- Rick, Toronto
In hockey, it's hard to get a definitive answer because historical NHL salary information is not reliable. NHL salary figures were not made public until the 1990s, when the NHLPA began releasing them.
Having said that, the evidence suggests that Bobby Hull is the answer. Here's what we think we know:
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 spread over five years.
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 new World Hockey Association.
Sanderson 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, with $1 million of that paid up front. So Hull qualifies as the first guy to make $1 million in a single year. No NHL salary came close to $1 million a year back then.
There are reports that Bernie Parent was paid $1 million by the Philadelphia Flyers for one season in the late 1970s. But as far as I know, that has never been confirmed. It is also said that the Chicago Blackhawks paid Orr $1.3 million per year after he left Boston. But he only played 26 games over three seasons in Chicago, so there is some doubt as to how much cash he collected.
In his autobiography, Wayne Gretzky says his base salary with the Edmonton Oilers never approached $1 million. But in his final years as an Oiler he could boost 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 he 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.