Canada’s population is quickly approaching 38 million people, and if social media is any indication in recent days, there are about 30 million Canadians who either know Walter Gretzky or have met him and have a story or a picture with him. Yes, I exaggerate, but I do so in the spirit of appreciation for the man who was a Canadian icon as Canada’s Hockey Dad.
There were so many posts, pictures, recollections and stories from people showing their love and respect for the man who was the father of the greatest hockey player who ever lived. I, personally, had the occasion to meet the man that so many call simply “Walter” a couple of times.
The first time was back in the later 1990s when I was covering the Senators for television. The Rangers were in Ottawa to play the Sens and every media person there wanted to get an interview with Wayne Gretzky after the morning skate. Unfortunately, Wayne didn’t do any interviews or even a scrum after the skate that day. He walked past us all, which many of us expected anyway. But a few seconds after Wayne walked past us, enter Walter into the fray and he didn’t do a scrum with us. He did personal interviews with any of us and every one of us who wanted to do one. I was amazed and impressed by Walter’s patience, his grace and his understanding of what we in the media contingent needed or wanted. And that meant standing and talking with more than a dozen journalists. But he made sure that each of us were given whatever sound or quote we were looking for and on that day, he made a big fan out of me.
The next time I ran into Walter was in 2013. I was playing for a hockey team and we were playing against an NHL Alumni squad to raise money for Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto. Ted Reeve Arena was packed and the ex-pros were great as expected. We would work our tails off to get the puck down into their zone only to lose it and see the NHLers in transition and on a 3-on-1 at our blue line within mere seconds.
Anyway, the man who was behind their bench as their honorary coach was Walter Gretzky. And he spent more time shaking hands with fans who gravitated to the area behind their bench than he did paying any attention to what was going on down on the ice. And, honestly, who could blame him? Following the game, upstairs in the big hall, there was a reception for both teams. I was thrilled because my son was with me and I would get to see his face as he got to meet so many former players. I was also thrilled because we would get a chance to meet and talk with Walter if only for a brief moment. After all, EVERY person in that hall wanted to meet and talk with the elder Gretzky. But those are just my stories. There are hundreds, nay, thousands of others who have their own stories of times with Walter. One such man was Jim Ralph, the former Ottawa 67s and pro goaltender who is now the radio analyst for Toronto Maple Leafs games. Ralph told an interesting story on Toronto sports radio the day after Walter’s passing. “I had just finished my playing career and I was hoping to get into broadcasting. I had been doing some public speaking and I got a call from Walter Gretzky. He wanted me to emcee Wayne’s Celebrity Invitational Softball banquet. As I was talking to him, I was more amazed that I was talking to Walter Gretzky than I was that Wayne even knew who I was!” Dave Poulin told a story on television about a day during the 1987 Canada Cup Tournament. Poulin was rooming with Wayne during training camp for the tourney and the team had an exhibition game against the Russians in Hamilton. Walter asked Wayne to see if a few of the Soviet players wanted to go over to Walter’s home in Brantford for a little barbecue. They responded that either the entire team would be invited or no one would go. Eventually they got it figured out and there were three players, their coach, Viktor Tikhonov, an interpreter and a driver/security man who would attend from the Soviet team. The three players were the men who made up the KLM Line, Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov. Everyone arrived at Walter’s modest home and things were going well. After a while, Walter told Larionov that he wanted to show him the basement and the “Trophy Room”. While he was showing the features of the trophy room, he would go to a fridge down there and bring the individual players beers. The players were not allowed to be drinking beer but Walter was just playing the gracious host. While this was happening downstairs, Poulin was “guarding” the door to the basement so no one could disturb the goings on downstairs. Also, while that was occurring inside the house, one of Walter’s best friends, Charles “Charlie” Henry was keeping the coach, interpreter and security man occupied outside regaling them with stories of escapades that he and Walter had been on in the past.
