The Indianapolis sun blazed in the summer of 1978, and I squinted in my backyard as I tried to read a biography of goaltending pioneer Jacques Plante (who also ended up in the WHA). I took a break and turned to the Indianapolis newspaper, hoping to read of progress in the seemingly endless WHA-NHL merger talks. Instead, a large display advertisement seemed to scream something like: The numbers in hockey are about to change. The photo showed the back of a Racers jersey, with a “99” stitched onto it. The name on the jersey was “Gretzky.” The Plante biography would have to wait.

Even with the resulting media hype over this teenage rookie –– who was my same age, weight and height –– the SuperFans’ enthusiasm for the upcoming 1978–79 Racers was muted. Like many other hardcore fans, we suspected that the team roster had been gutted yet again. There was little, if any, practical thought that the franchise would complete the upcoming season.

But hope springs eternal in Indianapolis –– and hope was needed as the season’s first player payroll date grew near –– so SuperFan Dave Pickering thought that just maybe Gretzky could save the day. “I think I was naïve, but I did. All that summer (1978) everything was ‘Gretzky, Gretzky!’ and merger talk was all the rage –– we thought since the (basketball) Pacers were able to get into the NBA (in 1976) that there was still a chance that the Racers could get into the NHL. Our family went to the Hockey Hall Of Fame in Toronto that summer and looked with awe at the Stanley Cup –– ‘What if one day the Racers could play for it?’–– we actually said that out loud.

“And I asked a guy working there, ‘So what do you think about Gretzky signing with Indianapolis?’ And his response was, ‘He can’t skate!’ ” Pickering laughs at the assessment, which today, of course, couldn’t be more ludicrous.

For most of the WHA’s existence, merger talks with the NHL had been on again and off again, almost certain and never to happen, just around the bend and far in the distance –– impossible to predict. It was the worst kept secret in hockey, though, that Indianapolis had never been seriously considered for the merger, and the franchise did not make formal applications for entry into the NHL as most of the other WHA clubs had. Since Indianapolis would not be included in the merger between the two major hockey leagues, the SuperFans asked ourselves: what was the purpose of the Racers even playing this last season?

Theory number one: “Skalbania simply wanted to keep his moribund franchise alive long enough to recoup his costs through the buy-out money he would receive in the event of a WHA–NHL merger…,” Scott Adam Surgent writes in his book “The Complete Historical and Statistical Reference to the WHA.”

The June 1978 signing of Gretzky added to the confusion, though. Why would Skalbania sell his interest in the Edmonton Oilers –– a WHA team likely to be included in the merger ––  and then buy Indianapolis, a financially disastrous team that would not be included? Why sign 17-year-old star prospect Gretzky to a whopping contract (reported at between $1.125 million and $1.75 million) for a supposedly cash-strapped team? 

Theory number two: The NHL prohibited the signing of players under 20 years of age, so Skalbania could beat the gold rush by signing the future “Great One” years before any NHL team could. It was also believed that the NHL would eliminate WHA teams from consideration if they signed underage players in anticipation of the merger. So a “patsy team” was needed to park Gretzky until the merger was worked out –– then Gretzky could be moved to one of the WHA merger teams and enter the NHL the following year. And perhaps Skalbania still owned part of the Oilers.

That patsy team seemed to be the Indianapolis Racers. Gretzky became the ultimate pawn to help force the NHL to absorb WHA teams, but this intrigue also ensured that Indianapolis would be sacrificed....

(c) 2007, 2009 & 2013 by Timothy Gassen
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