BRANTFORD — Anyone knowing the game of hockey knows the name of Gretzky. Whether its father or son, Walter and Wayne Gretzky are to hockey what Tiger Woods and his father Earl are to the game of golf, maybe even more.
I felt proud to say I was from Brantford, and that was because of the Gretzky’s great love for the city, where the name Walter Gretzky was every bit as popular as his eldest son’s.
As a sports reporter for the original Brant News, I had the chance to meet Walter several times over the years, and he was truly a most gracious man who treated me like I was with the Toronto Sun or something.
We kinda hit it off right and for a time we became travel companions when he was coaching a ball-hockey team with Bob Coyne and the late Bob Bradley, who would later work with us for the Two Row Times.
I was fortunate enough to have known Walter, and it will always be a sense of pride to know that he knew me too. He would go out of his way many times to come over and say hi at his annual hockey tournaments.
One summer, I ran into him at the Northridge Golf Club and he asked me to come along with him for a round. It must have taken three hours to complete the front nine, and it wasn’t because he was shooting bad. He spent most of the time in the bushes and roughs along the way looking for lost balls.
He ended up with around two dozen which filled his golf bag completely. When we got back to the clubhouse, he emptied them into a Loblaws plastic bag. I asked him “why the balls” and he said, “do you know how much these things cost these days?” Then he laughed the way only he could.
During his years as a ball-hockey coach, I would go with him to some of the games. This was following his aneurism which nearly killed him. Had it not been for a chance visit by friend Lauri Ham, who found him unconscious and called an ambulance, he would have died then.
Following his recovery from the near-fatal incident, I found him to be even nicer than he was before. He was genuinely thankful for each and every day after that. His wife and Wayne’s mom, Phillis, although shunning the spotlight, was the rock behind the rock for Wayne and all the Gretzky kids.
When Walter’s sister died, my wife, who is a florist, got a call for a memorial piece for the funeral. Phillis loved it and took it home to 42 Varity. A few days later, she called my wife and asked if she built the arrangement.
“I think I called every florist in town looking for who did that peace,” she said. “I wanted to thank you for that arrangement. It is beautiful.”
She invited us over and we had the most wonderful time. Before we left, Walter said to my son, Mike, can I give you a few things?”
He then disappeared into the garage and came back with an arm-full of Wayne Gretzky souvenirs and gave them to him.
We talked many times during those years, and he told me so many stories about what it’s like being Wayne’s dad.
One story I recall, was when he took his minor hockey team to L.A. to play an exhibition game with a California team.
“I was watching this kid on the L.A. team,” he said. “He was the back-up goalie and because the benches were too small, he sat in the penalty box alone. I thought I would go down and talk to him. You know, make him feel special I guess. I never introduced myself to him but just sat beside him and asked who his favourite hockey player was. He said Wayne Gretzky. So I asked him if he had ever met him before, thinking I would set up a time when we could meet Wayne while I was there. To my surprise, he said, ‘Yes, we were over at his place last night. He turned out to be Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn’s son. I said oh, that’s nice and left without telling him who I was, I was so embarrassed.”
To me, this was a great example of Walter’s humble and giving heart and his comfort in being somewhat a celebrity himself.
Another story he told me was when he was still a Bell employee doing hookups.
“I was installing a phone in Simcoe,” he said. “While I was working away, the conversation turned to hockey. She was very critical of Wayne, saying he was over-rated, overpaid and other stuff. She was obviously not an Oilers fan. I never told her who I was.”
Once the hook-up was complete, the office called in to confirm it was working. The woman picked up the phone and they asked her if Mr. Gretzky was still there.
“I remember her face,” he laughed. “She looked up with this shocked look and handed me the phone saying,’ it’s for you Mr. Gretzky.’ Her face went white and I never saw her again. I just let myself out.”
There was another time when we were driving down the Hamilton Mountain to a ball-hockey game. He looked over into the valley of the escarpment and said, “You see all that down there? It used to be a lake and there were dinosaurs living down there.” Then, with that cock-eyed smile he had, said. “ I don’t recall, but Phillis says so.”
We all laughed but unbeknownst to him, I wrote about it in the Brant News where I worked at the time. The next time I saw him was at an autograph session. He was surrounded by people but saw me in the crowd. He pointed me out and said. Watch it. Oh-oh Jim Windle’s here. Watch what you say around him. It will end up in the paper.”
After the session, he told me, “You know, until you wrote that article, I didn’t have any idea how many great restaurants there are in Brantford. Phillis wouldn’t cook for me for a week.” Always a great sense of humour.
Although we haven’t had a chance to meet up again in recent years, I will always remember when Walter Gretzky gave me and by brother what I think was the final guided tour of the famous Gretzky basement archive and museum.
At one point, Walter pulled out a golf driver which he said was his favourite relic. It was given to Wayne by Bob Hope.
While with Wayne in Japan for the Olympics, Brantford police were alerted by neighbours of a suspicious car that seemed to be casing the Gretzky house. Phillis was home alone, so an officer was stationed with Phillis inside the house until Walter got back.
It would have been a great haul. That basement was crammed with trophies, banners, important career pucks, skates, Stanley Cup rings, and celebrity gifts. But it was not only displaying important landmarks along Wayne’s career, but also important memorabilia from his other kid’s accomplishments in sports.
When he got back, I was over at the house to do an interview with Walter about Japan when he pulled me aside, just out of Phillis’ ear-shot told me about the police scare.
“She’s still pretty spooked about it,” he said.
The Police had strongly advised him not to be so free with his basement tours, but said if I want he’d show me around.
I called my brother who came over with a video camera and Walter went into his well-practiced curator mode and walked us through the entire collection. He did the same for a friend of mine from Edmonton and his son, before the museum was closed to the public, much to Walter’s dismay.
But the police, and Phillis, were right. As much as he loved giving those basement tours, it was not safe. After one basement tour by a visiting team at his Walter Gretzky Hockey Tournament, police were alerted to a kid sitting at MacDonald’s, flashing a Stanley Cup ring. He was caught and the ring was returned to the Gretzky’s, but it underscored the vulnerability of such a valuable collection.
Some items remain, but the most valuable pieces have been either moved to Gretzky’s Restaurant in Toronto while others were put in secure storage or given back to Wayne.
After the Brant News, my paths changed and after Walter’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s, I only saw him occasionally, but when I did, he remembered me and that I will always be proud of. To know someone famous is one thing, but it’s much more humbling to be known by a man like Walter Gretzky.