Aaron S. Bayley
On March 4, Walter Gretzky, father of Wayne Gretzky, died at 82. He had been suffering from Parkinson's disease for years and recently sustained a hip injury. In a brief but moving eulogy on Saturday, Wayne called his father a remarkable man with a "heart of gold." All across Canada, people paid tribute to Walter on social media and shared stories of his generosity and kindness.
Everyone has a Walter Gretzky story. I have one too.
In 1995 I worked at a Galati Bros. grocery store in my neighbourhood. The assistant manager, Rob Scaramucci, had season tickets to Leafs games and used to sell the tickets to games he didn't plan on attending. Knowing I was a Gretzky fan, he was kind enough on three occasions to part with his pair of tickets—grey 86, row H, seats 13 and 14—for a reasonable price increase. This was how I got to see Wayne Gretzky, then at the tail end of his career with the New York Rangers, play three times, including his last game at Maple Leaf Gardens.
On Thursday, February 26, 1998, then no longer working at the grocery store, I took my friend Stacey to see the Rangers play the Toronto Maple Leafs. She was a bubbly, diehard Leafs fan and wore a Felix Potvin jersey; I wore my orange and blue visitors Oilers' Gretzky jersey. Every time the Rangers scored, I grabbed her Leafs flag from her, stood up, and waved it in mock celebration. The Rangers won 4-0, and the Great One tallied three assists. After the game, we went to eat—where else?—at Wayne Gretzky's restaurant on 99 Blue Jays Way.
It was a work night and there were only a few people inside. We sat at a table at the back of the restaurant, surrounded by no one. Two small boys appeared shortly after, horsing around behind me, unattended. Then out of the corner of my eye and to my right, I saw a man walking alone in our direction. It was Walter. I knew he had had a stroke years ago, and didn't want to bother him, but it would have been rude not to acknowledge him, as there were only five of us in the entire room. I turned around in my seat as he approached, offered my hand, and said, "Hi Walter, how are you?" He shook my hand and smiled, asking how our food was and if everything was okay. I assured him it was and he made a gesture to sign something, but I told him it was alright; I didn't want to bother him by asking for his autograph. He wished us a good night and then posed for pictures with the boys before moving on to the VIP room for a private party. It was a brief encounter, but it proved what I had always heard about "Wally": that he was a kind man, generous to a fault, who always took the time to chat with strangers and make them feel welcome.
Not since the Tragically Hip's Gord Downie passed away in 2017 has the death of a Canadian led to such a national outpouring of grief and condolences from friends and strangers alike. Those who met him, whether they lived in Edmonton, Calgary, Milton, Sault Ste. Marie, or his hometown of Brantford, Ontario, used the same adjectives to describe him: humble, friendly, genuine, respectful, down-to-earth. There were many hockey fathers before Walter, but none whose story became the national narrative for Canada's official winter sport. The story of Walter Gretzky, a cable repair man for Bell Canada who never missed a day of work, whose first-born son learned to skate and play hockey on the frozen backyard rink he made for his kids and ended up becoming the greatest hockey player on the planet. The early, frigid hours spent driving to and from tournaments all over Ontario, the sacrifices, the lessons—Wayne credits his father with teaching him to go where the puck is going to be, not where it has been—and the obstacles along the way, all of these things became enshrined in small-town Canadian hockey lore. And Walter Gretzky became the quintessential hockey dad.
Every father whose son plays amateur hockey knows the story of Walter Gretzky. If only more of them understood that no amount of wealth, nor special school programs for athletes, nor three-hundred dollar hockey sticks, nor social media influence, can guarantee getting drafted by an NHL team, let alone stardom and immortality. Nothing can replace old-fashioned hard work, passion, dedication, sacrifice, and human decency. Nobody knew that better than Walter.