Thursday, August 8, 2013

Wayne Gretzky Was Almost a Winnipeg Jet

wayne gretzky oilers trade
The Trade that shocked the hockey world happened 25 years ago, ripping Wayne Gretzky from Edmonton and forever making Peter Pocklington a pariah in the City of Champions. But there exists an alternate universe where Wayne Gretzky was never traded from Edmonton—because he was a Winnipeg Jet.

In Peter Gzowski's best-selling classic The Game of Our Lives, which follows the 1980-81 Edmonton Oilers, a team on the brink of becoming a dynasty, Gzowski tells a story of how Wayne Gretzky was almost traded to the Winnipeg Jets instead of the Edmonton Oilers. The deal never happened because Jets owner Michael Gobuty wasn't a bolder backgammon player.

At the time, Nelson Skalbania's Indianapolis Racers franchise of the WHA was not working out. That's an understatement. The team was a financial disaster, even with a young phenom like Wayne Gretzky playing. The Racers lost close to $1 million in 1978-79 (closer to $3.5 million in today's dollars, which is a good year in Phoenix, I suppose) and was not included in plans for a WHA-NHL merger that would eventually take place in 1979.

However dire the team's situation was, Skalbania had Gretzky, who he had signed to a seven-year personal services contract when the young prodigy was 17 years old. And Gretzky alone was going to make Skalbania a tidy profit.

Skalbania called Michael Gobuty, one of the owners of the Winnipeg Jets, to talk about Gretzky. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight it's obvious Gobuty should have paid whatever Skalbania wanted, but at the time it was believed that Skalbania wanted too much money for the burgeoning superstar, and some of Gobuty's advisors—who aren't confirmed but Gzowski guesses was coach Rudy Pilous—weren't sold on Gretzky, thinking he was "too scrawny".

Despite the hesitation on the part of the Jets, the two owners had one final meeting on board Gobuty's plane (where all big-money deals were required by law to be made in the 1980s). Flying over the country Skalbania proposed a risky, totally 80s-movie-plot deal, as Gwotzki describes in the book:

"Tell you what," said Skalbania. "We'll play one game of backgammon. If you win, you can have him at your figure. If I win, I get a piece of the Jets."

"I'm not that good of a backgammon player," said Gobuty.

Deal off.

Next, Skalbania called Peter Pocklington, who agreed to Skalbania's asking price and Gretzky was an Oiler.

Just like that, Gobuty lost out on the greatest hockey player ever, and Winnipeg Jets fans are left wondering whether they could have watched one of the league's greatest dynasties develop in Winnipeg instead of Edmonton.  

1 comment:

Chris said...

Anything could happen in hockey. Not really a hockey fan but I can associate this with basketball. There are different teams that will do whatever it takes to acquire the players they wanted.

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...