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Walter Gretzky remembered for impact on son Wayne Gretzky, charity work

Players, coaches, politicians praise 'Canada's hockey dad' who dies at 82

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

Walter Gretzky died Thursday at the age of 82, and on Friday was remembered by the hockey world as not only the father of NHL icon Wayne Gretzky, but as a tireless volunteer for numerous charities and worthy causes throughout most of his life.

"Although he never skated a shift in the National Hockey League, Walter Gretzky's influence on our League and our game was profound," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "He embodied all that is great about being a hockey parent. Teaching the game to his children on the famed backyard rink he built in his beloved hometown of Brantford, Ontario, Walter instilled in them 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.

"Walter reveled in the incomparable exploits of his son Wayne, who never failed to credit his father as his first and most important coach. And players, coaches and media members routinely sought Walter's insight throughout Wayne's legendary career. A gentle man and a gentleman, Walter was unfailingly happy to share a story or thought." 

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau led an outpouring from Canadians across the country.

"Walter Gretzky cared deeply about his family and his community -- his kindness was undeniable, his passion was obvious, and his impact was immense," Trudeau said on Twitter. "My thoughts are with Wayne and the entire Gretzky family, and all who are mourning the loss of Canada's hockey dad."

Hockey Hall of Fame chairman Lanny McDonald spoke of Walter as an unofficial member of the shrine.

"It was always great when Walter would join us at different events, especially at the Scotiabank Hometown Hockey events," he said. "Walter would show up and regardless which alumni were there, he would walk in and it was like we just added another Hall of Famer to the invite list. 

"He always had different stories for everyone. Walter loved taking lots of time with people and he very much enjoyed being a part of any event he was at. He loved the game, as his son does, and he certainly fostered that with Wayne from a very early age. In later years, for Walter to be able to enjoy it as he did, even though Wayne was no longer playing, that was pretty cool."

Glenn Healy, president and executive director of the NHL Alumni Association, knew Wayne Gretzky as a teammate with the 1988-89 Los Angeles Kings and 1996-97 New York Rangers and, by extension, Walter as a regular presence around NHL arenas.

Healy, a former goalie, believes that Walter's name, too, is on the Stanley Cup, Wayne having won it four times with the 1980s Edmonton Oilers.

"They didn't put a player's first name on the Stanley Cup (until the 1998-99 Dallas Stars). They put your last name and your first initial," Healy said from Toronto. "The greatest player to ever play the game -- you could say Gordie [Howe] or Wayne - isn't Wayne Gretzky on the Cup, it's W. Gretzky. 

"Why does that matter? It's the sacrifice your family made for you to do what you had to do. Whether it was early-morning practices, late games, driving across the province to allow your kids to achieve your dreams. It's not just Wayne on the Cup, it's the selflessness that Walter gave all his kids. 

"Is there a better ambassador in our sport than Wayne? That didn't happen by chance. That was a gift that Walter and (Wayne's mom) Phyllis gave him early on. That's a legacy that's long-standing. Points and goals and Cups are fine, but the ability to be a role model for everybody… Walter was a role model for every Canadian parent who had a kid who played hockey. This is how you act, with dignity and class and panache."

Walter was a regular at Toronto Maple Leafs games and Healy laughed when he remembered seeing Walter in the stands of an arena, Wayne now an opponent.

"When Walter was at a game to watch Wayne [play against me], I'm losing by a lot," Healy joked. "If I was at Maple Leaf Gardens and I looked up and saw Walter in his regular seat, the next two words out of my mouth were, 'Oh, [heck].' We weren't winning. Not tonight. 'Start the jet, we'll get the points another night.' Honestly, that was the talk of the dressing room. 'Is Walter here? Yes? [Darn.]' The backup goalie would be stretching before the game started, just a matter of when he went in."

Kevin Lowe, an alternate governor for the Oilers and a teammate of Wayne for four Stanley Cup championships with Edmonton, offered his sympathies on behalf of Wayne's former teammates and the Oilers alumni. 

"We are tremendously saddened to learn of the passing of Walter Gretzky," Lowe said. "Each of us who had the pleasure of spending time with Walter were undoubtedly affected by his positive approach to life, family and hockey. As each of us grow older, the passing of those dear to us, whether they be teammates, siblings, coaches or parents, reminds us to live our lives in a way that honors their legacy while holding them in our hearts when they are no longer with us."

Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe recalled meeting Walter a few times, once in particular when the latter came to a game of NHL Oldtimers in Pembroke, Ontario. He remembers him sitting around for "what seemed like hours" talking to anyone, signing autographs and taking photos.

"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 (90 miles northwest of Ottawa), taking part in an event like that with people who might not usually get a chance." 

Maple Leafs captain John Tavares said he doesn't remember exactly when he met Walter for the first time, but knows he was often around the rinks.

"He was obviously very involved in the game and around the hockey community," Tavares 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."

Among many former NHL players commenting on social media, one-time Maple Leafs captain Doug Gilmour said: "Heartbreaking to hear we've lost Canada's Hockey Dad Walter Gretzky. Sending love and condolences to the whole Gretzky family at this difficult time."

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