Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Hall of honor: Wayne Gretzky

The Great One as a Racer

Wayne Gretzky
Indianapolis Racers 1978
NHL/WHA career: Indianapolis Racers 1978, Edmonton Oilers 1978-88, Los Angeles Kings 1988-96, St. Louis Blues 1996, New York Rangers 1996-99. 

"And that's the first of quite a few we'll be seeing from Wayne Gretzky." 
Mike Fornes, October 20, 1978

Little did the Indianapolis Racers' play-by-play announcer know quite how many goals the 17-year-old wunderkind would score. But that backhander against -- somehow fittingly -- the Edmonton Oilers at Market Square Arena was the start of the most illustrious offensive career in professional hockey.

Gretzky is simply known as "The Great One." The entire entrance to the Hockey Hall of Fame is devoted to celebrating his career and accomplishments, from its beginnings in Brantford, Ontario through junior hockey in Sault Ste. Marie to a professional career that saw Gretzky shatter every offensive record in NHL history. His face is synonymous with Canadian hockey, where he ran the national team for the 2002 and 2006 Olympic Games. 

The professional part of his career began in Indianapolis. 

In the fall of 1978, Racers owner Nelson Skalbania was looking for something to turn around his fledgling WHA franchise, and in part because the WHA was beginning to sign underage players. He signed Gretzky over the summer, amid some hoopla. According to Walter Gretzky's memoirs, L.S. Ayres started a "Great Gretzky Fan Club" and there was quite a buzz when training camp opened Sept. 11 of that year. The Indianapolis Star's Dave Overpeck told fans "If you're a sports fan at all, you owe it to yourself to come out and watch Wayne Gretzky play hockey. A generation or so from now, you can tell your grandkids, 'I saw him when he broke into the majors as a 17-year-old kid.'"

But, probably befitting the Racers' struggle for attention, the headline misspelled the budding star's name, "Gretsky."

He was the Racers' leading scorer in the preseason, and his pro career began at MSA against the
Winnipeg Jets Oct. 14. He centered Rich Leduc and Don Larway. The largest crowd since 1977 showed up -- 11,721 -- for a 6-3 loss. Gretzky didn't net a point in that game, but he soon would.

On Oct. 20, he took a feed from defenseman Kevin Morrison and beat Edmonton's Dave Dryden on a backhander at 6:07 of the second period. Peter Driscoll had the other assist on what would be No. 1 of Gretzky's 940 professional goals in a career that would span 21 years.

No. 2 would come 2:34 later, as he tried to center the puck, but it banked into the net. It gave the Racers a 3-1 lead in a game they'd eventually lose 4-3 to Edmonton -- the team for which Gretzky would soon become a mega-star. No. 3 came two nights later, a short wrist shot on a feed from Larway that marked the final goal in a 6-3 loss to the New England Whalers. 

And then, suddenly, The Great One was gone. He had three goals and three assists in eight games with the Racers, but Skalbania was still claiming big financial losses. And on Nov. 2, he was sold to the Oilers, along with Driscoll, goaltender Ed Mio and more than a half-million dollars, in what was reported as an effort to keep the team afloat. Five weeks later, the Racers would be no more, folding on Dec. 15, 1978.

For Gretzky, the future was much brighter. He finished the season in Edmonton, scored 46 goals and was named the WHA's Rookie of the Year. The next season, the WHA dissolved and four teams -- including the Oilers -- jumped to the NHL. Gretzky tied Marcel Dionne for the scoring lead with 137 points, and then put a stranglehold on the Hart Trophy that he wouldn't let go of for nearly a decade. He had an NHL-record 164 points in 1980-81, then followed with the highest-scoring year in league history. In 1981-82, he scored 50 goals in 37 games -- an NHL record for the fastest 50 -- and finished with 92 goals, 120 assists and 212 points, all NHL records. He'd eclipse the scoring record in 1985-86 with 215 points. In a six-year span from 1981-87, Gretzky totaled 437 goals, 782 assists and 1,215 points. When he retired, he had 894 goals, 1,963 assists and 2,857 points, all NHL records. Add his WHA totals in, and the marks go up to 940-2,027-2,967. In the playoffs, he tallied 132 goals and 402 points in 221 NHL and WHA playoff games, winning four Stanley Cups with Edmonton and appearing in the Stanley Cup Finals six times -- five with the Oilers and once with the Los Angeles Kings. He also played in the 1979 Avco World Trophy Finals with the Oilers. 

Gretzky retired after the 1998-99 season, still at the top of the game. He led the NHL in assists in two of his last three years. He won the Hart Trophy (MVP) nine times, the Ross Trophy (leading scorer) 10 times, Lester Pearson Award (MVP voted by the players) five times, the Conn Smythe Trophy (Playoff MVP) in 1985 and 1988, the Lady Byng Trophy (gentlemanly player) five times, including in his final year. He played in the NHL All-Star Game 18 times and was selected a first-team NHL All-Star eight times. He was the second-team center seven other times. He still holds NHL records for career goals, assists and points, single-season goals, assists and points and the records for assists and points in a playoff season. At the time he retired, he held 61 NHL regular-season, playoff and All-Star Game records. He is also the only player in NHL history to total 200 points in a season, which he did four times in five years between 1981-86. 

In retirement, Gretzky has remained active, leading the Canadian National Team and buying a share of the Phoenix Coyotes. In 2005-06, he appointed himself head coach of the Coyotes, a position he held through 2009. 

The three-year waiting period was waived for his 1999 induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, which has an entire gallery near its entrance devoted to Gretzky. His jersey number 99 has been retired throughout professional hockey. The number also hangs in the Pepsi Coliseum, honoring the fact that Gretzky began his illustrious pro career here. He addressed the Market Square Arena crowd by video prior to the rink's final game in 1999. 

Gretzky's connection to Indianapolis -- having begun his illustrious career in the Circle City and scored his first three professional goals in Market Square Arena -- and his contributions to the game deservedly make him a Hockey Legend in the Indianapolis Hockey Hall of Honor. 

Wayne Gretzky
Career stats              
Regular season Playoffs
            GP G A Pts PIM GP G A Pts PIM
1978 Indianapolis Racers 8 3 3 6 0 none WHA totals (78-79) 80 46 64 110 19 13 10 10 20 2 NHL totals (79-99) 1487 894 1963 2857 577 208 122 260 382 66 Major league totals 1567 940 2027 2967 596 221 132 270 402 68
Previous inductees
June 2011: Kevin Devine (Racers/Checkers 1978-85)
May 2011: Terry Sawchuk (Capitals 1948-50)
April 2011: Arthur Wirtz (Capitals owner 1939-52)

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