By Neil Becker
The world suffered a tremendous loss as Canada’s most beloved Hockey Dad, Walter Gretzky, recently passed away.
Always wearing a wide smile and gifted with a great sense of humour, Walter, whose son is the NHL’s all-time leading scorer Wayne Gretzky, absolutely loved life. This beloved man, who was a proud Canadian, seemed to be on a mission to make sure that everyone in his presence was happy and having a good time. An extremely generous man, Walter Gretzky had a strong passion and a big heart when it came to volunteering at national, provincial and local charities.
Walter was in his true element volunteering at minor hockey tournaments, laughing and socializing with minor hockey coaches and parents or signing autographs for these wide-eyed minor hockey players. Among the local minor tournaments in Brantford, Ontario, which Walter Gretzky enthusiastically volunteered was the Wayne Gretzky Tournament, held after Christmas at the Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre and the Walter Gretzky Street Hockey Tournament, held in the springtime.
Whether spending countless hours at these tournaments or volunteering at various charities, he had a tremendous connection with people, as he enjoyed telling jokes, storytelling, laughing and of course, breaking out into songs.
Walter loved travelling from Brantford to the Scotiabank Arena for Toronto Maple Leafs games. Prior to game time, he would go to Wayne Gretzky’s restaurant where he enjoyed making the rounds from table to table, socializing and signing autographs. Following the Leafs game and at intermission, Walter never turned down those who wanted a picture taken with him or an autograph.
Sadly, on Thursday, March 4, 2021, weeks after a hip injury, the world lost a warm, gentle man with a heart of gold. Walter Gretzky passed away at the age of 82, surrounded by family at his Brantford home.
During an emotional eulogy delivered by Wayne Gretzky at the Gretzky patriarch’s funeral in Brantford, the NHL’s all-time leading point producer concluded it by saying, “He was a remarkable man who loved life, family. We’d be a way better world if there was so many more people like my dad. Very special. We’re all hurting, this is a tough time. I’m so proud of the fact that so many people have reached out and given him such great tributes because he deserves it. He has a heart of gold just wonderful. Thank you.”
Walter, born on October 8, 1938, was married to Phyllis Hockin, who passed away on December 19, 2005, from lung cancer. The couple had five children - Wayne, Keith, Brent, Glen and daughter Kim.
Known for his infectious laugh and love for spontaneously belting out songs, he took pride in inviting strangers who rang his doorbell into his basement to experience that once-in-a-lifetime thrill of seeing up close the various Wayne Gretzky memorabilia proudly displayed in the world’s most famous basement.
With that genuine heart, Walter wanted to make sure that those visiting, adults or kids, enjoyed the experience to the fullest. Walter would, for example, point out certain Wayne Gretzky record-breaking sticks, along with other artifacts and enthusiastically talk about their significance. Other memorabilia included NHL replica trophies which Wayne Gretzky has won, along with several game worn Gretzky jerseys, trophies and plaques from his minor hockey days. Walter Gretzky would also tell his awestruck visitors several exciting hockey stories related to his son affectionately known as ‘The Great One.’
During the course of time, several Hockey Hall of Famers such as Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Paul Coffey, and Mark Messier, to name just a few, have come to the house and seen the museum. Though a die-hard Toronto Maple Leafs fan, Walter had in the Gretzky museum a seat taken from the old Montreal Forum, signed by Montreal Canadiens greats Guy Lafleur and Jean Beliveau.
A definite highlight for Walter, along with the entire Gretzky clan, was in August 1987, when the Soviet national team, who participated in that summer’s Canada Cup, came to the house and saw the museum. It takes a generous person with a heart of gold like Walter to welcome strangers, including many from out of town, into your house to experience the thrill of seeing and learning about the incredible Gretzky artifacts, which would amaze any hockey fan.
This generosity extends beyond hockey. Walter Gretzky had spent many years helping charities such as SCORE program (Summer Computer Orientation Recreational Education), which assists blind scholars in picking up computer skills that will help them earn and be successful in future jobs. Another of the many charities that Walter was involved with includes the CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind).
Over the years, Walter Gretzky helped raise money for CNIB by helping organize golf tournaments. Following the first-ever tournament, enough money was raised to award three scholarships. That number increased to an impressive 15 scholarships a year. In 11 years, these golf tournaments raised over three million dollars. Over the years, various iconic celebrities competed, such as Hockey Hall of Fame players Paul Coffey, Brendan Shanahan, Scott Stevens, Brett Hull, Gordie Howe and Mark Messier. Also contributing were former goalie Ed Mio and defenceman Marty McSorley, along with an all-star cast of actors such as the late John Candy, Teri Garr, Rob Lowe, Kevin Smith, Alan Thicke and Jamie Farr. The inaugural Walter Gretzky Golf Classic, held in Brantford, Ontario, first took place in 1995 and has since expanded to eight cities across Canada.
