Legend Has It
Legend Has It
A game of backgammon that created an NHL dynasty and determined the fate of the game's greatest player. It's a story that sounds too good to be true. So, is it?

The story of how Wayne Gretzky was almost a Winnipeg Jet has been part of hockey lore for decades.

It has twisted and turned in retellings, morphing into one of those tales that just seem too good to be true. It goes like this: In 1978, 17-year-old Wayne Gretzky was wagered in a game of backgammon after playing just eight times for the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association. While the dice were rolled and pieces moved, Gretzky was sitting on a plane, uncertain whether it was going to land in Edmonton or Winnipeg—and whether he’d then become an Oiler or a Jet.

It’s a story that could only emerge from the late 1970s, the era in which the upstart WHA clashed with the old boys’ club that was the NHL. It was a time when rich owners paid debts with luxury cars and rare art. When pro contracts were drawn up by hand and signed without lawyers; and underage hockey stars were offered exorbitant sums to spurn the NHL and play in cities whose inhabitants had no interest in the game.

And yes, it was a time when some owners were willing to gamble the fate of their franchise on a board game. In short, it was the wild west of hockey. And that environment allowed Edmonton to became a dynasty, while Winnipeg sputtered.

Here, the myth is unraveled for the first time—by the people who helped create it. This is the true story of how Wayne Gretzky became an Oiler.

Michael Gobuty, part-owner of the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets: We did crazy things [in the WHA]. If we needed a trade, we’d say, “I need your guy, you need my guy,” and the trade was done. No money, nothing. Just friendship. We knew nothing about hockey, but we had camaraderie like you would not believe. We just had the most amazing time. The WHA was just fun. And the business was just a sidetrack for all of us because we were all independent and wealthy. It was just a toy; the NHL was business.

Nelson Skalbania, owner of the WHA’s Indianapolis Racers: I would call it a “cowboy league.” It was quite cliquey—wild cowboy guys, who had a lot of fun in the business even though we were bleeding money. At that time the NHL was quite cocky. It was their way or the highway. They didn’t want to expand. They didn’t want to do this or do that.

Peter Pocklington, owner of the WHA’s Edmonton Oilers: Nelson, bless his heart, is a consummate deal-doer. And the higher the profile, the better. He loved to be the biggest guy on his block.

Nelson Skalbania: Gobuty’s family had a leather clothes chain of stores. Peter Pocklington was in the car business, used and new cars. I’m a structural engineer in the real estate business. So here you’ve got these three cowboys dealing in a business they know very little about, called the hockey business. We tried to run it as a business like we did our other stuff, but it didn’t work out that well. Egos were involved.

In 1978, Skalbania learned about a 17-year-old hockey player named Wayne Gretzky, who was making headlines in Canada for his remarkable goal-scoring ability. He hoped that a young star might put fans in the seats of his fledgling Racers franchise, so he flew Gretzky, his father Walter, and his manager Gus Badali on a private jet to meet him Vancouver.

Nelson Skalbania: The only thing I knew about Gretzky was the high recommendation of Johnny Bassett [owner of the WHA’s Birmingham Bulls], who I respected and was a good friend of mine and said [Gretzky was] the best of the best. The NHL couldn’t sign him. He was too young. I flew in Gretzky not knowing much about hockey at the time, actually. But I wanted to know how healthy he was. He was 17, and I was about 38 or 39, but had run in eight or nine marathons by then. I was in good shape. So we went on a six-mile run—and the kid beat me. I said, “That’s enough.”

[Gretzky] wrote his contract out on a sheet of paper and signed it. There were no lawyers, no big formal documents. I gave him a deposit of $50,000. At the time even the WHA had an age requirement that you had to be 18. But I didn’t sign him to a hockey contract; I signed him to a personal services contract. As a personal services contract, it didn’t matter what the age was. He could do anything for me. He could have been my chauffeur if I asked him to.

