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'A legend in his own right': Hockey world pays tribute to the late Walter Gretzky

·4 min read

It wasn't hard to tell when Walter Gretzky was in the building.

A fixture at Toronto Maple Leafs home games, the man known as Canada's hockey dad had time for everyone.

And it didn't matter if they were old friends or strangers with an outstretched hand.

"There was always a buzz around when Walter was there," Leafs alumni Darryl Sittler said Friday. "I don't know how much he got to watch of the games because everybody wanted to share a moment."

Walter Gretzky, who nurtured the game's best player on the family's famed backyard rink in Brantford, Ont., died Thursday at 82.

Tributes poured in after Wayne Gretzky confirmed his father's death on social media.

"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," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement Friday.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Walter Gretzky cared deeply about his family and community.

"His kindness was undeniable, his passion was obvious, and his impact was immense," Trudeau tweeted. "My thoughts are with Wayne and the entire Gretzky family, and all who are mourning the loss of Canada's hockey dad."

Walter was there every step of the way as Wayne dominated the sport from a young age before eventually leading the Edmonton Oilers to four Stanley Cups in the 1980s.

"RIP Walter Gretzky, the father of Canadian hockey," tweeted former Oilers winger Esa Tikkanen.

Sittler said it didn't matter who you were — Walter had the time.

"Just a very nice gentleman," he said. "If he spotted you before you spotted him, he'd come right over and say, 'Hey Darryl!' He always had a big smile on his face."

Bettman praised the Gretzky family patriarch for staying connected to hockey at all levels after Wayne retired as a player.

"Walter's passion for the game and for teaching it to young players transcended place, status and skill level," he said. "During the two decades since Wayne retired, Walter could always be found at a rink, sharing the game with players and fans at all levels.

"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."

Mark Ritter, a former sports journalist and Brantford resident, drove an hour Friday to the city about 100 kilometers west of Toronto to leave a hockey stick at Walter's reserved parking spot at the Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre.

He recalled once spending an hour talking hockey with Walter at Wayne Gretzky's restaurant in Toronto.

"He was always really kind," Ritter said. "He was always shaking hands. He was always making eye contact with people. I think his greatest gift really was time. I think it's something that people take for granted these days. And I think we've kind of learned a little bit more about that during (the COVID-19 pandemic). That time is really important. And he gave it up unselfishly with kindness and love and care. We lost someone really special.

"I don't think you'll hear a negative word about him. He was a great asset to our country."

Leafs alumni Rick Vaive, who got to know Walter at various events, said the Great One's dad set an example for hockey parents everywhere.

"I just remember him as a really nice person more than anything else," Vaive said. "You never heard any stories about him pushing (Wayne) onto greatness or anything like that. He just built a rink and helped him start playing and learning the game. That's all he did.

"I liked the fact, talking to him, that he loved all his kids. He was proud of them all. It wasn't just Wayne."

Sittler said Walter, who suffered a stroke in 1991 and lost much of his memory, always showed up prepared to golf tournaments, other functions or just the local arena with pictures to sign.

"He was a mainstay," Sittler said. "Walter became a legend in his own right for the person he was and the difference he made in people's lives.

"He'll be missed. He's an icon."

-With files from Nicole Thompson in Brantford, Ont.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 5, 2021

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Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press