Top Shelf: Gretzky, Indy, and the WHA

By Rob Del Mundo

DVD review: Gretzky, Indy, & the WHA by Timothy Gassen, Purple Cactus Media Productions

The Indianapolis Racers lasted only four and a half seasons in the World Hockey Association from 1974-79. While the team, and the league, may be foreign to a younger generation of hockey fans fixated on current stars Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, a new DVD entitled Gretzky, Indy, & the WHA preserves the Racers’ legacy.

Arizona resident Timothy Gassen, the documentary’s producer and director, had no easy task in compiling the archival footage of Indianapolis hockey, which includes Wayne Gretzky’s first professional goal, scored as a Racer against Dave Dryden of the Edmonton Oilers.

“I was told that the footage did not exist,” said Gassen, who became an instant fan of the team as a teenager in 1974. “So I took all my research and I wrote a book which came out a year and a half ago. That led me to people who literally in their garage had kept tapes for 30 years that had been thrown away by television stations.

“We found what might be the earliest videotape of Wayne Gretzky as an Edmonton Oiler, a complete game when they played against Indianapolis, just a couple of days before the team folded in 1978. I’m delighted to bring that to fans, now.”

The Racers were more than just a historical footnote as “the team that launched The Great One’s career”. Playing before sellout crowds at Market Square Arena, the team developed an enormous following of passionate fans, coming within a game of advancing to the Avco Cup final in 1976.

The ’75-76 team was coached by future Stanley Cup champion and Jack Adams Trophy winner Jacques Demers. Former Leafs captain Dave Keon brought his leadership skills to the dressing room, and the squad was led on the blueline by Pat “Whitey” Stapleton.

Stapleton, who enjoyed a lengthy NHL career with Boston and Chicago and played for Team Canada in the 1972 Summit Series, truly appreciates the impact of the WHA in shaping the present-day game.

“I think it’s really important to see that history is still remembered,” said the defenceman, who served as Indianapolis’ coach and general manager in the team’s final season. “As I always say, your past is very important because it brought you right to here. The WHA was the beginning of what hockey is today, and that’s why you have to have great respect for the Bobby Hulls of the world, the Gerry Cheevers’ and JC Tremblays.”

The documentary is narrated by long-time Racers broadcaster and current voice of the Indianapolis Colts Bob Lamey. The two DVD-set is packed with vintage game footage that includes the third period of a playoff game against the Racers’ fiercest rivals – the Cincinnati Stingers.

Gassen has managed to resurrect many long-forgotten interviews, including Demers on camera after the playoff sweep of the Stingers in 1977, and also a 17-year-old Gretzky on the radio, awe-struck at having turned pro. The filmmaker has sights on similar projects involving other WHA teams such as the Houston Aeros, all aiming to serve as further tributes to the former rebel league.

“I want young fans to know that this generation of hockey players did the hard work that turned into this great game today. The WHA were the first to bring over European players. They changed the rules to open up offensive hockey. You don’t need to know anything about the WHA for this to be a fascinating story,” said Gassen proudly.

Stapleton toiled for four playing seasons in the WHA, two with the Racers. Recalling fondly the team’s interaction with the die-hard fans during his tenure, Stapleton is grateful that the stories from that era can be passed on to future generations.

“It’s wonderful for myself to have 13 grandchildren that can look back and see that part of history. I’m very proud to be part of it.”


Rob Del Mundo is the author of Top Shelf, a regular column at TMLfans.ca

Gretzky, Indy, & the WHA is available for purchase at WHARacers.com.

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