Wayne Gretzky wasn’t exactly unknown to the Canadian hockey crowd. He’d been a generational talent that everyone talked about for several years, and in the late 70s, he was really starting to earn a reputation, despite still playing in the juniors.
In 1978, he was growing tired of not playing with the pros. And as a 16-year-old, he started to dig in if there wasn’t a way for him to circumvent the rules somehow.
He implied that he only needed one more year of junior hockey, then it was time to play with the big guys. But it seemed impossible since the NHL draft-eligible age at the time was 20 years.
“At the moment, I would consider it very unlikely that I play four more years of junior hockey before turning pro. The NHL rules now say I can’t be drafted before then, but if and when I’m ready for the pros I want to be sure I can go,” he told the Montreal Gazette, quoted on Jan.3, 1978.
Wayne Gretzky had several options and felt he needed to do something. He feared for his career and future if he were to play in the juniors.
He said he wanted one more year to grow and learn.
”But after that I don’t know what will be left to learn. By then I would have a reputation and I think I would be a sitting duck for other players out to make a reputation for themselves at my expense. I don’t want that to happen. There’s just too much chance an injury could finish me off before I ever get a chance at the pros.”
Wayne Gretzky was thinking about signing for the WHA. They had different rules and would allow Gretzky to sign a pro contract long before he could do so in the NHL. But he also had a different option: To move to Sweden.
Gretzky actually considered moving to Scandinavia, playing in the Swedish Elitserien. He considered it a viable option where injuries weren’t at stake, and kind of a loophole to be able to play pro.
“I could just go over there and play with one of their major-league teams for a couple of years. The risk of injury wouldn’t be so great and it would be a good learning experience for my hockey skills. I could play over there for two years and then come back to the NHL when I was eligible,” Gretzky said.
If Gretzky had gone through with his Sweden plans, he could’ve ended up playing with the likes of Hakan Loob, Thomas Steen, and Mats Naslund, who all played with Farjestad at the time. But instead, Gretzky eventually chose to sign with the WHA, and not long after, NHL changed their draft rules, allowing 18-year-olds to play.
But just think what could’ve been…