As the funeral procession pulled out of St. Mark’s Anglican Church on Saturday, the sound of a hundred hockey sticks tapping the sidewalk filled the air.
It was a final tribute to Walter Gretzky, the world’s most famous hockey dad, Lord Mayor of Brantford, community booster extraordinaire, and all-round great guy, who died on Thursday evening at the age of 82.
“He was a beloved national treasure,” said Rev. Tim Dobbin, who conducted the service. “Walter, in many ways, belonged to us all.”
Almost everybody who has spent any real time in Brantford has a Wally story. And the couple hundred people who lined Memorial Drive outside St. Mark’s, many wearing sports jerseys and almost all clad in pandemic masks, were happy to share them.
“When I graduated from nursery school at St. Mark’s in 1982, Walter and Phyllis handed me my diploma,” said Brantford native Dave Szczur, who was among the first to take a spot across from the church, braving the late winter cold. “I was four years old and I remember it like it was yesterday.
“I needed to be here to show my respect to the Gretzky family for all the work Walter has done for Brantford.”
Tom Miklos recalled attending a Thank-a-Vet luncheon with his father Jim, a veteran. Gretzky never missed the annual Brantford event.
“He came right over to my dad and started talking to him,” said Miklos. “He didn’t have to do that. That’s just the way he was.”
Eight-year-old Gryffin Francis — who was outside the church with his brother, Hudson, 10, both in their Brantford 99ers hockey jerseys — has a teddy bear he got from Gretzky when he was a baby being treated at Brantford General. For years, Gretzky made the rounds at the hospital visiting with the sick kids.
“I don’t play with it,” Gryffin said of the precious stuffed toy. “We put it in a special cabinet and we don’t open it.”
Gretzky’s family thought the end was coming quickly in the middle of February.
The father of hockey’s greatest player had suffered a serious hip injury, and after battling Parkinson’s disease and other health issues in recent years, his time – something Walter was always willing to give both friends and strangers – appeared to be running short.
“But he had a love for life and he didn’t want to leave,” Wayne Gretzky said during an emotional eulogy Saturday. “We were 21 days sitting with him and just enjoying life.
“We got a chance and opportunity to tell stories.”
And Walter Gretzky’s life was full of them.
Known as Canada’s hockey dad, Gretzky’s passing prompted an avalanche of tributes for a genuine, approachable, authentic person who nurtured Wayne’s extraordinary talents on the family’s famed backyard rink in Brantford, but also never forgot where he came from.
“He was a remarkable man who loved life, loved family,” Wayne Gretzky said. “We’d be a way better world if there was so many more people like my dad.”
Dobbin called Gretzky a “man of faith who walked the talk.” He said the two of them spent Wednesday evenings serving meals to those in need at Grace Anglican Church.
“There, Wally would be handing out trays, helping with cutlery and joking with clients. He treated all of us just the same.”
And Gretzky was great with kids. He adored his many grandchildren and he coached minor league hockey for years, famously spending hours signing autographs at the rink, making sure nobody missed out.
“He always had those little pieces of paper stuffed in his pocket in order to be able to oblige,” said Dobbin.
Wayne recalled a time when his dad brought to the airport two huge bags of golf balls he’d scrounged from a course while visiting his son.
“You’ll sign these for the kids, right?,” he said to Wayne.
“I was signing for hours. But that’s who he was. I’m so proud of the fact that so many people have reached out and and given him such great tributes because he deserves it. He has a heart of gold.” Wayne said.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the funeral service was limited to family and close friends. After the service, the procession drove past Walter’s Varadi Avenue home where over the years he welcomed inside countless people to take a look at his basement hockey shrine full of memorabilia, much of it from Wayne’s storied career, then past the Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre, where Wayne rolled down his car window to wave at waiting children.
Walter was there every step of the way as Wayne ascended to a greatness that included four Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers and becoming the NHL’s all-time leader in goals, assists and points.
An employee with Bell for more than three decades – and long after his son became the sport’s biggest star – Walter remained down-to-earth.
“A deeply humble man,” said Dobbin. “He spoke the truth. Wally’s word was his bond.”
Walter suffered a brain aneurysm in 1991 that cost him much of his memory and “could have meant for him a vastly diminished life, but it didn’t, did it?” said Dobbin. “Not for Walter Gretzky. Despite all the challenges and with extraordinary support from his family and friends and the healthcare community, and by the grace of God, as Wally would want me to acknowledge, he became more fully alive.”
The son of a Polish mother and Russian father, Walter played minor hockey and Junior B, but said later in life he was never good enough to make it professionally.
“He came here, his family, as an immigrant,” Wayne said. “They came here because they wanted a better life..
“I don’t think I’ve ever met a prouder Canadian than my dad.”
Walter Gretzky is survived by his five children – Wayne, Kim, Keith, Glen and Brent – as well as numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Phyllis, his wife of 45 years, died of lung cancer in 2005 at age 64.
— With files from The Canadian Press