Indiana on Ice? Remembering the Indianapolis Racers
When it comes to hockey, Indiana may not stand out amongst its neighbors in the Midwest. It has neither the storied original six NHL franchises of Chicago and Detroit nor an NHL expansion team like St Louis, Columbus, and Minneapolis (twice).
But, in the mid-to-late 1970s, Indiana was once touched by hockey greatness
The Hoosier state has produced a few notable NHL players and some competitive NCAA teams, but for the most part, Indiana and hockey make strange bedfellows. The most notable connection to the sport today has never even lived in Indiana. Star Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones is the son of current Indiana Pacers assistant coach Popeye Jones.
Between 1974 and 1979, the Indianapolis Racers competed in the World Hockey Association, an upstart league with franchises located in mid-sized cities throughout North America. Some of these teams would later join the NHL.
The Racers were far from spectacular on the ice but nevertheless managed to host some of the league’s most notoriously raucous fans. The franchise even managed to lead the WHA in attendance during the 1976-1977 campaign. Playing for four and a half seasons, the Racers made the playoffs twice, despite never having a winning season.
The team finished 35-39-6 and 36-37-8 during the regular season of their playoff years. During the team’s 5th year, they won 5 games, scored 78 goals, and accumulated 557 penalty minutes before folding after 25 games.
It would be easy to stop telling the Racers story there. However, there is one trivia fact that sets the Racers apart from the other WHA franchises that folded prior to the league’s absorption by the NHL. They were the first team to sign hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.
When ‘the Great One’ was 17, the Racers offered him a personal services contract worth over a million dollars. The contract was among the highest ever offered to a hockey player at the time. Gretzky did his part, recording 6 points in 8 games as a (very skilled) boy playing against men. Unfortunately, the economics of the deal made little sense.
Shortly after signing the contract, the Racers sold Gretzky and his contract to the rival Edmonton Oilers for a reported 700,000 and promptly ceased operations. Gretzky played a season for the Oilers in the WHA before the league folded and the team joined the NHL. Despite scoring 137 points as a rookie, Wayne Gretzky’s WHA experience prevented him from winning Rookie of the Year.
The Racers also signed Gretzky’s future teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Mark Messier to a tryout contract as a teenager. Unlike Gretzky, Messier’s skills were not quite as honed. He was cut after five games. Messier was subsequently drafted by Edmonton in the following year’s NHL draft. When he retired in 2005, he was the last WHA player to do so, and, by extension, the last Racer too.