Wayne Gretzky, Great One: It was an interesting time for me. My dad wanted me to live with a family, so I lived with a family, and he wanted me to go to school until I turned 18, so I promised him I would stay in school until I turned 18. I was in a peculiar position in that my friends were still in high school, but I was working with older men.

Eddie Mio, goalie for the Indianapolis Racers: I’d spent most of my [playing] time down south. We didn’t get hockey [news] down south. I had no clue who Wayne Gretzky was. No clue. So we go and meet the kid. Whitey [Racers coach Pat Stapleton] set it up. Real good kid, right off the bat.

Nelson Skalbania: At that time, Indianapolis was struggling badly. I think we had 2,000 season-ticket [holders]. After announcing Gretzky, relatively unknown at the time in Indianapolis, the season tickets roared from 2,000 to 2,100. So I knew I was in trouble. It wasn’t much fun.

Wayne Gretzky: I was probably really overwhelmed. I was just a 17-year-old kid. Obviously it was a big jump from junior hockey—playing with guys that were 19 to playing guys that were 35 and 36. It was a bigger jump than I had anticipated. I probably wasn’t ready to be the guy that you build a team around at 17. That was the idea of the Indianapolis Racers and Nelson Skalbania, that I was going to sell all these tickets and hockey was going to go to another level.

As the Racers’ season opened, it became apparent that young Gretzky’s presence wouldn’t move the dial for fans. Skalbania was frustrated that his gamble wasn’t paying off. He asked the City of Indianapolis to purchase half of the team, but his proposal was rejected. Skalbania decided to sell off pieces of the roster and fold. On November 2, 1978, Gretzky, Mio and Peter Driscoll—the team’s marquee player—were told they were no longer members of the Racers.

Nelson Skalbania: I called up Michael Gobuty and said, “I’m going to fold the team. If you want Gretzky, I promised him to you first. You can have Gretzky.” I was always going [to offer Gretzky to] Winnipeg because they had the first right. It was a verbal handshake. So he was going to Winnipeg no matter what.

Michael Gobuty: I’m at home. I get a phone call. [Skalbania] says, “Michael, I’m folding. It’ll be my last game in Indianapolis. I’m blowing my brains out. Why don’t you take Wayne?” I took my wife, Adrienne, and my oldest son, Marshall. I had my own jet in those days. We jumped on the plane, flew to Indianapolis and watched Wayne play. I think he scored two goals. After the game, we went for dinner. I had a drink and Nelson had a drink but Wayne couldn’t even have a beer he was so young. My GM at the time was one of the top two or three in the business, Rudy Pilous. He’d won Stanley Cups and everything. I called him after the meeting in Indianapolis. “No, Gretzky’s too skinny,” he said. “He’s too light. They’ll kill him.”

Wayne Gretzky: Bobby Hull desperately wanted me to go to Winnipeg. We played there a week prior to the trade. The stick boy came in after the game and said, “Mr. Hull wants to see you down the hallway.” So I went down the hallway and [Hull] said, “Come on, I want to take you to dinner.” So we went to dinner and he spent the whole night saying, “Tell them you want to come to Winnipeg.” He wanted me to be his centreman. “Okay, of course,” I said. I’d love to play with Bobby Hull. Who doesn’t want to play with Bobby Hull, right?

Michael Gobuty: Bobby said that if the opportunity arose that we should take Wayne Gretzky. He was very important to the team. Bobby made the Winnipeg Jets and Bobby made the WHA. There’s no Bobby Hull, there’s no WHA.

Nelson Skalbania: I flew to Winnipeg, landed at the airport, and Gobuty brings his GM [who] says, “Are you crazy paying that kid those kinds of dollars?”

Wayne Gretzky: Nelson called me and said, “I’m going to trade you. I’m going to give you the choice if you want to go to Winnipeg or Edmonton.” I’d never been to Winnipeg or Edmonton, so I had no idea. I called Gus Badali, who at the time was my manager and my agent, and asked what I should I do. “Edmonton has an 18,000-seat arena,” he said. “They have a better chance of getting into the NHL. Tell them you want to go to Edmonton.”

