VANCOUVER — When Sheldon Keefe was cutting his teeth as a coach in the junior ranks in Pembroke, Ont., the world's most famous hockey dad paid a memorable visit.
Walter Gretzky, the Toronto Maple Leafs coach recalled, sat around for "what seemed like hours" during a trip with NHL old-timers, talking to anyone who wanted to talk, signing autographs and taking photos.
Memories of that day came back to Keefe on Thursday, after Walter's death was announced by Wayne Gretzky on Twitter.
"It was pretty cool to see someone of his stature, what he means to the game, what he’s brought to the game, all the way out in Pembroke, Ontario, taking part in an event like that with people who might not usually get a chance," Keefe, who coached in Pembroke from 2006 to 2013, said after the visiting Leafs lost to the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.
Keefe said Walter Gretzky's impact on the game looms large.
"It’s a terrible loss of a great man who gave so many terrific things to our game, to our sport. Certainly he leaves a legacy behind that we’ll never forget," he said.
Leafs forward John Tavares remembers meeting Walter when he was a kid in Mississauga, Ont.
"He was always around the rinks and was obviously very involved in the game and around the hockey community," he said. "Just his graciousness, his big smile and obviously passion for the game. Just a very gracious man, from what I remember as a kid."
The Edmonton Oilers, Wayne Gretzky's first NHL team, released statements on Walter after the death.
"The fabric of our franchise has been woven by some of the most influential players, coaches and executives the game has known and included in that too, are the loved ones that make our team a family," Oilers chairman Bob Nicholson said.
"From his development and constant influence on one of the greatest players our game has known, to the tremendous impact he had on Canada's gold medal-winning team in 2002, Walter was truly everyone’s hockey dad. He will be missed by all of us, but the memories created by his tremendous character and passion for our game will remain with us forever."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 4, 2021.