TORONTO – Walter Gretzky, the father of hockey great Wayne Gretzky, has died. He was 82.
Wayne Gretzky said in a social media post Thursday night that his father battled Parkinson’s disease and other health issues the past few years.
“It’s with deep sadness that Janet and I share the news of the passing of my dad,” Wayne Gretzky said. “He bravely battled Parkinson’s and other health issues these last few years, but he never let it get him down.
“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 of hockey, but in life.”
Walter Gretzky became a name himself, a constant in Wayne’s world. As Wayne’s star ascended, Walter remained a blue-collar symbol of a devoted hockey parent in a country filled with them.
The two were also often intertwined, their father-son story used in commercials from Tim Hortons to Coca-Cola. And following in the footsteps of Alexander Graham Bell, they made Brantford, Ontario, famous.
Walter was celebrated for far more than just fathering a superstar, however. His down-to-earth, no-airs approach to life and devotion to his family struck a chord with Canadians.
“Sometimes, I swear to you, I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming,” Walter wrote in his 2001 autobiography “Walter Gretzky. On Family, Hockey and Healing.” “Wayne says the same thing.”
Walter’s celebrity status increased after making a remarkable recovery from a stroke suffered in 1991. His autobiography and a 2005 made-for-TV movie told the story.
Walter Gretzky was the son of immigrants — a Polish mother and Russian father — who started a vegetable farm in 1932 in Canning, Ontario, just outside Brantford, on the Nith River, where Wayne learned to skate when he was two. They bought it for $600.
Walter played minor hockey in Paris, Ontario, then junior B for four years in Woodstock. He went on to play some senior hockey, but said he wasn’t good enough to play pro.
Walter met Phyllis, his wife to be, at a wiener roast at the family farm. She was 15 at the time. Three years later, they got married. Phyllis died of lung cancer in 2005.
Wayne was the first born in 1961, followed by Kim, Keith, Glen and Brent. Keith and Brent also played professional hockey.
The same year as Wayne was born, Walter fractured his skull in a work accident as a Bell lineman. He spent some time in a coma and was off work for 18 months. Left deaf in his right ear, he was eventually transferred to another Bell department and became an installer/repairman.
The winter when Wayne was four, his father turned the backyard of their Brantford home into a rink that young Wayne called The Wally Coliseum.
Walter decided to make his own rink to avoid having to freeze standing outdoors at some outdoor rink elsewhere — or sit in his car with the engine running to get some heat — while Wayne skated. Gas was too expensive, he said.
“It truly, truly was self-preservation,” he explained.
Walter fed his eldest child’s obsession, recruiting bigger kids for Wayne to practice against in the backyard rink, and finding him a spot on a team of 10-year-olds when he was six.
“You knew he was good at his age at what he was doing,” Walter said in a 2016 interview. “But to say that one day he’d do what he did, you couldn’t say that. Nobody could.”
Wayne recalled crying after that first year of organized hockey when he didn’t get a trophy at the year-end banquet.
“Wayne, keep practicing and one day you’re going have so many trophies we’re not going to have room for them all,” his dad said.
Walter drove one old blue Chevy station wagon after another — calling each the Blue Goose. He called it a “reliable car for a family of seven.”
Wayne bought his father a blue Cadillac for his parents’ 25th wedding anniversary.
Walter was a much sought-after speaker by groups organizing sports awards dinners, and he worked tirelessly as national spokesman for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. He was named to the Order of Canada in 2007.
In 2010, Walter carried the Olympic torch on the last day of the Olympic relay in the leadup to the opening ceremonies in Vancouver, where Wayne lit the Olympic flame.
He was 53 when he suffered his stroke, just a few months into retirement after 34 years at Bell. He wasn’t expected to live through the night. But he did, and it changed his life.
He lost much of his memory and it took time to get snippets of it back.
“Those were dark times,” he wrote about the early days after the stroke, “and I wouldn’t want to go back there for anything in the world. It’s an awful thing not to know who or where you are, to feel confused and hopeless and not know whether you are ever going to be able to do all the things your used to to.”
Hockey helped his recovery as he started working with kids in the Brantford Minor Hockey Association. The four- and five-year-olds used to call him Wally.
In his remaining years, he was more outgoing and carefree. After one game when his minor hockey team was downcast, he invited everyone to his home to see Wayne’s memorabilia. There were 61 of them. He also became an avid golfer.
He’d been a hyper chain-smoker before the stroke. He gave that up, while devoting more of his time to worthwhile causes.
’“I really don’t like to sit still for too long,” he said. “I’m most comfortable when I’m active.”
Walter also is survived by numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.