Wayne Gretzky Signs with Indianapolis Racers of the WHA

In 1978, the World Hockey Association (WHA) league was in competition with the established NHL. The NHL did not allow the signing of players under the age of 20, but the WHA had no rules regarding such signings.

Several WHA teams courted Gretzky, notably the Indianapolis Racers and the Birmingham Bulls. Birmingham Bulls owner John F. Bassett wanted to confront the NHL by signing as many young and promising superstars as possible and saw Gretzky as the most promising young prospect, but it was Racers owner Nelson Skalbania who signed 17-year-old Gretzky to a seven-year personal services contract worth $1.75 million US. Gretzky scored his first professional goal against Dave Dryden of the Edmonton Oilers in his fifth game, and his second goal four seconds later. Skalbania opted to have Gretzky sign a personal-services contract rather than a standard player contract in part because he knew a deal to take some WHA teams into the NHL was in the works. He also knew that the Racers could not hope to be included among those teams, and hoped to keep the Racers alive long enough to collect compensation from the surviving teams when the WHA dissolved, as well as any funds earned from selling the young star.

Indianapolis Racers owner Nelson Skalbania signs 17 year-old Wayne Gretzky to a contract for $1.75 million.
Bulls owner John Bassett said, "I can't comment on the matter because I don't know the details. But I know the type contract Skalbania signed Gretzky to is the same kind I signed Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield to in the World Football League. If Mr. Skalbania wants Gretzky to cut grass, drive his automobile, play football or play hockey, then Gretzky is supposed to do it. It will be interesting. If Gretzky is approved, then I have about 6 quality under-age juniors lined up. I wasn't interested in Gretzky. He has great talent, no doubt. But he's only 5' 8" and 150 pounds, something like that. I don't know if he can take the physical abuse he'll be subjected to."

1978

May

Signed as underage junior by Indianapolis Racers of the WHA