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Canada's favourite hockey father, Walter Gretzky, dies at age 82

Walter Gretzky dies

It is with a heavy heart the sports world mourns the loss of another beloved figure — Canada's hockey dad, Walter Gretzky, has died. He was 82.

The father of NHL Hall of Famer, Wayne Gretzky, had been battling many health issues over the years, including Parkinson’s disease.

Gretzky Sr. lost the battle to the disease after the past nine years, in the comfort of his home in Brantford, Ont.

Walter was celebrated for far more than just fathering a superstar, however. His down-to-earth, no-airs approach to life and devotion to his family struck a chord with Canadians.

"Sometimes, I swear to you, I have to pinch myself to make sure I'm not dreaming," Walter wrote in his 2001 autobiography "Walter Gretzky. On Family, Hockey and Healing."

"Wayne says the same thing."

Walter Gretzky was the son of immigrants — a Polish mother and Russian father — who started a vegetable farm in 1932 in Canning, Ont., just outside Brantford, on the Nith River, where Wayne learned to skate when he was two. They bought it for $600.

Walter's father Tony, whose parents had emigrated to the U.S., came to Canada from Chicago to enlist during the First World War with his name switching to Gretzky from Gretsky because he did not know how to write in English. Walter's mother Mary came to Canada by herself in 1921 as an 18-year-old.

Walter's parents met in Toronto in the 1930s. He was the fifth of seven children.

He played minor hockey in Paris, Ont., then junior B for four years in Woodstock. He went on to play some senior hockey but said he wasn't good enough to play pro.

Walter met Phyllis, his wife to be, at a wiener roast at the family farm. She was 15 at the time. Three years later, they got married.

Wayne was the first born in 1961, followed by Kim, Keith, Glen and Brent. Keith and Brent also played professional hockey.

The same year as Wayne was born, Walter fractured his skull in a work accident as a Bell lineman. He spent some time in a coma and was off work for 18 months. Left deaf in his right ear, he was eventually transferred to another Bell department and became an installer/repairman.

The winter when Wayne was four, his father turned the backyard of their Brantford home into a rink which young Wayne called The Wally Coliseum.

From the time he was a tot, Wayne wanted to do nothing but play hockey.

Walter decided to make his own rink to avoid having to freeze standing outdoors at some outdoor rink elsewhere — or sit in his car with the engine running to get some heat — while Wayne skated. Gas was too expensive, he said.

"It truly, truly was self-preservation," he explained.

Walter fed his eldest child’s obsession, recruiting bigger kids for Wayne to practise against in the backyard rink, and finding him a spot on a team of 10-year-olds when he was six.

"You knew he was good at his age at what he was doing," Walter said in a 2016 interview. "But to say that one day he'd do what he did, you couldn't say that. Nobody could."

Wayne recalled crying after that first year of organized hockey when he didn’t get a trophy at the year-end banquet.

"Wayne, keep practising and one day you're gonna have so many trophies we’re not going to have room for them all," his dad said.

Walter preached an old fashioned ethic — hard work pays off.

After a bad game when he was 11, Wayne got a chewing out from his dad: "People are going to judge you on how you perform every night. Never forget that."

The NHL star recalls getting a similar earful when he was 21, during the 1983 Stanley Cup playoffs.

"I don’t know where I’d be without him, but I know it wouldn't be in the NHL," Wayne said in his autobiography.

"I just think I told him to play good," said Walter.

"My hero as a kid was a man with constant headaches, ulcers and ringing in his ears," Wayne wrote. "He stays in the same house driving the same car — teaching kids the same way he always has, believing in the same things he always had.

"I've sometimes said that everything I have I owe to hockey, but I guess that's not true. Everything I have I owe to them (his parents)."

"On Family, Hockey and Healing" was reproduced in paperback when the movie came out. In the introduction, Walter answered a question: What’s it like being Wayne Gretzky’s dad?

‘"I say that mostly it’s been fantastic beyond my wildest dreams,’" he wrote. ‘"It's given me the chance to travel widely, meet amazing people and do things that I never would have had the opportunity to do otherwise.

"‘I love to tell stories, and believe me, these experiences have given me some good ones! It's all been a great adventure, and I've been happy to share it with my family and friends."

Wayne Gretzky tweeted around 8:30 p.m. on Thursday night,

“It’s with deep sadness that Janet and I share the news of the passing of my dad.”



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