THN cover curse? Wayne Gretzky big hope for WHA, Racers; Gretzky traded to Oilers; Racers fold; Oilers move to NHL

Rory Boylen
Wayne Gretzky Indianapolis Racers

Sometimes covers don’t have the staying power they’re supposed to. Sometimes, in hindsight, they can look pretty hilarious.

Take our cover from Oct. 27, 1978 as an example. The cover image was a 17-year-old Wayne Gretzky skating for the WHA’s Indianapolis Racers with the headline “Gretzky Big Hope for WHA’s Future.” The previous summer, Gretzky had signed a seven-year personal services contract with Racers owner Nelson Skalbania and was about to set off on his first season of professional hockey. The inside story focused on the young Gretzky’s stand-out talent, compared him with basketball great Oscar Robertson and enthused about the bright future ahead.

Wayne Gretzky cover

Here’s part of the story:

“When I was playing against Garry Unger, I felt funny,” Gretzky said in the story. “I didn’t know whether I was in a dream or awake. I’ll probably be that way against Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull and players like that. But once you get over that, you’re okay.”

Gretzky is one of the younger pro athletes, if not the youngest, ever to have his own fan club before he ever played in a regulation game. The Racers, in cooperation with L.S. Ayres Co., an Indianapolis department store, formed “The Great Gretzky Fan Club” for those 17 and under.

“There are about a thousand members,” he said, smiling. Asked if he liked “The Great Gretzky” buildup, Wayne replied “I try to play it down as much as I can. I guess it’s supposed to help the club sell tickets, so I’m not going to argue with them.”

Sounds rosy. A 1,000-strong fan club for Gretzky? It doesn’t get any better than that.

No, really. For Indianapolis hockey, it didn’t get any better than that.

Two THN issues later (cover date Nov. 10, 1978) the story had already taken a turn for the worse. On the cover of that issue was a sell that read “WHA’s Indy Racers Skating On Thin Ice.”

A story in that issue talked about the rough 1-4 start to Indianapolis’ season and their early struggles playing at home:

“We’re trying to save a franchise like we did when I was with Calgary and maybe we work too hard, maybe we don’t work hard enough,” Peter Driscoll said.

And then came the dagger.

In the issue dated Nov. 17, 1978, a cover sell read “Racers Sell Gretzky To Save Franchise.” The Great One was dealt to Edmonton along with Driscoll and Ed Mio for $850,000 – possibly over a game of backgammon. In all, Gretzky played eight games for the Racers and 72 for the rest of the 1978-79 WHA season with the Oilers. The Racers franchise didn’t survive through December that season, while the Oilers joined the NHL in 1979-80 and the WHA disappeared.

The best thing about this progression are the cover dates. Magazines are published and mailed before the date shown on the issue. So despite still being a member of the Racers in the Nov. 10 issue, Gretzky was actually shipped out of Indianapolis on Nov. 2.

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