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'A legend in his own right': Hockey world pays tribute to the late Walter Gretzky

If Wayne Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers were ever in a rut, there was only one solution. Get the Great One's dad on the phone and make sure Walter Gretzky was there to meet them at their next destination.
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If Wayne Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers were ever in a rut, there was only one solution.

Get the Great One's dad on the phone and make sure Walter Gretzky was there to meet them at their next destination.

"Wayne very rarely had a slump," Oilers great Mark Messier recalled Friday. "But when the team had a slump, often times the Oilers would surprise Wayne and fly Walter in somewhere on the road trip. (Edmonton tough guy) Dave Semenko always used to joke, 'Well I guess we're going to win tonight. Walter's in town.'

"Wayne would always put on a show in front of his dad, like he had always done."

Walter Gretzky, who groomed the game's best player on the family's famed backyard rink in Brantford, Ont., died Thursday at 82. 

"The relationship between Wayne and Walter was incredible," Messier add. "(It's) something to be emulated, the way he nurtured Wayne — a prodigy — from the very early ages all the way up to the pros when he turned 17. Walter had a way of making everybody feel good about themselves. 

"Even when we'd get down on ourselves after a loss, Walter always had a way of keeping things in perspective and making us feel good and keeping us focused on the next game, the next opportunity."

Oilers teammate Kevin Lowe, who said Wayne told him his father hadn't been doing well the last few weeks, described Walter as "The First Dad of hockey in our country." 

"They're an amazing family," Lowe said on a video conference call with Messier. "Wayne's success is obviously well-known in the world, but as he's spoken about often, he attributes them to his dad. The fact Wayne is humble and a real gentleman, he got a lot of that from his dad."

And despite being the patriarch of hockey's most famous household, Walter Gretzky, who came from humble beginnings, seemed to have time for everyone — from old friends or strangers with an outstretched hand.

"There was always a buzz," Maple Leafs alumni Darryl Sittler said of whenever Walter attended games in Toronto. "I don't know how much he got to watch of the games because everybody wanted to share a moment."

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman paid tribute to Walter's love for the sport and how he "embodied all that is great about being a hockey parent.

"Walter instilled in (his children) not only an uncommon understanding of hockey's essence, but a love and respect for the game that has become synonymous with the name Gretzky, all while ensuring that the game was fun to play," Bettman said in a statement.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau added that Walter Gretzky cared deeply about his family and community.

"His kindness was undeniable, his passion was obvious, and his impact was immense," Trudeau tweeted. "My thoughts are with Wayne and the entire Gretzky family, and all who are mourning the loss of Canada's hockey dad."

Walter was there every step of the way as Wayne dominated the sport from a young age before eventually leading the Edmonton Oilers to four Stanley Cups in the 1980s on top of countless other accolades.

"He was wonderful to be around," Lowe said. "I know Canadians will remember him in such a fantastic light."

Lowe told a story about how Wayne would get tons of free merchandise through endorsements. He'd save every shirt, hat or jacket for Walter.

"It was like he'd given him a car," Lowe said with a grin as Messier laughed on the other end of the video call. "He would have a smile on his face from ear to ear. 

"You knew you were going to see him wear that religiously."

Walter, who suffered a stroke in 1991 and lost much of his memory, reached a level of fame on par with the Great One.

"He was reluctant early on, he was such a humble gentleman," Lowe said. "Often we'd be out at a restaurant or a hotel, and people would just as quickly gravitate for Walter for an autograph as they would Wayne. 

"He understood his place in our country's history and recognized the importance of it, and really did start to embrace it."

Connor McDavid, the Oilers' current captain and the NHL's leading scorer this season, said the attention Walter received as a hockey parent was far from normal.

"But I think it speaks to the entire Gretzky family," McDavid said. "It speaks to Wayne and it speaks to Walter himself. Just such good people, and they've done a tremendous amount for the game."

Winnipeg Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey recalled being at a minor hockey tournament in Vancouver where Walter was the star attraction.

"A celebrity," Morrissey said. "The (arena) lobby was full with kids and parents and everyone wanting to meet him. You just don't see that at all for a parent, right? It's not how it works. It's for the NHL player.

"There could have been an NHL player walking through the lobby and the people wouldn't have noticed, but they noticed Walter."

Jets head coach Paul Maurice said he was like a lot of Canadian hockey fans when it came to Walter.

"Never met the man and somehow feel like you know him because he's part of such a great story," he said. "It's a sad day, I think soon to be replaced by a lot of story telling and a lot of great memories."

Mark Ritter, a former sports journalist and Brantford resident, drove an hour to the city about 100 kilometres west of Toronto to leave a hockey stick at Walter's reserved parking spot at the Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre.

"His greatest gift really was time," Ritter said. "It's something that people take for granted these days. That time is really important. And he gave it up unselfishly with kindness and love and care. We lost someone really special.

"I don't think you'll hear a negative word about him. He was a great asset to our country."

Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving told a story about playing in the minors with Wayne's younger brother Keith Gretzky in Erie, Penn.

"Walter would drive up and have coffee with Keith before the games," Treliving said. "I remember sneaking a sip of his coffee one time. I said, 'Maybe I can get a little bit of that magic potion he's got.'

"Just a wonderful man."

Leafs alumni Rick Vaive, who got to know Walter at various charity events, said Wayne's dad set an example for hockey parents everywhere.

"You never heard any stories about him pushing (Wayne) onto greatness," Vaive said. "He just built a rink and helped him start playing and learning the game.

"He loved all his kids. He was proud of them all. It wasn't just Wayne."

New Flames head coach Darryl Sutter recalled playing against Gretzky's Oilers in Edmonton as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks.

"We were walking out to the bus after the game and my dad was at the game and Mr. Gretzky, Walter, was there," Sutter said. "I wish I had taken a picture because there was something about it. They were like two old coaches standing there talking about the game. It was cool to see."

Sittler said Walter always showed up prepared to golf tournaments, functions or just the local arena with pictures to sign.

"He was a mainstay," Sittler said. "Walter became a legend in his own right for the person he was and the difference he made in people's lives.

"He'll be missed. He's an icon."

-With files from Gemma Karstens-Smith and Nicole Thompson.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 5, 2021.

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press