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The patrons at Wayne Gretzky's restaurant can barely contain their excitement as word spreads that a celebrity has entered the building, a must-stop destination for hockey fans who drive from all parts to visit this shrine of Number 99.

The guy causing all the fuss turns out to be a slightly stooped 67-year-old in a tweed jacket, with a hawkish nose and a lopsided grin. Walter Gretzky -- who jokingly refers to himself as "the other Dubya" -- is stopped every few steps as he tries to wind his way through his son's Toronto eatery.

But Wally's in no rush. He swaps handshakes with anyone who asks. He tells jokes, talks hockey, and hands out autographs, one for each individual standing in front of him, and dozens more for their extended families. It takes a half-hour before the once intensely shy patriarch of the Brantford, Ont.-based Gretzky clan reluctantly extricates himself from the throng and heads toward a quieter room in a section devoted to Wayne and his idol Gordie Howe.

He enters the room singing Van Morrison's Have I Told You Lately, sashaying as he goes, before pulling up a chair. He offers an autograph (I take home 12), and then orders some perogies, which he explains are pronounced "para-hair" in his native Ukrainian.

The order placed, Gretzky settles down to talk about the 1991 stroke -- it hit three days after his 53rd birthday -- that nearly killed him. He woke from a coma unable to walk or recognize his family. Roughly 25 years of his memory were gone.

That experience is the focus of a CBC movie airing tomorrow (8 p.m. ET) called Waking up Wally: The Walter Gretzky Story. It chronicles how a brain aneurysm resulted in a near-fatal catastrophe that turned Gretzky's life upside down. When he came out the other end three years later, finally able to recognize his five kids and 13 grandchildren, able to walk, talk, brush his teeth, shave, and skate, he was, for all intents and purposes, a totally different man.

On the surface, Gretzky seems like the same mule-headed chap who married Phyllis in 1960, raised four boys and a girl, lived in a bungalow in Brantford, worked for Bell Canada for 34 years, and loved hockey. But the prestroke Gretzky was a taciturn, chain-smoking, church-going man who pushed his kids hard to meet his standards.

Today, Gretzky still goes to St. Mike's Anglican Church and is the same devoted family man. But the hard crust is gone. He's far less hard on himself -- and others -- and exudes an infectious energy and easygoing charm.

Once a man who refused to speak publicly, he's now in constant demand at social and charitable functions (and is a spokesman for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada). He is, he says, "grateful for my second shot, and for every conversation or smile I get."

It was a beautiful day in October, 1991, and Gretzky had gone to whitewash the cellar of his mother's 1831 farmhouse, located in the little village of Canning, just west of Brantford. Out of the blue, he was struck by a blinding headache that sent him stumbling up the stairs to the kitchen, where his daughter Kim's roommate happened to be. He entered the room, screaming and stumbling. She threw him in the car.

A doctor in Paris, Ont., tried to get Gretzky to lie down, "but apparently all I wanted to do was hold my head as high as possible," says Gretzky, who has no recollection of the event, "because that's where the least pain was." A blood vessel had broken in his right ear, and he was hemorrhaging inside his head.

Gretzky was rushed to Hamilton, where Dr. Rocco de Villiers, a neurosurgeon on leave (his 19-year-old daughter Nina had been murdered that August) was called in to conduct the 6½-hour surgery. Days later, he emerged from a coma with a shunt in his head. The first words out of his mouth were Ukrainian. He couldn't go to the bathroom, figure out the difference between cold- and hot-water taps, and was confined to a wheelchair. Phyllis stuck pictures of the kids on his wall. "I didn't know who they were," says Gretzky. "I went back in time."

Wayne wanted to move his dad to California for medical treatment. But Phyllis put her foot down, insisting her husband stay close to the people and places that were the fabric of his memories. "Phyllis said, 'We have good doctors right here, and he's staying right here,' " grins Gretzky. "She's referred to as 'the general' by myself."

Walter was in the hospital for 10 months. When he came home, therapist Ian Kohler (who later married Kim) worked with him daily for more than two years. "I couldn't walk out of the house by myself," says Gretzky, "because if I did, I might never find my way back."

There was anger, and some self-pity, the latter a trait Phyllis has never had much time for. She asked a family friend to get Wally back on the ice. Grudgingly, he went to a local arena to help young kids with power skating. Soon after, his recovery sped up.

During the recovery, Gretzky apparently also drove Kohler batty singing one song, Amazing Grace, over and over. "I'm told I would sing it from the moment I woke up until the time I went to bed," says Gretzky, flashing a Cheshire grin. "Ian used to say, 'Walter, would you just shut up!' "

In the film, shot in Edmonton and based on the 2001 book Walter Gretzky: On Family, Hockey and Healing, Gretzky is played by Tom McCamus ( I Love a Man in Uniform). Kris Holden-Reid ( Touch of Pink) plays Wayne, Matthew Edison (of TV's N ero Wolfe) is therapist Kohler, Tara Spencer-Nairn (Karen on Corner Gas) is Kim, and Victoria Snow ( Paradise Falls) plays Phyllis.

Not long ago, Phyllis, also a smoker for three decades, found a tumour on her right lung. She underwent chemotherapy, and Gretzky says, two weeks ago got a cancer-free bill of health. Phyllis, he adds, prefers to stay out of the limelight -- souring on the media years ago, Gretzky explains, after a magazine writer was invited into their ranch-style home and later described their couch as child-worn.

The memory makes Gretzky chuckle. "The poor guy was likely just trying to show we lived like ordinary folk," he says. "But she took offence. Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. She's never talked to anyone since that day. You don't want to ruffle the general's feathers."

The stroke meant most of Walter's memories of Wayne's career are wiped out. What's left of the past are seminal moments: He remembers his own mother and father dying, and Wayne's wedding to Janet Jones in 1988. "I also remember the Canada Cup in Hamilton in 1987. As a matter of fact, here's the ring," he says, whipping out his right hand to show the championship ring Wayne passed along to his dad.

The hockey statesman has some words for the game's latest superstar, Sidney Crosby. "I asked Wayne about it, and he said, 'Well, if anyone's going to break any of my records, it'll be him.' It's going to be tough for him because everyone will want a piece of him. But you can't keep everybody happy. You just need to trust your heart and your instincts. My advice is never forget where you come from. And never forget your brothers, your sisters, and your family."

Then he leans over to confide that "tomorrow night I might remember that I was talking to you, but I might not. You see, that's why every second is precious to me, because I know what it's like when the years are gone."

Then he snaps out of that brief reverie to offer an upside of the stroke. "My golf game has improved like you would not believe," he crows, slapping the table. "Since my aneurysm, everybody thinks I cheat, but I just don't remember!"

He then spies a few youngsters hovering outside the room. Humming another ditty, he beckons them over and bestows more autographs on the grateful lads and (suddenly) their dads.

The stroke may have stripped Gretzky of some irreplaceable things, but it didn't diminish his spark. Like the child we wish we all still were sometimes, he's discovered joy in letting go of the past, living in the moment, and counting on the future to take care of itself.

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