In October of 2018, on the night before the Edmonton Oilers played their first home game of the season, Wayne Gretzky celebrated the grand opening of a restaurant and sports bar in Rogers Place. The establishment is named Studio 99 after the famous Manhattan nightclub Studio 54 where the Great One hung out in the early 1980s with the likes of Andy Warhol.
As I was leaving late that evening, Gretzky waved me over to his table. We chatted a bit, and then he walked me around to show me some of the memorabilia that line the walls. The collection includes everything from his jersey during his first season in Edmonton to screen prints of him done by Warhol.
I asked where the items had come from. Many had been collected by his father, Walter.
“He kept things from the time I young,” Gretzky told me. “He didn’t do it because he sensed they would be of great value one day, but because he loved me and was a very proud dad. It was years after that before any of us realized they had any great worth.”
On Thursday night, Walter Gretzky died at age 82. He had a near-fatal stroke in 1991 and in 2012 was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. He is revered as the father of the most famous Canadian athlete in history, and beloved as the nation’s most famous hockey dad.
When Wayne was 3, Walter flooded a rink in the yard behind the family’s home in Brantford, Ont., and began to teach him the game’s fine points.
“For me, he was the reason I fell in love with the game of hockey,” Wayne Gretzky said on social media late Thursday as he announced his father’s death. “He inspired me to be the best I could be not just in hockey, but in life.”
The news has triggered condolences from everyone from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to hockey fans and friends and neighbours in Brantford. Walter and his wife, Phyllis, moved there nearly 60 years ago, and he still lived there until his death. Phyllis Gretzky died in 2005 from lung cancer.
“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 in a statement posted on Twitter.
Said Bettman, “Walter’s passion for the game and for teaching it to young players transcended place, status and skill level. During the two decades since Wayne retired, Walter could always be found at a rink, sharing the game with players and fans. Quietly and humbly, Walter dedicated so much of his time to countless charities with little fanfare but with a deep commitment to improving the lives of so many – particularly children.”
Nowhere will the loss be felt more deeply than in Brantford and Edmonton.
In Brantford, which Walter fondly referred to as the “centre of the universe,” a municipal golf course was renamed in his honour last December. There is also an elementary school that bears his name. He was a telephone lineman and installer and repairman in Brantford for 34 years, a long-time youth hockey coach and a booster of numerous charities, including the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
“The love for him that is felt here isn’t because he was famous,” Kevin Davis, the city’s mayor, said on Friday. “What endeared him to everybody was that he was true to his roots.
“There is no doubt that he could have moved elsewhere, but he insisted that he wanted to remain in the home and neighbourhood he loved. Anybody who has lived here a couple of decades has a story about Walter Gretzky.”
The city named Walter Gretzky its “Lord Mayor” and set aside a chair that was only used by him in its council chambers.
In Edmonton, Wayne Gretzky led the Oilers to four Stanley Cup championships in five years. There is a bronze statue of him outside Rogers Place, and for the past five years he has served as a partner and vice-chairman of the team’s ownership group. His brother, Keith, is the assistant general manager.
Wayne Gretzky shares office space with Bob Nicholson, the CEO and vice chairman of the Oilers Entertainment Group. There is a painting displayed there of Wayne skating in the backyard in Brantford with Walter looking on.
“The outpouring we received today is unbelievable and rightly and richly deserved,” Nicholson said on Friday. “Walter touched so many people.”
The Oilers wore a decal on their helmets Friday designed in memory of him and will do so again on Saturday night during their game in Edmonton against the Calgary Flames.
Nicholson, the former head of Hockey Canada, said he got to know Walter Gretzky at the 2002 Olympics. Nicholson oversaw operations of Canada’s men’s and women’s hockey teams, while Wayne Gretzky was the executive director of the men’s squad.
Walter would sit in on breakfast meetings with the management group at a Denny’s in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“He was always there, and he always wore the Team Canada jacket we gave him,” Nicholson said.
Walter was so popular that Nicholson says that he and Wayne would send him in ahead of them in places so they could walk in unnoticed.
“Walter would get mobbed,” he said. “He signed more autographs than Wayne and Mario Lemieux combined.”
Nicholson says that he sees Walter Gretzky in Wayne.
“That’s why Wayne is who he is,” Nicholson said. “It is because of the values Phyllis and Walter taught the kids. They had to be a good person and a teammate first. Walter told them that if they wanted something they had to work for it.
“He talked about topics around the kitchen table that you’d want to hear from every father. He told them there were no shortcuts to success.”
Late Friday afternoon, Mark Messier and Kevin Lowe, both long-time teammates in Edmonton of No. 99, remembered Walter Gretzky. Along with him, both are members of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Messier said that whenever the team had a slump, the Oilers would fly Walter Gretzky in to surprise his son. He said the late Dave Semenko used to say that Walter was really the team’s most valuable player.
“When Wayne knew his dad was there, he’d put on a show and we’d win,” Messier said. “His record was unbelievable. Walter is going to be missed not only by us, but the hockey world and the rest of Canada.”