It is a testament to your life, when you are the father of the greatest hockey player in the history of the sport, and all people want to remember is your kindness away from the rink. Thus is the case for Walter Gretzky, who passed away on March 4th after suffering a hip injury as well as fighting an ongoing battle with Parkinson’s Disease. He was 82.
Walter was the son of Belarussian and Polish immigrants who came over to North America prior to the Russian Revolution. He grew up on a cucumber farm in Canning, Ontario, where he met his future wife Phyllis, and would eventually move to Brantford where they had their five children. Despite the emergence of his son as a budding hockey superstar in the 80s, Walter remained at his job as a Bell Cable repairman until he retired in 1991, epitomizing his blue-collar work ethic and grounded personality.
He won’t be remembered as a hockey dad, but moreso, hockey’s dad. There was a kindness and warmth about Walter that resonated far past his position as an ambassador for Canadian hockey fathers everywhere. Walter was actually the dad at the rink that could tell everyone that his son was the best player on the ice, but he never would. Instead he instilled in Wayne the same humility and work ethic that he had learned from his immigrant parents, the desire to always improve and to always be humble about your successes. This manifested itself into Wayne winning the Lady Byng Memorial trophy five times for the highest sportsmanship combined with a level of skill exhibited on the ice.
The tributes have been pouring in all weekend long ahead of Walter’s memorial service at St. Mark’s Anglican Church near Toronto. Dozens, if not hundreds of stories about Walter’s patience and kindness for fans and generosity towards charities and children. He would often invite a parent and child up to a luxury suite to watch Toronto Maple Leafs games, or sign autographs and pose for pictures with anyone who asked when dining at the now closed Wayne Gretzky’s restaurant in Toronto.
Others spoke of his tenacity and hockey intelligence and how he trained Wayne from a young age using drills and exercises that were far ahead of their time. Walter taught Wayne the art of anticipation, when other children were still learning the fundamentals of the game. Like his son, Walter viewed the game differently, and while fully admitting that he was never good enough to play in the NHL, Wayne often attributes his God-given skills as Wally-given instead. But beyond the rink and his son’s many accomplishments, Walter was a proud father, and an even prouder grandfather. He will be remembered by those who knew him as a man who wanted more than anything to make people, especially children, happy. It was a fitting farewell to have children outside of his memorial service tapping their sticks on the pavement, as Walter’s body was forever laid to rest.