Since news broke on Thursday night announcing the passing of Walter Gretzky, tributes have poured in from across the NHL in honor of the 82-year-old father of ‘The Great One’, Wayne Gretzky.
But the outpouring of both grief and heartwarming stories had little to do with the greatest player in league history. That’s because his dad had long built his own identity – and celebrity – as an inviting (sometimes probably too much so), gregarious, and remarkably accessible presence in hockey circles. Where Wayne has always been an understandably reserved and somewhat reluctant public figure, Walter dedicated his life to making hockey fans – young and old – feel special.
If you were fortunate enough to find yourself in Walter’s presence, you remembered it. Seemingly everyone has a story about watching him sign personally-addressed autograph after autograph, having his undivided attention as they told him about their own hockey career or, if you were lucky enough, touring the museum-like basement of his Brantford, Ontario home.
We at The Hockey Writers are fans, too. So it should come as little surprise that we, too, have our own Walter stories. To offer one more small window into how Walter was so much more than Wayne’s dad, here are some of the stories shared by our writers.
“I met Walter in 2002. I was picking up pictures from a camera store in Woodstock, Ontario. It was the one-hour developing, so I had come back a little before they were done. Then (Walter) came in. I knew it was him right away. He spoke to the clerk who had his package ready. He was picking up prints to sign at an upcoming event. He paid and then walked over to me and said “Hello.” I was a bit shocked. I said, “Hello Mr. Gretzky.” Then my photos were done and the clerk said, “Here you go.” I was so annoyed, like missing my chance to talk to Walter. I paid and turned around and he said, “How did they turn out?” They were pictures of my honeymoon. I showed him a few. So we started talking about married life – one thing I remember him saying: “Have kids while you’re young and enjoy them!”
“I was working in Sudbury, Ontario at the time covering the Wolves, but also had Greyhounds video on daily. I told him that. He seemed fascinated by my take on the teams and my career path – he just wanted to hear more about me. He made me feel special. It was so long ago, that is all I really remember is how he made me feel. After about 20 minutes, he opened the package and signed a picture for me. He said hot off the press. We shook hands and just like that I had a memory for a lifetime.”
“I went to a Leafs game with my best friend on Wayne’s birthday when I was nine years old against LA (he’s a huge Kings fan) and we met Walter at Gretzky’s Restaurant before the game. Super nice guy and took time to talk to every fan there and take pictures/sign autographs.”
“My dad and I were catching a train after a Blue Jays game once and a crowd was forming on a lower level at Union Station. When we looked over, of course, it was Walter presumably getting off a train with somewhere to go or heading to one, but he stopped and interacted with everyone as the crowd grew. Didn’t get the chance to meet him myself, but no doubt he was a kind soul.”
“Walter was a few seats away from me at a Leafs game a couple of years ago, and at every commercial break and intermission, he was taking pictures and chatting with fans around him. Outstandingly patient and generous with his time and words.”
“I worked as a section host at Rogers Place while I was attending university. Occasionally, I worked in the VIP sections of the arena, which is where former players and media personnel were housed. Wayne Gretzky was a regular spectator at the arena, and he was sometimes accompanied by his father. I saw them walking to and from their vehicle to their seats, although we were not allowed to fully interact with these kinds of guests for prolonged periods. Walter was a much-loved name in Edmonton, maybe as much as his son. I heard stories from older work colleagues about Walter’s contribution to Wayne’s career and his effect on the Oilers. Walter saw everything over Wayne’s career, but he felt his proudest during the Oilers’ dynasty years. In Edmonton, Walter has been called “hockey’s proudest dad” because of Wayne’s success. Walter was always welcomed to Rogers Place, and he enjoyed watching the team.”
“I’m an usher at Scotiabank Arena and often work the section where Walter sits (105A). One of my first times working there, he had a cluster of kids lined up awaiting a picture or autograph during intermission, but the period was going to start soon so I tried to cut off the line for crowd control purposes. When he saw what I was doing, Walter just glared at me. He ultimately led the rest of the autograph seekers out to the concourse, where he took time with each person. He came back in to tell me that anyone who wants a picture or signature gets one, regardless of how long it takes. We got to know each other from there (I would often be the recipient of candies he would bring to games) and laughed about it in the ensuing years.”
We are from different places and cover a wide variety of different teams, but stories of connection to Walter Gretzky have remained universal across much of the NHL. In a similar way to how his son has stood out from all others in the history of the sport, there simply has never been and will never be another Walter.
I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.