Did you know that one of the greatest hockey players of all time was never drafted? Yes, it's true -- Wayne Gretzky was never drafted! Here's the story.
In 1978, it was becoming evident that Wayne Gretzky was going to be a superstar. Even though he was not selected by the first two teams in the 1977 Ontario Major Junior Hockey League Midget draft (in lieu of Tom McCarthy and Steve Peters), he was a highly regarded youth player, having scored 72 points with the Junior B Toronto Nationals at the age of 15 - in just 28 games!
Luckily, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds selected him with their third pick, and Gretzky went on to score 182 points for them in the 1977-78 season as a 16/17 year old, though he lost the scoring crown to 19/20-year old Bobby Smith who finished with 192 points.
Gretzky wanted to play at a higher level of hockey than Major Junior, yet it would be four more years before he would be eligible to be drafted by, or play in the NHL -- 1981. He expressed frustration at this fact during the 1978 World Junior Championships, and stated that he could perhaps play professionally in Sweden while waiting for his NHL eligibility to come about, though a day later he claimed he had been misquoted.
It was still apparent that Gretzky was not happy. His ice time had been reduced by ten minutes per game when Paul Theriault replaced Muzz MacPherson as coach of the Greyhounds mid-season. He was struggling with his school work, and was not happy with his treatment by some unnamed teammates. Gretzky said that he would prefer to play for another OMJHL team - perhaps one closer to his home in Brantford, or he might even return to play Junior B hockey. The OMJHL quickly nixed those options, and told the press that Gretzky's only option outside Junior A was University Hockey -- and then noted that he was not ready academically for that route.
In the late 1970's, the World Hockey Association was in direct competition with the National Hockey League. One of the tactics that some WHA teams had settled on was to draft and sign players who were under the NHL's minimum age of 20 years old. This allowed younger players like Ken Linseman and Gordie Roberts to play professionally before NHL teams were even allowed to secure their rights.
With Gretzky's desire to play professionally, and the WHA in the final rounds of a decimating battle against the NHL coupled with the league's laissez-faire policy against signing junior players, it was no surprise that by late April 1978, Gretzky's agent was floating the possibility of him playing in that renegade league.
On June 12, 1978, Nelson Skabania of the Indianapolis Racers announced that he had signed Wayne Gretzky to a 7-year, $1.75 million personal services contract (as opposed to a standard hockey contract). Reactions were extreme -- Jim McAuley of the Greyhouds even called for governmental intervention to the WHA's practice. But the deal was done, Greztky was a Racer.
The summer of 1978 saw much speculation over what would happen to Gretzky if the WHA went ahead with plans to merge with the NHL -- the NHL was adamant about its rule preventing players from joining the league until they were 20 years old. This problem did not materialize, because for the second straight year the WHA/NHL merger talks failed to produce results, and the WHA was back on for 1978-79.
Gretzky played just 8 games for the Racers before the team, in financial trouble, sold his contract to the Edmonton Oilers. Peter Pocklington assumed Gretzky's contract, and later extended it to a ten-year deal.
When the WHA/NHL merger (officially termed an NHL expansion) was finally approved in March, 1979, each WHA team was allowed to claim two players from their WHA roster. Gretzky was the obvious choice of Edmonton, and thus he moved to the NHL without ever being drafted.