“The Great One sure has a Great Pop.” So began a story in the Times Colonist on Sept. 1, 2006, reporting on the Walter Gretzky CNIB Golf Classic that day at Bear Mountain.
The elder Gretzky’s genuine authenticity was not lost on anyone who met him during his Island visit, including this reporter who interviewed him for the story.
“You’d almost have to be like Wayne in his prime to keep up with his dad … with his one-line zingers and off-the-cuff song lyrics at the ready,” read the story.
Walter Gretzky, who died Thursday night, was inexhaustible in his charity work, particularly for the CNIB. And he inhaled sports. Hailing from the noted lacrosse community of Brantford, Ont., Walter enquired about that night’s Victoria Shamrocks playoff game at the Q Centre. If he could have ducked in to watch a period, he would have. But his namesake sold-out charity golf tournament at Bear Mountain — in which Walter delighted participants by routinely wandering into the bushes looking for stray-landed balls — had an auction in the evening and he, of course, had to be there. He was happy to do so, as his annual charity raised millions of dollars for the visually impaired across Canada through celebrity softball games and golf and tennis tournaments.
It began as a chance meeting 40 years ago at Pearson International Airport in Toronto when Wayne Gretzky noticed two blind people, who, as it turned out, were awaiting a ride to Brantford. Without identifying himself, Gretzky engaged them in conversation and got to know a bit of their life stories.
What blew Wayne away was they immediately knew who he was by voice recognition alone. That began a life-long interest by the Gretzky family in the challenges faced by the blind.
“I’ve got a few [golf balls] orbiting the moon,” Walter said, when asked how he fares in his namesake golf tournaments.
He talked about how an aneurysm in 1991 left a gap in his memory of two decades and not remembering any of Wayne’s Stanley Cup victories, only knowing them on tape.
But he said he did remember Wayne’s minor hockey days and being distressed by the parental behaviour he continued to see in the stands. He detailed the acrimony that forced Wayne to switch minor hockey associations from Brantford to Toronto. Walter Gretzky shook his head. He noted he had three other sons who weren’t superstars and so was both a rep and house hockey parent.
“I’ve been on both sides of the fence,” he said. Walter Gretzky left little doubt of which side he preferred.
He related a story: “I know a woman who said to me: ‘Walter, how could you stand waiting for Wayne to get to the NHL? I can’t wait for my son to play in the NHL.’ And you know what? Her son quit playing hockey when he was 14.”
Just let the kids be and let them enjoy the game they love for the pure pleasure of it, said Walter.
If Canada’s most famous hockey parent says that, then maybe the rest should listen.
“Next time you’re at the rink and are shouting and screaming and upset, stop and think how lucky you are to have a son or daughter with two working eyes, two legs and two arms,” Walter told the Times Colonist.
“You will never ever be so thankful after pausing for a moment to think about that. We all forget how fortunate we are.”
This country was fortunate to have had him as everybody’s hockey dad.