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Gretzky Got Start in Indianapolis

April 17, 1999 GMT

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ A typical teen-ager? That’s how one former Indianapolis Racers teammate remembers young Wayne Gretzky.

But there was nothing typical about the hockey skills the teen-age phenom brought with him when he started his major league career more than 20 years ago. Then 17 years old, Gretzky played only a handful of games in Indianapolis, but it was there, in Market Square Arena, where he embarked on a path that made him the best player in NHL history.

``The Great One″ announced his retirement on Friday.

``You could see the talent. But the only thing lacking when he was here was a little maturity. He was a typical teen-ager,″ former Racers teammate Ken Block recalled.

It all began in 1978, when Canadian businessman Nelson Skalbania, the owner of the Racers, plucked the Ontario teen out of the junior leagues, signed him to a personal services contract and brought him to Indianapolis to play in the now-defunct World Hockey Association, a rival of the dominant NHL.

At the time, Gretzky was the youngest athlete playing a major league sport in North America.

``He was no man-child. He was a 17-year-old kid, physically, in maturity, everything, with obviously a lot of athletic skill,″ said Al Karlander, another former teammate in Indianapolis.

Gretzky, who had scored 70 goals and 182 points in 64 games for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds the previous season, was like a ``diamond in the rough″ who just needed some polish, Block said.

Gretzky moved in with a family in suburban Carmel and enrolled at Broad Ripple High School. He was accepted by the Racers and by the community, although no one realized he was a superstar-in-waiting.

``There were no hard feelings, that he didn’t pay his dues,″ Karlander said. ``At that time in the WHA, there were a lot of 18-year-olds, a lot of kids that had come out of the juniors that were just a year older. Every day you saw improvement. Every day you could see him understanding the game more, finding openings, finding lanes, finding opportunities.

``The one thing that was very different about him was he found open ice and found it in a different place than anybody else had. When you have open ice, you have time, and when you have time, you make good things happen if you’re as skilled and gifted as he is,″ Karlander said.

Playing for the Racers, Gretzky scored his first two professional goals on Oct. 20, 1978, against the Edmonton Oilers. But his stay in Indianapolis was short. The team was struggling, on the ice and financially, and after just three goals and six points in eight games, he was traded to Edmonton, along with Peter Driscoll and Eddie Mio, for cash and future considerations.

``When he came in, it was obvious he was going to do something,″ Driscoll recalled. ``He had that ability to read the ice like nobody we had ever seen before.

``We all felt it was going to be nice to watch this kid grow up. He was pleasant, polite, showed a lot of respect for the veterans that were around. He’s just been a first-class act from start to finish,″ said Driscoll, who played two more seasons with the Oilers and now is facility manager for a Carmel racquet club.

Karlander, who works for a Carmel mortgage company with Block, called the Oilers’ acquisition of Gretzky ``probably the best bargain in pro sports.″

``My memory is when Gretzky went to Edmonton, Nelson Skalbania received $750,000, but $500,000 was selling the NHL rights he had in Edmonton (to Peter Pocklington), so Gretzky was basically sold for $200,000 and Eddie Mio and Peter Driscoll were sold for, like, $25,000 each,″ Karlander said.

``As soon as he went to Edmonton, you could see the maturity kind of come because he had a better cast of players around him,″ Block recalled.

Gretzky scored 43 goals and 104 points in 72 games for Edmonton that season and was named the WHA rookie of the year. The next year, the Oilers _ and Gretzky _ came into the NHL in a merger that also brought in the Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets. Since then, the Whalers have moved to Carolina, the Nordiques to Colorado and the Jets to Phoenix.

Gretzky has moved, too. Now with the New York Rangers, he has 894 goals and 1,962 assists in 1,486 games. His last game will be on Sunday, when the Rangers close out their season against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

``If you tear his skills apart, he’s not a very physical guy at all, he’s not very big, there are so many players that skate better than he does, there are players that shoot the puck better than he does,″ Block said. ``But when you put the whole package together, and the fact that he was always one step ahead of everybody in his thinking, that’s what made him great. His anticipation was uncanny. It’s just like he knew where the puck was going all the time.″