‘go to Minneapolis and the deal should be done by the time you get there,’” Mio said. “So we loaded everything up on this Lear jets, took off, and five minutes into the flight, the pilot comes back and says, ‘By the way, who’s going to pay for this?’”
The gamers checked out each other, and figured the workforce ready on them, both Winnipeg or Edmonton, would maintain the invoice. But no. The pilot needed to be paid instantly.
“Do you take credit card?” Mio requested.
Strangely for the occasions, the pilot had a credit-card sweeper and did his enterprise, charging Mio roughly $10,000 for the journey. But there was a possible downside.
“You think they’ll check?” Mio requested his teammates.
“Well, it’s got a limit of 500 dollars Canadian per day on it. Luckily, he didn’t check. Then we were met by the Oilers PR man, he said, “‘C’mon guys, hurry up, hurry up, the press has been waiting two, three hours.’ I said, ‘I’m not going anywhere until you take care of this (bill).’ Remember, I was only making $35,000 a year at that time. They paid me back eventually. I wish I had given it to Wayne in a nice plaque. History was made. Who knew then what he would be.”
If solely Indy had recognized …
(Top picture: John Bradford / The Athletic. Photos: Bruce Bennett Studios through Getty Images Studios / Getty Images)