He was, his famous son would often say, the true Great One. And if you ever had the good fortune to meet Walter Gretzky, and so many of you have, you knew exactly why. What made Walter Gretzky so great wasn’t that he produced and nurtured the greatest player who has ever played the game. It was how he made people around him feel. He was hockey royalty, Bell Canada’s most famous employee, and could very well have gotten all uppity about his status in the game and the country. But, without fail, he made every person feel as though he or she was the only person in the room, often when that same room was filled with thousands of people. Just take a look at how the tributes are pouring in for him in the hours after his death at the age of 82.
The temptation is to refer to Walter Gretzky as Canada’s hockey dad, but that would be selfish. He was the world’s hockey dad. And even though most of us can’t pretend to know him intimately, we all mourn his death as though he were one of the family. And in some ways were a part of that family. There are legions of stories of regular folk who would turn up unannounced at 42 Varadi Ave., in Brantford, Ont., where a smiling Walter would take them on a tour of the basement that held many of his son’s hundreds of trophies and some of his memorabilia. And he would invariably take people out to the backyard to look at the hallowed ground where Wayne took his first skate strides on the outdoor rink, nicknamed the Wally Coliseum, built by his father and where the two of them would do countless drills to exploit his talent and make him a superstar. There’s an in-ground swimming pool there now, a gift from son to father for all those nights he spent with a lawn sprinkler building the rink.
In so many ways, Walter Gretzky walked the walk. He often told Wayne when both of them were much younger that his sublimely gifted son had an obligation to play every game with the same level of effort because he would never know if there was some child there watching his first NHL game or an adult spending his hard-earned money on the only big-league game he would see that season. And Walter kept that in mind when he encountered people, greeting them with a warm handshake, a look in the eye and a genuine interest in them.
As Wayne’s popularity grew in the hockey world, so did his father’s, to the point where they were almost parallel. After recovering from a stroke in 1991 that almost killed Walter and robbed him of his short-term memory, that status grew even more. That doesn’t happen by accident. First, your son has to be extremely gifted. And second, you have to be extremely humble. It was that combination, with Walter just as big a part of the first as the second, that made the relationship so special. There has to be a reason why the younger Gretzky was so down-to-earth, so accessible and so giving of his time. Those with more than a touch of jingoism will claim it’s a Canadian thing. But those sorts of traits start at home with the people who raise you, regardless of where they’re located on a map.
“For me, he was the reason I fell in love with the game of hockey,” Wayne said in a public statement Thursday night. “He inspired me to be the best I could be not just in the game of hockey, but in life.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman praised Walter by saying his influence on the game was profound. “Teaching the game to his children on the famed backyard rink he built in his beloved hometown of Brantford, Ontario, Walter instilled in them not only an uncommon understanding of hockey’s essence, but a love and respect for the game that has become synonymous with the name Gretzky,” Bettman wrote, “all while ensuring that the game was fun to play.”
How many fathers around the world ended up building backyard rinks because that’s what Walter did? How many of those rinks ended up producing NHL players or, for that matter, young girls who ended up playing for their countries? But even more importantly, how many of those fathers (and mothers) nurtured their relationships with their children with that rink the way Walter and Phyllis Gretzky did with their five children? Walter was the ultimate hockey parent, guiding his kids without being pushy or overbearing. Telling his son to, “go where the puck is going, not where it’s been,” has been one of the most important pieces of advice any player has ever received.
Wayne Gretzky has often said everything he has he owes to hockey. And to his father. Walter was equally proud of all five of his children. The fact that one of them was able to make it to the top of his profession didn’t make Wayne any more special in his father’s eyes. It just made him more famous. And as Wayne has also often said, he’s the one who receives the accolades, but the one who truly deserves the credit is his father.
Walter Gretzky will never be forgotten.