It happened a couple of weeks ago, but Wayne Gretzky still is getting ribbed about it by his Edmonton Oiler teammates. There some of the boys sat, practice over, having a few beers in the bar in the Edmonton Coliseum. And there was Gretzky, enjoying their company and nursing a ginger ale. Then the bartender came over. "Sorry, Wayne," he said, "but you've got to be 18 even to be in here." As his teammates chuckled, Gretzky was politely shown the door.
The laughter was perfectly understandable. After all, Gretzky, the Oilers' 17-year-old rookie center, hadn't ever been stopped like that before. And the way he is performing in the World Hockey Association, who knows when it will happen again.
As a 5-year-old in his native Ontario, Gretzky made a hockey all-star team otherwise composed of boys 10 and 11. At eight he was showing up 14-year-olds in Bantam League play and being hailed across Canada as the greatest phenom since Bobby Orr. By the time Gretzky was 14, he was living away from home and doing wondrous things against rivals who were 16 and older. Then last year Gretzky, having turned 16, moved to the Junior A level, where the best players are mostly 18 to 20. Playing for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, the Great Gretzky, as he was now known, scored 70 goals and 112 assists.
After all that, it came as no great surprise when the precocious Gretzky moved into the pros this season, becoming the youngest player in WHA history and the youngest big league performer right now in any team sport. The perennially struggling WHA also boasts the oldest such player, the New England Whalers' 50-year-old Gordie Howe, and Gretzky joined the league with the same sort of ballyhoo that greeted the old man when he arrived with his two sons five years ago.
Seeing Gretzky as somebody who might fill a lot of their empty seats, the foundering Indianapolis Racers signed him to a four-year, $1 million contract, sent him on a whirlwind round of promotional appearances and even organized a Great Gretzky Fan Club. Then last month, just eight games into the season, the financially shaky Racers peddled him to Edmonton, a stronger franchise that, unlike Indianapolis, entertains realistic expectations of getting into the National Hockey League. Peter Pocklington, the Oiler president, said, "We feel that if we're going to be in the NHL, we need a superstar. And Wayne is going to be one."
Gretzky's head could have been spinning over all this, but he is a composed young man. "I was sorry to be leaving the Racers," he says, placating the 1,500 bewildered members of his Indy fan club. Then, pensively stroking some blond facial fuzz that he is careful to shave at least twice a year, he adds, "But the Oilers have shown faith in me, and I'd better produce."
To judge by Gretzky's play so far, there appears little danger of his disappointing anybody. Including three goals scored during his whistlestop in Indianapolis, Gretzky has nine goals in 20 games, and he also has 11 assists. At the same time, his fancy stickhandling and accurate passes have drawn several standing ovations in Edmonton and more oohs and aahs than many players enjoy in an entire career. Still growing at 6 feet and 168 pounds, Gretzky seems to have chicken bones for arms and spindles for legs. But he avoids getting banged around excessively by wriggling and squirting through heavy traffic. Once in the open, he has an effortless, deceptive stride that belies whispers heard in the juniors to the effect that while he had savvy, balance and a lot of other good things, he was not a strong skater.
"That was always the knock on me," Gretzky says. "Well, I feel smoother and faster every day. As I get older, my legs are getting stronger."
When Gretzky joined Edmonton, the team had a 1-4 record. The Oilers are now 12-8 and contending for first place. Glen Sather, the former NHL player who coaches the club, gives Gretzky due credit. " Wayne has innate hockey sense like all the great players," says Sather, who played for Boston in 1966 when Orr was a rookie with the Bruins. "Coming out of his end, he always seems in position to take the pass. And when he gets the puck he knows where everybody is, the way a center is supposed to. I hate to put this on him, but a player like Gretzky comes along only once every 10 years. He's not up there with Orr, Hull and Howe yet, but he's not far away, either."
That Gretzky is already playing pro hockey does not sit well with Canadian amateur officials, who had been assured by both the NHL and WHA that juniors under 20 would not be signed to pro contracts. But those pledges were made by league offices, not by teams. While NHL clubs have abided by the gentlemen's agreement, WHA teams, buoyed by court rulings, have been signing underage players at will. And when Nelson Skalbania, the majority owner of the Racers, made his million-dollar offer last summer, Gretzky leaped at it. He eventually signed a personal services contract with Skalbania while they were flying somewhere over Alberta in Skalbania's private jet.