In memory of Walter Gretzky, who died today at age 82.
I expected nothing as I knocked gently on the door of the two-story house on Varadi Avenue.
It was Spring 2002. I was in Brantford, Ont., driving a university friend back to his home after a long journey from Ottawa. A long-time Wayne Gretzky fan, on a whim I asked if he knew where Wayne grew up. He did, and after a bit of convincing, my friend agreed to take me there so I could knock on his door.
The door opened and the most famous hockey dad suddenly stood in front of me.
“Hello, Mr. Gretzky. I’m a big fan of your son’s,” I said.
“If you don’t mind, sir, I would love to see the trophy room in your basement.”
He shook his head.
“I’m sorry son, it’s all at the Hockey Hall of Fame.”
I reached out for a handshake and said: “OK. No problem. It’s an honour to meet you, sir.”
He looked us in the eye, paused, and said: “Well, we do have some stuff left.” He waved us in.
We took off our shoes and followed.
To my left, a black Roots winter coat commemorating the ’98 Olympics hung on a dining room chair. I could see straight through to the back of the house and a sliding glass door, with the backyard shining through.
Walter made a right and led us down a flight of surprisingly raggedy stairs.
He stopped at the bottom where a pile of sticks rested in the corner of the basement, a sight familiar to many a Canadian growing up in suburban Canada.
“You know what this one’s from?” he asked.
The stick was small.
“That famous picture of your son with Gordie Howe as a kid, and the stick around his neck?”
The basement contained a plethora of Wayne Gretzky memorabilia. And in no order. From very expensive collectibles, to random life-size posters. There was stuff everywhere.
Walter told story, after story, after story.
“He was accessible, relatable, local and everyone loved him.”
We checked out replica Stanley Cups. A bench made from some of “my kid’s” old sticks. Cereal boxes with Wayne’s picture. NHL jerseys with Gretzky on the back. Endless medals and trophies.
At one point, Walter lay on the ground and started signing a stack of Wayne Gretzky posters, dozens of them.
He signed “W. Gretzky” on all of them.
“I can still get away with that!” he howled.
And then this.
“You know why I speak to all these groups, and do all this community work?” he asked, motioning us to come closer.
“Because the wife… she don’t listen no more,” he whispered, motioning upstairs.
Months later, a box arrived at my apartment in Ottawa, where I was just about to start my fourth year of university. I had also been hired to serve as the editor-in-chief of the Fulcrum, the University of Ottawa’s student paper.
The box was from Walter. Inside were two hardcover Wayne Gretzky books, one signed by Wayne, the other a nice message from “the Gretzky family.” There was a signed plastic drinking pint from Kraft with “JELL-O Pudding Shaker” written in red, along with the logo of each NHL Team — the sort of memento they would give at the gate to every person who attended a Junior A hockey game. I drank out of it for years.
Most importantly, a handwritten message on a small piece of lined paper.
I taped the note to the wall behind my desk at the Fulcrum. It lived with me every day and guided me through.
Walter is a legend. Countless people all over the world have Walter Gretzky stories. He was accessible, relatable, local and everyone loved him. Now, as I build my own backyard rink, I often think about the hours Walter spent perfecting the craft that birthed the greatest player (in my opinion) who ever was.
He spoke at so many charity events, lending his fame to causes and raising who knows how much money. He was patient and real.
He was a good, kind person. The type of person I want to be.
He represented a different era of celebrity. I admire him and cherish the memory he gave me.
Walter has nothing left to give.
Thank you, Walter. You sure did have some stuff left in that old basement.
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