Few surnames have become as inextricably linked with a sport, with a country, as the one that’s scattered throughout the NHL record books more than any other.
To speak of hockey in Canada, perhaps anywhere, is to speak of the Gretzkys.
The First Family of On-ice Greatness means more to the game than simply records and numbers, though. The statistical dominance, the historic amassing of trophies — no one represents that aspect of the sport better than its most prolific scorer, Wayne Gretzky.
But the heart of the game, what it looks like not under the bright lights of NHL arenas but in the dimmer glow of community rinks dotted throughout the country, that calls to mind the memory of another with that surname: Walter Gretzky, hockey’s most beloved hockey dad, who has passed away at the age of 82.
It’s perhaps an indication of just how pivotal a figure Wayne became in hockey lore that his father, Walter, was eventually owed not just his own chapter in that tale, but a tale of his own altogether. But even a brief moment spent with Walter would answer the question of whether the elder Gretzky’s ascent to national-treasure status was owed simply to being the father of The Great One, or if it was something more.
It is often said that you will be remembered for what you do for others, and Walter Gretzky will be remembered forever. Never too busy to take a photo or sign an autograph, Walter left a lasting impression on everyone he met and he will forever be Canada’s Hockey Dad. pic.twitter.com/NC0VqdBAgV
— NHL Alumni (@NHLAlumni) March 5, 2021
Bob Coyne has three decades’ worth of fond memories alongside Walter that suggest it’s the latter.
“Walter was always a people person — he would always reach out and have a hand to shake and time to say hello, whether it be adults, whether it be little kids, or just anybody,” said Coyne, a longtime friend of the Gretzky patriarch. “He was just always there for everybody. That’s what makes him different.”
Coyne’s first introduction to the family would alone suffice as evidence of Walter’s character. It was the mid-’80s when Coyne, then working at Brantford, Ontario’s W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind, first got a call to inform him that Walter and Wayne were hoping to connect with the school. Wayne had met two students from W. Ross Macdonald not long before then, and decided he wanted to lend his family’s support.
So Coyne bridged the gap between the two, and the Wayne Gretzky Tennis Classic charity event was born. But a single gargantuan act of kindness wasn’t enough for Walter. He became a lifelong supporter, travelling around Ontario gathering broken hockey sticks for the school’s shop teacher to craft into benches — and continuing to return to the school even late into his life.
Walter and Coyne’s friendship grew through the years as well. It truly began to sprout in 1991 when Wayne’s mother, Phyllis, reached out to Coyne — also a widely respected hockey coach in Brantford — to help Walter get back on the ice as he recovered from a brain aneurysm. Soon after, Walter was not only back on the ice but joining Coyne in guiding a precocious group of five-year-olds through power-skating lessons.
Once again, Walter wasn’t content to simply dabble — his yearning to help, nurture and teach was too strong — and he started working alongside Coyne on a near daily basis.
“The kids just hero-worshipped him,” Coyne says of Brantford’s love of Walter. “Even though Wayne was long gone out of Brantford, everyone knew the name, obviously — Wayne Gretzky and his dad. Wow, they were just thrilled to have him.”
Soon Walter and Coyne moved from younger skaters to coaching a triple-A novice team together, and wound up at the annual tournament that swept up the town every Christmas.
“Walter was always on hand every year for years to present trophies and medals to the winners of the Wayne Gretzky International Ice Hockey Tournament. (But) never had he won a medal,” Coyne recalls. “Well, here we are, we’ve got a novice triple-A team, we entered it in the tournament — and we won it. And [there’s] Walter, having to present medals to himself. We made a big joke of it, we had a lot of fun, but it really bonded the two of us together.
“It was a step up for him, the fact that he had really coached a team and they had really won big. And it was a signal to the family that Walter was coming back. He was getting clear of the aneurysm problems that he had had. He was back. And we were pretty happy about that.”
To try to catalog every story of Walter opening his heart and lending a hand would be a misguided effort, simply because there’s no way they could all be contained in one place. The weight of his impact has simply been too great. Walk through any rink in Brantford, and you’re likely to hear a story or two of his limitless kindness.
There’s one that sticks out in Coyne’s mind, though.
It was during their days together behind the bench of that triple-A team, as Walter and Coyne led their pack of eight- and nine-year-olds into the final days of a season.
“We were in the playoff time. It was in the Spring, and we were playing Niagara Falls,” recalled Coyne. “It was the deciding game. Loser goes home, winner goes to the next level. We won, so Niagara Falls were going home — they’re pretty little kids, and they were taking it pretty hard.”
As Coyne and Walter were heading back to their car after the game, they spotted a young boy from the opposing club having a particularly tough time with the loss.
“Here’s this little boy standing at the trunk of his dad’s car, they’re putting the gear in the car, and the little kid is just crying his heart out,” said Coyne. “Walter walked up to him and says, ‘What’s going on here? Why are you crying?’
“‘We lost,’ he says. ‘And we didn’t wanna lose. Now there’s no more hockey.’
“Walter looks at me and says, ‘Bob, this isn’t right — these little kids can’t feel that bad about losing.... I’ll tell you what we’re going to do.”
The elder Gretzky took off back through the arena doors, down the hall and into the Niagara Falls dressing room.
“Look, kids’ hockey’s gotta be fun,” Coyne remembers Walter telling the players and parents gathered in the room. “We shouldn’t have tears about losing. I understand what losing means, but we gotta create fun out of this. I want everybody to come out in the parking lot, get in your cars and follow me — we’re going to go over to my house now. We’re going to go down in the basement. We’re going to see all of Wayne’s trophies. We’re going to see Wayne’s hockey sweaters and other players’ hockey sweaters. We’ll have a great time with the kids.”
The other parents didn’t know quite what to do, Coyne said. But the offer wasn’t one to be passed up.
“In the end — counting kids, parents, aunts, uncles, whoever (else) came — 72 people arrived at the Gretzkys’ house,” Coyne said. “Seventy-two people that night went into that basement, and Walter made sure that every kid got to try on Wayne’s hockey sweater and see his gloves and pick up his skates and see his medals. They have Stanley Cups there, the Cups that players get, and each kid got to get his picture taken with them.
“That’s Wally. That’s who Wally is. I can’t imagine a lot of other hockey dads going to that kind of trouble. They would’ve just said, ‘Oh, he’ll get over it. Get in the car, let’s go.’ That would’ve been the end of it.
“But not Wally.”