Canada’s most beloved hockey dad left a legacy beyond the rink.
Walter Gretzky died Thursday at the age of 82 after a nine-year battle with Parkinson’s disease.
Gretzky raised and coached his son, Wayne, considered by many to be the greatest NHL player of all time.
“Everything I am is because of him. It’s as simple as that,” Wayne said in a 1996 CBC interview.
But it was the elder Gretzky’s dedication to minor hockey and charities and his friendly demeanour for which he became so well-known to many Canadians.
Walter Gretzky was born on Oct. 8, 1938, in Canning, Ont., northwest of Brantford, to Belarusian immigrants.
Hockey was an early passion and he had aspirations of playing professionally in the National Hockey League. He became known as a prolific goal scorer as a teenager, playing with the Junior B Woodstock Warriors.
But his size held him back from pursuing a professional hockey career. At five-foot-nine and weighing 140 pounds, Gretzky was already considered small. He became ill with chicken pox before his tryout with the Junior A Toronto Marlies and was judged to be too small to advance beyond the junior level after losing weight from his illness, so he embarked on a more traditional career path.
He married his wife, Phyllis Hockin, in 1960 and moved to nearby Brantford, where he worked as a telephone cable repairman. Wayne was born on Jan. 26, 1961, the first of the couple’s five children.
The Gretzkys moved to a home that would accommodate their growing family and also allow for a backyard hockey rink. There, Walter helped coach and develop Wayne’s skills starting at the age of three.
Wayne credited his father’s creative drills and approach to coaching for helping him develop into the player who would become the NHL’s all-time leading scorer.
“He taught me the basics of life as far as schooling, as far as how I treated people,” Wayne said in a 1996 interview with CBC-TV. “I don’t think there’s any question in my mind I wouldn’t be playing professional hockey if it wasn’t for him.”
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Walter’s contributions to minor hockey began with his first son but his dedication to the growth of young players continued long after Wayne found success. Two of Walter’s younger sons, Keith and Brent, were also drafted by NHL teams, although only the latter saw action, playing with Tampa Bay.
Walter coached locally in Brantford with minor league teams for years and lent his time to minor tournaments on top of his charitable endeavours.
His wide-ranging involvement in charities earned him one of the highest honours that can be bestowed on a Canadian when he was named to the Order of Canada on Dec. 28, 2007. He teamed up with Wayne to organize fundraising for local, provincial and national charities.
Among their many contributions, the two worked together to raise money for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind through a golf tournament that attracted celebrities and NHL players for years and helped raise more than $ 1 million.
“In our family, we’re all Christians and we all help each other. It’s ‘Do unto others as you would like done unto yourself,’ ” Walter told Postmedia of his charitable efforts. “I’m very fortunate because I’m in a position where I can help people. Not everyone can do that.”
Other initiatives included the Wayne and Walter Gretzky Scholarship Foundation, which helps students with vision loss pursue post-secondary education.
He channelled his energy completely into coaching and charity after retiring in 1991.
Persevered through challenges
That same year, he suffered a near-fatal brain aneurysm that destroyed his short-term memory.
Fortunately for hockey historians, he still held onto to some of his long-term memories and was able to open the door to his Brantford home to allow people to glimpse memorabilia from Wayne’s amateur career as well as the famed rink.
Seven years after his wife lost her battle to cancer, he was diagnosed in 2012 with the degenerative disorder Parkinson’s disease when tremors in his left hand prompted a doctor’s visit.
“That hits you right in the gut,” Wayne said at a conference in Vancouver following the news of his father’s diagnosis. “Something like that happens, there’s really no cure or answer. No amount of money can solve that kind of problem.”
However, Walter didn’t let his health hold him back from public appearances.
He is survived by his five children: Wayne, Kim, Keith, Glen and Brent, as well as several grandchildren.