The time Bobby Hull tried to get Wayne Gretzky to play for the Winnipeg Jets

The Great One: 'It was one of the nicest nights of my life'

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The story Wayne Gretzky is telling goes like this, and Winnipeg Jets fans should be forewarned to cover their ears. Or eyes.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/10/2016 (2237 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The story Wayne Gretzky is telling goes like this, and Winnipeg Jets fans should be forewarned to cover their ears. Or eyes.

It was the late fall of 1978, in the early days of the World Hockey Association’s last season, when Gretzky’s Indianapolis Racers came to Winnipeg to play Bobby Hull’s Jets. Gretzky was just a scrawny kid, 17 years old, and he recalled he didn’t play “very well or very much” that night at the old arena.

Word on the street was Racers owner Nelson Skalbania was trying to move his young prodigy, for a price.

So after the game, the Racers’ trainer approached the teenager with an invitation.

“Mr. Hull wants to take you to dinner,” he said.

Gretzky was still a teenager, and Hull was one of his idols. He didn’t hesitate.

“Tell Mr. Hull I’ll be down there in five minutes,” he told the trainer, recalling, “It was the fastest shower I ever had in my life.”

Hull took the young phenom to a nearby eatery. The Golden Jet wooed Gretzky by saying his style was similar to Ulf Nilsson, the Swedish playmaker who centred the Jets’ legendary Hot Line between Hull and Anders Hedberg. Hull said Gretzky would be, in a few years, the perfect middleman to feed him the puck.

Young Gretzky was transfixed.

“When Bobby Hull’s telling you he wants you to be his centreman and you’re 17 years old, all you can do is smile and giggle,” he said Tuesday. “And that’s what I did for two hours. It was one of the nicest nights of my life.”

Then the story goes sideways, at least from a Winnipeg perspective.

“As it turned out, (Oilers GM Glen) Sather had the same ambition to get me to Edmonton,” Gretzky continued. “Ultimately, Sather had a big belief in me as a general manager that one day I could play. And I’m not sure the management group of the Winnipeg Jets felt the same way.

“I mean, I was 17 and 150 pounds. I had two goals and one assist in six games (with the Racers). It’s not like I was setting the world on fire, so their (the Jets) rationale probably had some validity behind it.

“Glen felt the big picture… was that I was the guy who could be the cornerstone to help them build the franchise. So, ultimately, I ended up not playing with Bobby Hull and not being with the Jets. Obviously, the rest is history.”

MICHELLE SIU / THE CANADIAN PRESS Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky poses for a photo to promote his new book "99: Stories of the Game" in Toronto on Monday, October 17, 2016.

Oh, it’s history, all right. It’s engraved in the Stanley Cup. It’s enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. It’s hanging from the rafters of that new arena in Edmonton. It’s cast in nine feet, two inches of bronze outside the same arena.

Gretzky was on the phone from New York, where he was promoting his new book, 99: Stories of the Game. This conversation centred around the Great One’s impending arrival in Winnipeg for the Legends game Saturday between the Jets and Edmonton Oilers alumni, a prelude to Sunday’s Heritage Classic at Investors Group Field.

The latter will feature some of today’s young, rising stars, including the Jets’ Patrik Laine vs the Oilers’ Connor McDavid. But the former will be a tsunami of bitter-sweet nostalgia for Winnipeg hockey fans of a certain age.

To be fair, Gretzky, now 55, is quick to douse any expectations of revisiting grandeur. After all, he hasn’t been on the ice in public since the first ever NHL outdoor game back in Edmonton (versus the Montreal Canadiens) in 2003.

“I know my capabilities at this point in my life,” he chuckled, when asked if he was feeling any performance anxiety. “Listen, I don’t play a whole lot because I’m not that good anymore. The reality is the hockey is less than stellar.

“If people are coming to see the Oilers of 1985 that’s not going to be the case.”

And maybe that’s just as well. Winnipeggers who lived through it have probably had their fill of the Oilers of the 1980’s, the same archrivals who won five Stanley Cups between 1984 and 1990 — but not before eliminating the Jets first. In every single championship year.

For Jets’ co-owner Mark Chipman, who lived and died (mostly) through the Oilers-Jets one-sided rivalry back in the day, the history between the two franchises, dating back to joining the WHA in 1972, to entering the NHL in 1979 — and not forgetting Gretzky’s almost-a-Jet flirtations — made the Oilers literally the classic opponent.

After the Jets secured the Heritage event, one of Chipman’s first calls was asking Gretzky to take part in the Legends game. Sure, Gretzky replied, but not before he checked with Hall of Fame teammates Mark Messier and Paul Coffey.

“In other words, it wasn’t just his call,” Chipman said. “And I thought, ‘Oh-oh.’ And the next day he (Gretzky) called me back and said, ‘I’ve got Mess’. And the day after that he called and said, ‘I’ve got Coffey, so we’re good to go.’

“And, of course, Dale’s (Hawerchuk) reaction was the very same. So to see them all on the ice together is just going to be remarkable.”

When you add Thomas Steen, Dave Ellett, Dave Babych and Teemu Selanne, of course, the Jets nostalgia meter begins to max out.

Does Gretzky look forward to seeing Selanne on the opposition side again?

“I know my wife will,” he replied, bursting into laughter. “That’s her favourite player.”

Mostly, though, Gretzky will share some old war stories with what he calls his “band of brothers” — and that includes the old enemy. Rivalry has long ago given way to respect.

Gretzky might even retell the one about how not long after breaking bread with Bobby Hull that fateful night in Winnipeg — when this city’s history could have been rewritten — he arrived in Edmonton in November of 1978.

On his first day as an Oiler, Sather sat Gretzky down and, not unlike Hull, made his own promise.

“We’re going to go into the National Hockey League,” Sather told the teenager. “We’re going to build a team that plays like the Jets did in the mid-70s with Hedberg, Nilsson and Hull. We’re going to skate, and we’re going to move the puck, and we’re going to win a Stanley Cup.”

Alas, Jets fans, what might have been.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @randyturner15

Courtesy Joe Daley Left: A replication Wayne Gretzky card. Right: A vintage Bobby Hull card.
Randy Turner

Randy Turner
Reporter

Randy Turner spent much of his journalistic career on the road. A lot of roads. Dirt roads, snow-packed roads, U.S. interstates and foreign highways. In other words, he got a lot of kilometres on the odometer, if you know what we mean.

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