Why did Wayne Gretzky not win the Rookie of the Year Award?

When you look at Wayne Gretzky’s first year in the NHL, his stats are off the charts. So, why didn’t he win the Calder Trophy for the Rookie of the Year? 

Gretzky did not win the Rookie of the Year in the NHL in 1979-80 because he was deemed ineligible for the award after playing the previous year (as a 17 year old) in a major professional league called the World Hockey Association.

Embed from Getty Images

Gretzky’s journey to the National Hockey League is unusual and fascinating, and it explains why he didn’t win the Rookie of the Year. Let’s look more closely at how the Great One got to the NHL and how that deemed him ineligible for the Calder Trophy!

Wayne Gretzky’s first professional hockey league – WHA

The first professional hockey league that Wayne Gretzky played in was not the NHL, but the World Hockey Association (WHA).

When Gretzky was 16/17 he tore up his junior league – the Ontario Hockey League – for 182 points in 63 games. After that year he wanted to play professionally, but the NHL had a rule that players could not be younger than 20 years old to play. 

Was Gretzky going to have to wait three more years before playing in the NHL while playing in a league that was way too easy for him? 

The answer turned out to be no, and he decided to sign with a rival professional league in 1978: the World Hockey Association (“WHA”). 

The WHA had no rules about underage players. In fact, they welcomed them as a chance to steal up and coming talent from the NHL.

How did Gretzky get from the WHA to the NHL

Wayne would only play for one season in the WHA in 1978/79 for the Indianapolis Racers/Edmonton Oilers. 

The league was financially unstable and was folding at the end of that season, but four teams from the WHA would end up merging into the NHL – one of them being the Edmonton Oilers. 

For the 1979/90 year the NHL changed their rules and started allowing 19 year olds and any other underagers who had played in the WHA to compete in the NHL. 

This allowed Gretzky to play his first year in the NHL starting in 1979/80.

NHL’s rule about who is eligible for the Calder Trophy for Rookie of the Year? 

The Calder Trophy is given out every year to the best rookie in the NHL. If you look down the list of winners it is a who’s who of NHL superstardom: Mike Bossy, Mario Lemieux, Teemu Selanne, Alex Ovechkin, Nathan MacKinnon, Auston Matthews…

However, as we have discussed there is one big exception: Wayne Gretzky. He has won every other award he is eligible for, why not this one?

Well, in fact, that is the problem: He was never eligible to be up for the rookie of the year award. 

That makes no sense – everybody has to play their first year and be a rookie, don’t they?

Well Gretzky, obviously, played a first season in the NHL but he did not me the elibigibility requirements to be considered for the trophy. 

Eligibility for the Calder Trophy has two major stipulations: 

  1. To be eligible for the Calder Memorial Trophy, a player cannot have played more than 25 games in any single preceding season nor in six or more games in each of any two preceding seasons in any major professional league.
  2. Beginning in 1990-91, a player must not have attained his 26th birthday by Sept. 15 of the season in which he is eligible.

Well this was before 1990-91 and Gretzky was 18 in his first year in the NHL so the second point doesn’t apply.

However, Gretzky did play more than 25 games the preceding year in the World Hockey Association, which disqualified him for being eligible for the Calder Trophy. 

Based on he stats Gretzky likely would have won the Calder Trophy. Let’s take a closer look at Gretzky’s first year and then compare it to the actual Calder Trophy winner from that year.

What was Wayne Gretzky’s first year like in the NHL?

Gretzky’s first year – I guess we can’t call it his rookie year – was, as you guessed, fantastic. 

Here is the stat line: 

Games 79Goals 51Assists 86Points 137

1979-80 season breakdown for Gretzky

Most assists: 1st with 86

Most points: Tied for first, Marcel Dionne got Art Ross because he had more goals

Goals: Tied for 5th with 51

How does that compare to other first years in the NHL?

Most points in first year: Gretzky 137, second Teemu Selanne 132

Most goals: Selanne 76 – Mike Bossy 52; Ovechkin 51 – would have tied with Nieuwendyk for 4th with 51

Most assists: Joe Juneau and Peter Stastny: 70 

Note: Selanne was 21 

Who won the Rookie of the Year instead of Wayne? 

The winner of the Calder Trophy instead of Wayne Gretzky in 1979-80 was Hall of Famer Ray Bourque. Not a bad choice, but still not the best first year in the league.

Here is Bourque’s stat line from the season:

Games 80Goals 17Assists 48Points 65

Runners Up for the Calder Trophy: Mike Foligno, Pete Peters 

Leave a Reply

Related Articles
Hockey Answered Secondary Logo

Welcome to Hockey Answered: a resource for anyone curious to learn & understand more about the great game of hockey.

I am a lifelong fan who grew up in a major market (Calgary), and I have played, coached, and watched a lot of hockey!

As my daughter began watching NHL games with me, I realized how many questions come up about the sport. Hockey Answered is full of, well, answers! If you are a new fan or lifelong enthusiast, I hope that you can enjoy hockey even more by learning something new around here.

How can we help?