CBC Digital Archives

Walter Gretzky, Canada's hockey dad

In a vast and often frozen land, they are rituals that bind. Dark drives to a chilly hockey arena. Blades biting outdoor ice. Kids in heroes' sweaters, mouthing their own play-by-plays. CBC drives to the net with an unabashedly affectionate look back at the grassroots of our national game — the true spirit of hockey.

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"Everything I am is because of him," declares Wayne Gretzky of his father, Walter. In this CBC Television clip, the world's most famous hockey player and the world's most famous hockey dad talk about the father-son bond that is rooted in Canada's national game. "I just think I told him to play good," Walter says. Wayne demurs. It was, the great son says, much more than that.

Walter knew his son wasn't big or fast so he encouraged him to anticipate the play and use his agility to get around bigger kids. He also told Wayne he had a special gift and, whether he applied it to hockey or something else, he shouldn't "blow it." Such lessons from Walter, Wayne says, made him more than a hockey player. "He taught me the basics of life." 
• The child of Ukrainian immigrants, Walter Gretzky was born in 1938 and worked as a Bell Canada repairman for 37 years in the southwestern Ontario town of Brantford. He was a talented hockey player but not big enough to play professionally. It has become Canadian hockey lore that he put skates on Wayne at age two and, a few years later, built a rink behind the family home for the budding prodigy. For more on Wayne, see the Archives topic The Great Wayne Gretzky.

• In his 2001 book, Walter Gretzky: On Family, Hockey and Healing, Walter acknowledged that he was an obsessive hockey dad. He missed the birth of his fifth and final child, Brent, because he was at one of Wayne's tournaments. When he finally arrived at the hospital bed of his wife Phyllis, Walter exclaimed: "We won, we won!" She replied: "It's a boy, Walter."

• The "healing" part of the book title refers to Walter's long recovery from a 1991 stroke. Although he says he has vivid memories of Wayne's early childhood, he has no recollection of the period from the mid-1970s until the early 1990s -- the period when his son won four Stanley Cups and re-wrote the NHL record books. For a while after his stroke, Walter had little or no interest in hockey and stopped staying up to watch Wayne's games on TV.

• By the time Wayne played his final NHL game in April 1999, Walter had returned to form. According to a New York Times story, at the game he hollered, "How did you miss that?" from the stands when his son muffed a shot in front of an open net. Moments later Walter yelled: "That's the way," after his son set up New York Rangers teammate Brian Leetch for a goal on the Pittsburgh Penguins.

• After that final game, Walter visited Wayne to tell him how proud he was. "When you're a son, you want to hear it," Gretzky said later with moist eyes. "He told me he was very proud of me."

• Walter wasn't a hockey dad just to Wayne. His son Brent played briefly for the Tampa Bay Lightning while another son, Keith, was drafted by, but never played for, the Buffalo Sabres. "Every thing my brothers and I learned about hockey, we learned from our dad," Brent said in 1999. "People ask me all the time what I learned from Wayne."
Medium: Television
Program: The National Magazine
Broadcast Date: May 14, 1996
Guest(s): Wayne Gretzky, Walter Gretzky
Reporter: Laurie Brown
Duration: 5:52

Last updated: September 27, 2012

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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