"I've got one semester of high school to go, and the only reason I could think of to stay in the juniors was to graduate," Gretzky says. "But an offer like that is hard to turn down."
Gretzky hoped to get his diploma while playing with the Racers and, in fact, enrolled in two courses in the adult division of Indianapolis' Broad Ripple High School. His teammates, who nicknamed him Brinks because of his big contract, took a liking to him, as did the members of the Great Gretzky Fan Club. However, after an encouraging turnout of 11,728 for the Racers' opening game—a 6-3 loss to Winnipeg in which Gretzky went scoreless—attendance dropped to the 5,000-to-7,000 level.
That settled matters for Skalbania, a Vancouver entrepreneur who formerly owned the Edmonton team. He sold Gretzky, Winger Peter Driscoll and Goalie Eddie Mio to his old club for $850,000. Having paid Gretzky just $60,000 so far, and since Driscoll and Mio were essentially throw-ins, Skalbania reaped a windfall; he insisted, though, that the sale was his only hope of keeping the Racers afloat.
Might it be that Skalbania had actually planned to unload Gretzky for a fast profit all along? Suspecting as much, some irate season ticket holders in Indianapolis reacted to the sale by filing a class-action suit, and the Indianapolis Star taunted the club's absentee owner with the headline HEY NELSON, GO BACK TO SKALBANIA. Meanwhile, the last-place Racers are 4-15-2 and apparently trying to hang on until such time as the NHL might absorb choice WHA franchises like the Oilers, at which point less choice franchises such as their own would be indemnified for consenting to pack it in.
Despite his diplomatically correct expressions of regret over leaving Indianapolis, Gretzky knows that the future is brighter in Edmonton. The NHL is interested in oil-rich Edmonton because it is a good hockey town, with a new 15,248-seat arena. The NHL also could use another western franchise or two for geographical balance. The Oilers led the WHA last season with an average attendance of 10,222, and while this year's figure is running about the same, team officials expect Gretzky's presence to send it upward as soon as the people in Edmonton stop celebrating their Eskimos' victory over Montreal in the Grey Cup two weeks ago.
In the meantime, Gretzky has made himself at home. On arriving from Indy he entered the Oiler locker room, took one look at the strapping form of Dave Semenko, a 6'3" left wing nicknamed "Cement," and cracked, "I want this guy on my line so I can look after him." Gretzky cavorts around the ice at practices with a smile on his face and actually sings along when O Canada is played before games.
But Gretzky realizes that his youth sets him apart from other pro players. He will be able to drink with the boys when he turns 18 on January 26, but the fact remains that the next-youngest Oiler, rookie Wing Dave Hunter, is nearly three years his elder, and that other teammates are old enough to be his father. Last week Pocklington ran Oiler players and their wives through a three-day "positive thinking" course for executives that dealt with subjects such as child rearing and family finances. When the final all-day session ended, Gretzky wearily admitted, "I wondered what I was doing there."
With his parents 2,100 miles away in Brantford, Ontario, Gretzky is boarding with a family in Edmonton. Except for a 1979 Thunderbird, he has few extravagances and, rather than squander his newfound riches, submits to an allowance so stringent that teammates applauded the other day when he decided to buy a plastic scraper for cleaning ice off his windshield. Gretzky hopes to enroll in high school next month and—finally—graduate. And, he says, he means to pal around with people his own age. Of course, that didn't prevent him from taking an older woman of 18 out for dinner the other night, his first date in Edmonton.
"When I'm 23 I don't want to look back and feel I missed being a teen-ager," Gretzky says. "I want to be a hockey player and a normal 17-year-old. People say, 'Aren't you missing something playing hockey?' The way I look at it, I'm not missing anything. I'm getting extra."
Gretzky's level-headedness is matched by his faith in his abilities. "He's confident as hell," says Sather. "He firmly believes he's going to be the best player in the world." To gauge his frustration during the Oilers' 8-2 rout last week of Gretzky's former Indianapolis mates in the Coliseum, it can't happen fast enough to suit him. He played well and picked up an assist on a goal by Wing Bill Flett, but couldn't buy a goal himself despite several good chances. One was a breakaway on which he was stopped by Racer Goalie Gary Inness. On the bench, Sather said, "You'll get the next one."