Michael Gobuty: Nelson was a backgammon expert. And my wife was a backgammon expert. I was just an average player. And he says, “Let’s play backgammon for Wayne.”

“Are you crazy?” I said. “No, no, I can’t do that. It’s impossible.”

“Gretzky's too skinny. He's too light. They'll kill him.”

Eddie Mio: After a practice, Whitey called us into his office. We were still in our equipment. “You guys have been sold,” he said. “Hurry up, shower, go home, make sure you take your equipment, everything you need to play, and be at the airport by two o’clock.”

“Coach, where we going?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Whoever completes the deal. We do know it’s between Edmonton and Winnipeg. Whoever completes the deal by two o’clock, that’s where the jet is going to take you.”

We get to the airport and there’s this little Lear jet. It’s a Lear. Remember it’s 1978—we’re going big time!

Wayne Gretzky: It was a real tiny plane. We had so much luggage because we had to pack all of our stuff, plus hockey equipment. We had a goaltender’s bag—we had three hockey bags—we had goalie sticks and hockey sticks and, of course, our luggage. Even though it was only three of us in a seven-seater plane, we had to put half the luggage in the airplane. As we were taking off the pilot said, “Who is paying for this?” We all looked at each other, and I didn’t even own a credit card.

Eddie Mio: I go, “What do you mean who’s paying for it? The team, wherever we’re going will pay for it.”

“No we need some payment now,” he said. I’m the oldest guy there, and I make an executive decision. I say, “Well, do you take credit cards?” I gave him a card. He had the old-style, where they make the imprint. He sends it back to me. I look at [the bill], and I’m going uh… okay. I sign it, and give it back. He gives me my copy, and I’m just staring at it. And Peter Driscoll says to me, “What’s the problem?”

I say, “Look at this. It’s $10,000.”

“So? You’ll get reimbursed,” he says.

“That’s not the problem,” I say. “Do you think they’re going to call the bank?”

“I don’t know, why?”

“There’s a $500 limit on the card—Canadian!”

Michael Gobuty: Nelson slept at my house, and the next day he said, “What are you going to do [about acquiring Gretzky]?”

“Nelson, my partners say no,” I said. “Rudy Pilous says no.”

Biggest mistake. Huge mistake. Because, as you know, Wayne was the best. And I didn’t do it.

With the Jets out of contention for Gretzky, Skalbania turned his attention to Edmonton and Pocklington. Skalbania was plenty familiar with the Oilers: he’d owned them before buying the Racers, and was the man who’d sold the team to Pocklington.

Peter Pocklington: In walked Nelson Skalbania with probably 20 people from the press [to the conference announcing Skalbania’s purchase of the Oilers]. We were good friends. I walked over and said, “What the hell are you doing?” He said, “I just bought the Oilers in the WHA.”

“Well, sell me half,” I said. And so he did, right on the spot. “I want a deposit,” he said. My wife had a substantial diamond. I pulled that off and said, “Here’s your deposit.” The next day we did some paperwork, and that’s how I bought the Oilers.

Nelson Skalbania: At that time, I took cars, paintings and diamonds instead of money because money was short, I guess.

Skalbania asked his former business partner, Pocklington, for $850,000 for the rights to Gretzky, Driscoll and Mio.

Peter Pocklington: Nelson said, “Peter, you’ve got the greatest opportunity in your lifetime. Do you want Gretzky?” I guess in life there’s a lot of luck. Mind you, you have to do what you have to do to make that luck happen. My first thought was, “Of course.” It’s a done deal. I knew Wayne’s small background at that time. And, of course, the hoopla that was made when Nelson bought him. The kid was a phenomenon.

Nelson Skalbania: I called Peter from the airport in Winnipeg [after Gobuty turned down the opportunity to acquire Gretzky], and that was it. Right away he said yes. No negotiating. Here’s the price, here’s the terms. No negotiating.