A passion for Walter Gretzky was picking up stray golf balls during these tournaments, even getting some of his grandchildren to assist. He’d have Wayne sign the golf balls so he could present them to kids.
This genuine man would often make frequent trips to the hockey stick factory in Hespeler, where everyone knew his name. Always thinking of kids, Walter Gretzky would pick up about 12 sticks from the factory and get Wayne to sign two, which he would give to the kids at the W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind in Brantford. The ten remaining sticks would be delivered to the school by Walter, where the students got to discover their creative juices by making chairs and benches out of them.
Walter Gretzky, who in 2012 fell victim to Parkinson’s disease, always enjoyed telling stories, singing, and picking people’s spirits up with his humour while volunteering at various national, provincial and local charities such as the local food bank.
On Twitter, Wayne Gretzky wrote, “It is with deep sadness that Janet and I share the news of the passing of my dad. He bravely battled Parkinson’s and other health issues these last few years, but he never let it get him down. For my sister and my three brothers, Dad was our team captain. He guided, protected and led our family every day, every step of the way.”
Walter was born in Canning, Ontario. As a teenager, he fell in love with Phyllis Hockin, whom he married in 1960. He had a gift for track and field in high school, but his first love was hockey. Focused on his hockey aspirations, Gretzky had a flair for offence while playing Junior ‘B’ with Woodstock. Measuring at only 5’9” and 140 pounds, Gretzky never made it to the Junior ‘A’ circuit.
In 1961, the year Wayne was born, Walter and Phyllis moved to Brantford. He shared his love of hockey with his firstborn, building an outdoor rink where he taught his son various hockey drills, which he couldn’t get enough of. On a nightly basis, Wayne would spend countless hours practicing the drills and discovering his own passion for hockey. “Once we got him on skates, the tough part was getting him off them, Walter said in his book, “Gretzky: From the Backyard Rink to the Stanley Cup.”
Wayne Gretzky dominated not only minor hockey and the World Hockey Association (WHA) circuit but also the NHL, where he lifted the Stanley Cup four times with the Edmonton Oilers. In his illustrious Hall of Fame career, ‘The Great One’ played with the Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues and on Broadway with the New York Rangers, where he finished his career as the all-time leading scorer with 894 goals and record for points with 2,857.
Life wasn’t always easy for Walter Gretzky, who suffered various mishaps, including a stroke in 1991 at the age of 53, resulting in an intense and lengthy rehabilitation. The stroke led to memory loss spanning from about the 1970s until 2000.
As an employee with Bell Canada, Walter experienced a serious injury in the 1960s that split his hardhat in two and resulted in a coma. After this injury, which caused a loss of hearing in the right ear, Walter became a dedicated advocate for workplace safety.
He became a volunteer national spokesman for Canada’s Heart and Stroke Foundation and stressed educating how important it is to have a healthy cardiovascular system.
Among his achievements, Walter Gretzky experienced the distinct honour of being selected with the 2007 Order of Canada.
Wayne Gretzky also Tweeted of his father, “For me, he was the reason I fell in love with the game of hockey. He inspired me to be the best I could be not just in the game hockey, but in life. We will miss him so much, but I know that he’s back with our mom and that brings me and my family peace. He was truly the Great One and the proudest Canadian we know. We love you dad.”
No question, Walter was loved by everyone. In 1996 he was awarded the “Brantford Citizen of the Year award" and was also inducted into the Brantford Walk of Fame. In a thrilling experience on February 12, 2010, Walter, with that ever-present smile, had the opportunity to carry the Olympic Torch during the Olympic Relay before the Opening Ceremonies in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The honours kept pouring in for Walter, who, in November 2002, received a Doctor of Laws (LL.D) honorary degree from McMaster University. This was followed up in 2006 by another honorary degree, a Doctor of Education (D. Ed) from Nipissing University, before receiving in June 2014, an honorary degree in Doctor of Letters (D. Litt) from Wilfred Laurier University.
There is no debating that even though Walter Gretzky never played, coached or managed in the NHL, the father of arguably the greatest hockey player to grace the NHL should be elected first ballot into the Hockey Hall of Fame. He was a giving man who had a zest for life and will be terribly missed.
Take a look at the life of Walter Gretzky and his lasting impact on the game of hockey. Stephen Brunt narrates this essay on the life of Walter Gretzky, with interviews by Wayne Gretzky, Luc Robitaille and Mark Messier.