On Thursday March 5, 2021 – the world said goodbye to Walter Gretzky; the father of NHL’s most decorated superstar, Wayne Gretzky.
He truly was the Great One and the proudest Canadian we know.Wayne Gretzky
The Early Years
Born October 8, 1938, in Canning, Ontario (Canada), Walter Gretzky was most famously known as the father of hockey legend, Wayne Gretzky. However, long before Wayne, Walter himself was an athlete in high school. He set records in track and field and loved to play hockey. He played five years with the Woodstock Warriors of the Junior B level where he had his sights set on cracking the NHL. However, his 5’9, 140lb build would make it very difficult to accomplish that dream. He tried out for a major team at the Junior A level, however, after getting the chicken pox and losing weight, he was judged to have been too small to make the jump.
When Walter turned 18, he would meet his future wife, 15-year-old, Phyllis Hockin. In 1960, the two got married and moved to the small town of Brantford, Ontario. Walter worked as a cable repairman for Bell Canada at the time. In 1961, the couple gave birth to their first born son, Wayne. Seven months after his birth, they would move to their forever home on Varadi Avenue where it all began. When Wayne was three, Walter built a backyard rink at their home and setup creative drills and exercises while teaching Wayne about Canada’s game. In fact, the four-time Stanley Cup winner with the Edmonton Oilers, credits his father as having played a key role in his successful hockey career with his continuous coaching.
Go to where the puck is going, not where it has been.Walter Gretzky
In 1961, a manhole cover blew up in Walter’s face splitting his hard hat in two pieces, leaving him in a coma, and deaf in his right ear. However, he would return to work and continue to work until he retired in 1991. Five days after his 53rd birthday, he suffered a near-fatal brain aneurysm that would impair his short-term memory. But Wally was a fighter and would bounce back yet again.
From September 2004 to April 2005, Walter was an assistance coach for the University of Pittsburgh inline hockey team of the Eastern Collegiate Roller Hockey Association (ECRHA) that played at the Division I level. In December of 2005, Gretzky’s beloved wife, Phyllis, passed away after a battle with lung cancer. Two years later, in December of 2007, he was named to the Order of Canada for “his contributions to minor hockey in Canada and for his dedication to helping a myriad of local, provincial, and national charities.” At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, BC (Canada) – Walter took part in the final day of the Torch Relay carrying the Olympic Torch a few hours before the opening ceremonies – where it would only be fitting that the Olympic Flame would then be lit by his son, Wayne Gretzky.
Time For Everyone
One of the most common things spoken of when Walter’s name ever came up – was his selflessness towards others. Walter never hesitated to sign autographs or pose for pictures with fans. He was a fan-favorite himself for his charm and witty sense of humor while always smiling proudly. Many fans who attended Toronto Maple Leafs games in Toronto could spot Walter from a distance in his season-ticket seats sporting his favorite red Roots Olympics Canada jacket as he was often shown waiving to the fans as his infectious smile came up on the score clock sitting above center ice. I remember running into Walter several times during my employment with MLSE and he was always engaging in conversation. The first time I ever met him in the elevator at the then Air Canada Centre, he asked me if I thought the Leafs would win the game that night and with a smile I said, “Well Mr. Gretzky, I think so, but my thoughts don’t play the game or we would win the cup every year!” His smile went serious for a moment and he said “Please. It’s Walter, don’t call me mister, it makes me feel old,” and then he laughed and continued “..well you better keep those thoughts with the team and hopefully they’ll hear them soon enough!” He made my night with that brief conversation. He was a genuinely happy guy who loved the game of hockey and our beloved Maple Leafs.
On Father’s Day in June of 2020, Tim Hortons featured Walter and Wayne in a touching television commercial that shows the continued bond between the father and son and how thankful Wayne continues to be.