Vintage Wayne Gretzky images going up for sale

Somewhere in a climate-controlled vault there are 9,000 photo negatives that tell the story of Edmonton's hockey history. Only photographer Bob Peterson and his wife, and a few family members, know where the secret archive is kept.

Edmonton photographer who captured hockey history to sell off massive collection

Bob Peterson, an Edmonton photographer, believes it is time to let go of his massive collection of negatives from the early years of the WHA and NHL in Edmonton. 2:32

Somewhere in a climate-controlled vault there are 9,000 photo negatives that tell the story of Edmonton's hockey history. 

Only photographer Bob Peterson, his wife, and a few family members know where the secret archive is kept.

But now, after a 40-year career, Peterson is getting ready to part with many of his one-of-a-kind images.

His collection includes rare photos of Wayne Gretzky's first shift as an Edmonton Oiler, his first goal in the WHA, and his first photographed point in the NHL.

In all, Peterson has more than 900 negatives of Gretzky, and another 160 negatives of Gretzky with his boyhood idol, Gordie Howe. Many of those are from the 1978-79 WHA season when Howe played for the Houston Aeros and Gretzky was with the Oilers.

His most famous photos of Gordie and 'The Great One' were taken at the 1979 WHA All-Star game, where Gretzky played alongside Howe in a three-game series against Dynamo Moscow at Northlands.

'The Bench'

A photo from that series is one of the gems of the collection. It's simply called "The Bench."

"I crawled along the boards in the middle of the game I got eight shots away with a 24-mm lens of Gordie and Wayne on the bench, and (referee) Bill Friday came by and said, 'Either put skates on or get off the boards,' That's when I knew I was making history." 

He calls those famous photos Wayne's "baby pictures."

Over the years, Peterson had a great relationship with Wayne and Walter Gretzky. After Walter suffered a stroke several years ago, Peterson sent him a bunch of 8x10s of Wayne from games that Walter would have missed because of time spent in hospital and recovery.

Walter sent them all back to Peterson, autographed by Wayne. Peterson says he told Walter they were for him to keep. So he sent a whole new set to Walter, and kept the autographed ones.

In a strange twist of fate, Peterson has since suffered a stroke himself.

Bob Peterson was featured in the fall of 2003 in a segment of Behind the Mask with Kelly Hrudy and Ron Maclean on Hockey Night In Canada. 1:21

The right place at the right time

Peterson said he had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He was there when Peter Pocklington flew into Edmonton at 3 a.m. with the skinny 17-year-old kid who went on to be the greatest player in history.

However, even with his illustrious career, there were challenges along the way.

Peterson knew early on he wanted to go to school to study photography. Problem was, there was no school.

He had to wait until NAIT opened in 1963 to sign up for classes, and even after he enrolled, his instructor wasn't all that supportive. But Peterson was undaunted. He wanted to be a sports photographer for the Edmonton Journal.
Bob Peterson worked as a camera operator for CFRN early in his career. (Bob Peterson)

"After I graduated from NAIT, I almost sat on their doorstep until they hired me. Here I would go to a hockey game or a football game, and I couldn't believe someone was paying me to be here."

Along the way, he also worked as official photographer for the Edmonton Oilers, Edmonton Eskimos and Edmonton Drillers.

More than just hockey photos

Over the years, Peterson's images have appeared in numerous publications, and on hockey cards and posters — but his collection includes more than just hockey photos.

He was the official photographer for the Paralympics and for Edmonton's Universiade in 1983, where he snapped two stunning photos of Princess Diana.

Some of the collection has been registered with the Library of Congress in the United States.

Peterson has photographed heads of state from around the world, including British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth II and France's Prime Minister Francois Mitterand, Princess Anne, Prince Charles and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

I owe it to the people of Edmonton to see this history because I was lucky enough to be the the right place at the right time.- Bob Peterson

In fact, he would like to get in touch with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to give him some pictures of his father.

All told, he figures that only about three per cent of his sports photographs have ever been seen.

This year, he and his wife spent seven months trimming the negatives down to the best 3,000. Those are the ones that will soon go up for sale.

One image that won't be up for grabs is one of Peterson's most recent sports snaps: a shot of his grandson shooting his first hockey goal.

As for where the collection ends up, he says: "I'd love for them to stay in the city but I haven't had many buyers.

"I owe it to the people of Edmonton to see this history because I was lucky enough to be the the right place at the right time."

Using a point-and-shoot camera, Bob Peterson shot his own grandson's first goal. (Bob Peterson)

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