The Oilers General Manager at the time was the late Larry Gordon. Some time before his death in 2013, Gordon claimed he’d witnessed a high-stakes game of backgammon between Skalbania and Pocklington. He was quoted in the local Edmonton press and the following account made it into his obituary:

“Pretty high stakes at the time. I was cheering like heck for Pete. Peter was going to get Wayne and some other players if he won the game, and Nelson was going to get some of Peter’s art. In the end, Peter also gave Nelson some cash.”

Nelson Skalbania: We played a lot of backgammon, Pocklington and I. He thought he was the world’s greatest backgammon player.

Peter Pocklington: I remember one time, we played for a hundred grand and the game was to 21, I was at 19-zip, and all of a sudden, he started rolling double-sixes. It was 19-19 or so, and we shook hands, and forgot the hundred.

Nelson Skalbania: The backgammon game [from Gordon’s account] was never for a player or a team—I think it’s all urban legend. The backgammon game would only have been for the proceeds that [Pocklington] still owed me [for Skalbania’s stake in the Oilers]. We negotiated that if you can’t pay me, I’m going to play you in backgammon and I’m going to get an option to buy back in [to the Oilers ownership]. I lost that. [As payment from Pocklington], I got three convertible Rolls Royces, about 12 Group of Seven paintings, two big diamonds and a little bit of cash.

Their future may not have been wagered on a game, but for the amount of agency Gretzky, Mio and Driscoll had on the flight north, it may as well have been.

Eddie Mio: Gretz was pretty quiet [on the plane]. His whole environment was changing. He’s still only 17. “Hey guys,” I said. “Wherever we go, it’s going to be okay. We’re going together.” It was a long flight.

Wayne Gretzky: We didn’t know what was going on. When we landed in Minneapolis, that’s when they called and said, “You’re going to Edmonton.”

The ironic part of the whole process was that [Oilers coach] Glen Sather really only wanted Peter Driscoll and Eddie—he wanted a good, young goaltender, he wanted a tough power forward—and I was sort of the throw-in in the deal. Glen wanted me, but he felt for that year that the two most important pieces in that deal were going to be Driscoll and Eddie.

Eddie Mio: That year we played Winnipeg in the Avco Cup final, which was our Stanley Cup in the WHA. We lost in six games. But all year long we were in first place. And the kid, after about a month, he lit it up. It could have been a completely different story if we’d gone to Winnipeg. Winnipeg probably would have been Edmonton.

Gretzky scored 46 goals and 110 points in his first season of pro hockey, finishing third in league scoring in what would be the final year of the WHA. While most franchises folded, four teams from the league were admitted to the NHL: the New England Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers.

The Oilers went on to win four Stanley Cups in the 1980s, and another in 1990 after Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings—again, changing the course of hockey history. The Winnipeg Jets enjoyed success in the regular season, but had little luck in the playoffs. The Jets and Oilers would meet in six post-season series in the ‘80s. The Oilers dominated each time, holding the Jets to just four wins, total.

Eddie Mio: It was a slap in the face. Every time they went up against each other in the ‘80s, Edmonton would always knock Winnipeg off. And who was doing the damage? Wayne. You have to feel sorry for the fans in Winnipeg. They have a great fan base.

Peter Pocklington: He was the real thing—that’s why we won all those Stanley Cups. It’s crazy. Edmonton would not have had that opportunity. We certainly would have been winners, but not to the extreme that we were. Wayne really put the icing on the cake.

Michael Gobuty: I made the biggest mistake. I talked myself out of it. There was nobody like [Gretzky]. Nobody. And there never will be anyone like him. When he was done, that was the best. Nobody can compare to him.

With files from Christine Simpson and Paul Sidhu.

Photo Credits

David Klutho/Hockey Hall of Fame; Hank Delespinasse/Getty; Manny Millan/Getty; Andy Devlin/Getty