Why Wayne Gretzky Was Never Drafted Into the NHL

Posted on April 13, 2024 by Dan Kent
Was Wayne Gretzky Ever Drafted

Wayne Gretzky, one of hockey's most legendary figures and arguably the best player to ever lace up the skates, has a surprising anomaly in his storied career: he was never drafted into the National Hockey League (NHL). 

Known as "The Great One," Gretzky's absence from the NHL draft puzzles many enthusiasts of the sport, as drafting is a standard process for teams to acquire new talent. 

Many of the most promising players in the game today, including Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Nathan MacKinnon, were all acquired by their teams by being taken with the first pick.

Why Gretzky was never drafted

Gretzky's journey to the NHL deviated from the norm due to the unique circumstances of professional hockey leagues during his ascent to stardom.

Before the height of his fame, Gretzky started his professional career in the World Hockey Association (WHA), which was the NHL's rival league at the time. 

He first signed with the Indianapolis Racers in 1978 before being sold to the Edmonton Oilers, who were also part of the WHA. This early start in a professional league set the stage for his transition to the NHL under unusual circumstances.

In 1979, when the WHA merged with the NHL, the standard entry draft rules were altered for WHA teams, including the Edmonton Oilers. Gretzky was able to join the NHL without going through the draft process due to a personal services contract with the Oilers. 

This allowed him to sidestep the draft and begin his NHL career with the Oilers, who joined the NHL after the merger. His exceptional play and contributions to the game have left an indelible mark on hockey and raise intriguing questions about how his career might have unfolded had he entered the NHL through the draft like most players.

A more in-depth look at Gretky’s path to pro hockey

Wayne Gretzky's journey to professional hockey was unconventional and bypassed the traditional NHL drafting process due to his early WHA involvement and subsequent NHL-WHA merger.

From Brantford to Sault Ste. Marie

Born in Brantford, Ontario, Wayne Gretzky's prodigious talent was evident early on. At the tender age of 14, Gretzky made a significant leap in his hockey career by joining the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Major Junior Hockey League (OMJHL).

Ontario Hockey and the OMJHL

While with the Greyhounds, Gretzky quickly established himself as a formidable player in the OMJHL. His performance during the 1977-78 season was outstanding, solidifying his reputation as one of Canada's most promising hockey talents.

He would score 70 goals and add 112 assists for 182 points in just 63 games.

The WHA's Indianapolis Racers

Gretzky began his professional hockey career at 17 with the World Hockey Association's Indianapolis Racers. In 1978, he signed a seven-year personal services contract with the team, marking his entry into professional hockey. This contract was not a standard player contract and played a role in the unique circumstances that followed.

The Edmonton Oilers

The financial instability of the Racers franchise led to Gretzky's tenure being brief. Following only eight games, his contract was sold to the Edmonton Oilers, who were, at the time, also part of the WHA. His move to the Oilers marked the start of a historic career, spanning nine seasons with the team and four Stanley Cups.

Drafting process and Gretzky's uniqueness

Gretzky was never drafted into the NHL due to the NHL-WHA Merger in 1979, which took place shortly after he began playing for the Oilers. 

Instead of entering the 1979 NHL Entry Draft, he was one of two players retained by the Oilers—negotiated by owner Peter Pocklington—as part of the conditions allowing the four WHA teams into the NHL. 

This exclusion from the draft was largely due to the personal services contract he had previously signed. Thus, Gretzky began his illustrious NHL career not as a drafted player but as a transferred asset of the merging leagues.

Gretzky’s impact and legacy

Wayne Gretzky's illustrious career in the NHL is marked by unprecedented records and a lasting legacy that reshaped the sport. His influence extended beyond his statistical accomplishments to significant career moments integral to hockey history.

As an Oiler fan, I wish I had been old enough to watch him and the team play in the 80s. There is no doubt a lot of fans chose to root for the Oilers because of him.

Records and achievements

Gretzky's tenure in the NHL produced a trove of records, some of which may never be broken.

He holds the record for most career goals (894) and career assists (1,963), culminating in a staggering 2,857 points. 

If you removed all of Gretzky's goals, he'd still be the all-time NHL leader in points.

Interestingly enough, however, it is likely that Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin will break Wayne Gretzky's all-time goal-scoring record. It is certainly not a guarantee, but he doesn't have long to go until he scores more than the great one.

Gretzky claimed the Hart Trophy nine times throughout his career, a testament to his status as the league's most valuable player. His contributions to his teams' successes were pivotal in winning four Stanley Cup championships, all with the Edmonton Oilers.

  • NHL Records held by Gretzky:
  • Awards and Honours:
    • Induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1999
    • Nine Hart Trophies
    • Ten Art Ross Trophies

The infamous trade and later career

"The Trade", as it came to be known, saw Gretzky moving from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988. The Edmonton Oilers were in a difficult financial position and needed to trade Gretzky to shore up the team's financials so they could continue to operate.

This move brought hockey to the forefront in southern California and led to a surge in the sport's popularity in non-traditional markets across the United States. 

Following his time with the Kings, Gretzky played for the St. Louis Blues and the New York Rangers, where he continued to perform at a high level until his retirement in 1999.

His storied career underscores Gretzky's impact on hockey, the records that still stand, and the expansion of the sport's popularity following his relocation to Los Angeles.

There is no question he is the greatest hockey player ever. The debate is whether or not he is the greatest player in all of professional sports. Nobody dominated any pro sports league like Gretzky did during his tenure.

Influence on Canadian hockey

Wayne Gretzky's legacy in Canadian hockey is monumental. He not only inspired a generation of hockey players with his talent on the ice but also took on leadership roles that shaped the future of the sport. 

His time with the Edmonton Oilers is still celebrated for the team's remarkable success due to his unparalleled talent. Although Edmonton had multiple players with immense talent, there is little chance they would have won four cups without Gretzky.

However, the Oilers did manage to win one cup without Gretzky, led by Mark Messier, who would eventually join Gretzky and even Glenn Anderson, a former Oiler, on the New York Rangers, where Gretzky finished his career.

Post-retirement, Gretzky assumed the role of head coach for the Phoenix Coyotes, guiding newer talents and imparting his deep understanding of the game. However, this didn't last long, and the Coyotes would be his first and only coaching job.

Dan Kent

About the author

Growing up in a hockey hotbed (Calgary, Alberta. And yes, I'm an Oiler fan), I decided to put my love and knowledge of the game to work. I started at five and am still playing today into my early 30s. By acquiring Brave Stick Hockey and rebranding it to Big Shot Hockey in 2023, I plan to teach people about this great game and educate them on the best equipment and history of the game. On a career level, I am in finance, running one of the largest financial websites in Canada, Stocktrades.ca.

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