If I told you that my hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana once had a major league hockey team, would you be shocked? Probably, right? Now what if I told you that this hockey team was the first major league team to put Wayne “The Great One” Gretzky and Mark Messier on the ice? Bullshit, right? Wrong.
Back on September 13, 1971, a new major ice hockey league was born. Hoping to compete with the NHL, the World Hockey Association (WHA) essentially took the place of the dwindling, and as of 1974, defunct Western Hockey League. The WHA’s main goal was to capitalize on the markets that the NHL had missed, major cities in the U.S. that weren’t necessarily billed as “hockey towns” along with midsized Canadian cities that hadn’t had the pleasure of housing a major league team.
Out of this plan, and some crazy scenarios including announced teams never playing and moving cities, twelve teams were born into the WHA. They were the:
The league was essentially doomed from the start. Teams were moving cities before they ever even saw a single puck drop. While big stars were signed for then obscene amounts of money, their play always faltered due to lack of supporting talent. The league dealt with legal battle after legal battle with the NHL. The writing was on the wall, but the money men didn’t want to see it.
Through all of the problems, the inaugural season went its course, along with the 1973 season. In 1974, the league surprisingly decided to add two more teams, The Phoenix Roadrunners and my hometown Indianapolis Racers.
The Indianapolis Racers saw their first action at the start of the 1974-1975 season, playing at Market Square Arena, which basketball fans may recognize as the longtime home court of the Indiana Pacers. While the expansion team got off to a predictably slow inaugural season, the Racers actually won the WHA Eastern Division championship in only their second season. Actually known for their rabid fanbase, the Racers were the leaders in attendance for the 1976-1977 season.
Unfortunately, the team’s good fortune could not be sustained, thanks mostly to their owner, Nelson Skalbania. A known Canadian businessman, Skalbania was known for buying and flipping sports franchises, mismanaging them in the process, and always looking for the quick buck. He was widely accused of stifling a budding hockey market in Indianapolis and actually hoped to move the team to Canada, where he assumed he’d have better luck getting his team to the NHL, since at the time the two leagues were in merger discussions.
This was not to be, however, as the WHL had no interest in pushing the delicate merger discussions any further by trying to force yet another Canadian club down the NHL’s throat. Skalbania, ever the “astute” thinker, turned to signing under aged future stars, great players just slightly too young to play in the NHL per its rules. He was somehow able to sign 17-year-old Wayne Gretzky to a 4-year contract, thinking that the draw of a great young talent would be enough to help his team’s financial turmoil. It didn’t, as the Racers regularly lost over $40,000 per game.
The Great One, as he would be later known, netted his first two professional hockey goals in a 4-3 loss to the Edmonton Oilers. Crazy to think about now, but one of the greatest hockey careers in history started in Indianapolis, Indiana. Alas, Gretzky’s time at Market Square Arena was extremely short-lived, as he played merely eight games (registering 6 points) for the Indianapolis Racers before Skalbania allowed his contract to be purchased by the Edmonton Oilers.
Alongside the Gretzky signing, another 17-year-old future Hall of Famer, Mark Messier, was given a 5-game tryout contract. Failing to register a point in those five games, Messier was released and signed by the Cincinnati Stingers. After what would be the final WHA season before the league folded, Mark Messier was selected by, who else, but the Edmonton Oilers in the 1979 NHL Entry Draft. As even the most casual hockey observers know, Gretzky and Messier went on to form the most explosive tandem in NHL history, finishing their careers number one and number two in total points, respectively.
Somehow, a pipe dream of a hockey league with an expansion team in one of the least likely major cities, led by an extremely inept owner, started what would become one of the greatest spectacles on ice for years to come. Who knows what history would be today if the Racers had had a better owners and been able to keep Gretzky? Who knows where Messier would have ended up if the Racers had seen his potential and not dropped him after 5 games?
Strangely enough, the history of hockey is probably better because of what happened over a few short years in Indianapolis.