Henry himself is an icon in Ottawa hockey circles. He is also in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League Hall of Fame for his work as a general manager and executive of the Hull Olympiques when they were owned by Wayne. Henry’s son, Michael, related a story to me personally about a day in 1982 when Wayne was playing for Canada in the World Championships in Finland. Charlie Henry had a day job and that was as an Ottawa Fire Fighter. He was on a 24-hour shift one day when Walter drove up to the Nation’s Capital to pay his friend a visit. Mike picks up the story. “Did I ever tell you about the time Wally went to my Dad’s fire hall and wanted him to go to Finland with him? My Dad’s in the middle of a 24-hour shift and Wally drives up and he wants Dad to go with him to Finland. Dad says’ ‘Wally, I’m in the middle of a shift. I can’t leave and go just like that.’” “Wally says, ‘It’s okay! I’ve talked to all the guys here. They’re going to cover for you. Your wife packed you a bag. It’s in the car. Let’s go!’” Henry is reluctant but he eventually goes with Walter. Mike continues. “So they get in the car and go straight to the airport. They get to Finland, it’s a ten-hour flight and they go to the rink. They don’t have tickets or passes. They’re trying to talk their way in. The security people at the arena are not letting them in. Wally says to Dad ‘You distract them and I’ll jump the turnstile. Then, when they’re chasing me, you jump the turnstile and we’ll meet at the bench.’” “So these two guys are running through the concourses in the arena and they head down to the bench. Security is chasing them. They get down to the bench in the middle of a game. The men are chasing them. Mark Messier stands up and tells the security guys ‘No! These guys are with us!’” Crisis averted. The mischievous Walter wins. Dan Mellon is a longtime radio man from Brockville, Ontario and currently a professor in the Radio Broadcasting Program at Algonquin College in Ottawa. He started working in radio in his home town. He’s worked in numerous Ontario cities and was working at a Belleville music station in 2002 when he got a request to have Walter on his show to promote his book Walter Gretzky: On Hockey, Family and Healing. He jumped at the chance to have the family patriarch on his show. “I was working in Belleville hosting the Midday show on CIGL-FM (Mix 97) and got a call one day from a booking agent saying that Walter was going to be in town promoting his latest book, and would I have room for a quick interview? Umm.... YEAH! Of course I do!"
"Mr. Gretzky arrived for the interview, and as he walked in the building, the whole staff stopped what they were doing to go to the front and greet him.
“Back then it was not uncommon at all for the record companies to bring some of the current recording artists by the station to promote their records. It was cool and all, but it rarely caused a stir.
"On the other hand, when Walter rolled in, you’d think that the Pope had just arrived at the station! The whole place STOPPED and just about every staff member congregated in the lobby to greet him. Pretty Canadiana if you ask me!
“After all the photos were taken and autographs signed, (and he happily took every one), we were very late for our studio time. I had about 30 minutes left on my show - which as a music show in the middle of the workday rarely got interrupted for anything... But this was different.
“We wound up just going LIVE with the interview, stopped the music for almost 30 minutes and let Walter tell all his stories. I stayed very professional, but I gotta tell you, I was GEEKING OUT inside!
“Because Mr. Gretzky had suffered a near-fatal brain aneurysm a few years earlier and was still recovering, he had lost his short term memory. His agent warned me of this just before we turned the mics on. I noticed it because when I introduced myself to him, he wrote my name down on his notepad. But once he had moved beyond that page, he didn’t call me Dan even one more time! It didn’t matter and I didn’t even care. His long term memory was spot on, and the stories I had read about were even better coming from the man himself.
“After our 30 minutes were up, he stayed for another 15-20 minutes or so, not leaving the radio station until every photo and autograph that was wanted was taken care of. It was unreal - but so awesome at the same time.
“I’ve done hundreds of interviews over my career... Recording artists, politicians... you name it. Mr. Gretzky however still has to be my favourite one of all time.”
Combine all of this with his tireless work for and support for charitable causes all over Canada and you have a life well lived.
That’s the kind of man that Walter Gretzky was. He wanted other people to be happy. And he made people feel that he was happier meeting them than they were meeting him. That is a rare ability. Of the great hockey people that I’ve met, Walter is right up there with Johnny Bower and Jean Beliveau in that category.
And THAT is a pretty incredible group of people.
Howie Mooney | Sens Nation Hockey