Who Was Hockey's First Million-Dollar Man?

Orr, Hull, and Gretzky Vie for Salary Record

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Hockey fans interested in knowing which player first signed a million-dollar contract might get conflicting information. Some sources claim it was Bobby Orr, while others assert it was Bobby Hull. Still, others make the case for Wayne Gretzky.

Tracking Down Hockey's First Million-Dollar Salary

It’s difficult to get a definitive answer because historical NHL salary information is not reliable. Salary figures were not even made public until the National Hockey League Players' Association (NHLPA) began releasing them in the 1990s. Having said that, the evidence suggests that Bobby Hull is the answer. Here's what we think we know:

Multi-million Dollar Contracts for Bobby Orr

At the beginning of the 1971–72 season, Bobby Orr signed a contract with the Boston Bruins worth a reported $200,000 per season over five years. So he made a million dollars, but that amount was spread over five years. The contract Orr signed with the Chicago Blackhawks after he left Boston in 1976 was for $3 million, but, again, that was for five years—and he only played 26 games over three seasons because of injuries.

Million Dollars in a Single-Year Contract—the WHA

Players Derek Sanderson and Bobby Hull are widely remembered as hockey's first millionaires because of the sensation they caused in 1972 when they left the NHL to sign big contracts with the newly organized World Hockey Association (WHA).

Sanderson, however, was only a millionaire on paper. His five-year, $2.65-million deal with the Philadelphia Blazers briefly made him the world's richest athlete. But he played only a few WHA games before returning to the NHL, so he never collected his millions.

Hull's WHA contract was worth $2.75 million over ten years, but he was paid $1 million of that up front, which qualifies him as the first hockey player to make $1 million in a single year. No NHL salary came close to $1 million a year back then. (The report that Bernie Parent was paid $1 million by the Philadelphia Flyers for one season in the late 1970s has never been confirmed.)

Wayne Gretzky's NHL Salary Eventually Tops $1 Million Dollars

In his autobiography, Wayne Gretzky says his base salary with the Edmonton Oilers, for whom he played from 1979 to 1988, never approached $1 million. But in his final years as an Oiler he could have boosted his pay to the $1 million mark by cashing in bonuses for winning the MVP award, the scoring championship, making the All-Star team, and so on. The first time Gretzky ever signed a true million-dollar deal was when he joined the Los Angeles Kings in 1988 and settled on a base salary of $2 million per year.

That same season—1988-89—Mario Lemieux signed a new contract paying him $1.6 million, the first time he topped the million-dollar mark.