A significant piece of Canada entered history last week.
Walter Gretzky died at age 82, surrounded by his family.
It was a great pleasure to know Walter, and spend time with him on many occasions when our family lived in Ontario.
Being friendly with a celebrity sounds cool, at least unique.
However, anyone in Brantford or Brant County who had a kid at an arena knew the man.
Long after Wayne hung up his jersey, Walter was showing up at local rinks, year-end banquets and community fundraisers whenever he thought he might help.
Overheard in the newsroom: “That guy would appear at the opening of a cheese slice, if someone asked him to.”
Walter was as famous for his autographs – always that enigmatic ‘W Gretzky’ scrawl – as Wayne was for his ability to find the back of a net. I’ve at least a dozen signatures, in a box in the closet. He liked especially to sign team or player photos, and sticks and skate bags.
Overheard in the lobby: “Don’t linger, sweetheart. If you stand around too long, Walter will write on you.”
It wasn’t ego, nor self-importance. Walter took joy in being around young athletes, meeting them, watching them play and offering encouragement.
In doing so, he created happiness for lots of people. I think he also liked the smell of ice.
There were really two Walter Gretzkys, separated by a brain aneurysm he suffered in 1991. In a eulogy to his father during the funeral service held Saturday, Wayne remarked that before that almost fatal incident “he was a lot tougher.”
You can’t raise up the greatest hockey player in the world without some grit and determination, presumably.
Wayne recalled a tournament in Whitby, Ont., on a fateful weekend. Mom Phyllis was going into labour with their son Brent. She headed for the hospital and Walter went to Whitby. Days later, after facing admonishment from friends and family about missing the birth, a frustrated Walter protested, ‘WE WON THE TROPHY!’
Walter’s brain injury severely affected his memory.
I interviewed him for a magazine feature, a few years afterward, and he talked freely about those consequences. Following the aneurysm he was able to recall nothing of Wayne’s professional hockey career – not the rings, not the records, not the fame. It was just all…gone.
Only, during that same time, Wayne married Janet Jones. Walter remembered the wedding. It struck as cruel irony, but also a lesson in what it really means to keep one’s head in the game.
Walter Gretzky was the son of immigrants. With Phyllis he created a remarkable family – Wayne, Kim, Brent, Glen and Keith – and made Canada a better
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