Walter Gretzky: Hockey’s effervescent storyteller
Walter Gretzky: Hockey’s effervescent storyteller

“You know what the name Walter means?” Walter Gretzky posits to his film crew in a behind-the-scenes moment from the new Short Docs series Wally’s World.

“Mighty warrior!” says the 77-year-old, fists raised, holding still until laughter erupts from the crowd. Walter chuckles along with them, basking in the harmony of the right joke reaching the right audience. It’s the moment storytellers yearn for.

"...if you ever get a chance to meet [Walter], he may tell you something, or share of piece of him with you that will touch, inspire, and make you smile,” Nash said.

Born in 1938, Walter Gretzky is best known as the patriarch of Canada’s most famous hockey family, and father to NHL legend Wayne Gretzky. A lover of hockey from day one, Walter’s acute knowledge of the sport positioned him to act as an advisor to Wayne throughout his career and to take on coaching roles in both minor leagues and the University of Pittsburgh.

After being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2012, Walter stepped back from the public eye to focus on his family and the community of Brantford, where he resides. These days, Walter spends much of his time volunteering with local organizations, bringing his magnetic combination of wit and charm to those who need the kind of pick-me-up that coffee can’t provide.

It’s this lesser-known side of Gretzky that filmmaker Danny Nash sought out when looking for a muse for his next project. “Walter is just a wonderful human being all around. Loves people, loves telling stories, and loves to make people laugh,” Nash explained. “Also, Wayne is really hard to get a hold of.”

Director Danny Nash and Walter Gretzky share a moment on set

For Nash, gaining access to this illustrious character was the easy part — the two families have known each other for years. “My dad taught Wayne in school, also ran a ball hockey league Wayne was enthusiastic about,” Nash stated. “My dad and Walter still remain close friends today.”

The real challenge was finding a way to honour a lifetime’s worth of Walter’s musings, jokes, and memories in one short documentary: “I wanted to share the stories the same way I remember first hearing them.”

From that thought, Wally’s World was born. The three-part series blends live-action moments with animation, allowing Walter’s vivid memories to find a new life on-screen. From sharing a near-death experience from his childhood, to volunteering at a local food bank, each episode focuses on a different tale spun by the artful wordsmith and provides a unique window into Gretzky’s day-to-day life.

Walter Gretzky shares a laugh with the students at W.Ross Macdonald

While each of the three short films has its own focus there is one constant: The infectious joy Walter brings with him, each time he steps into a room. For Nash, this is nothing new. “I've seen this a thousand times with him,” he admitted, “but if you ever get a chance to meet him, he may tell you something, or share of piece of him with you that will touch, inspire, and make you smile.”

After a lifetime of storytelling, we have to wonder: Will Canada’s favourite hockey dad ever run out of material? No way, says Nash. “Walter still surprises me. There's always a story, a thought, a history lesson, or a joke, that is new.”

In that case, as long as Walter continues to share his stories, we’ll keep listening — and laughing — along.

For more of Walter Gretzky's stories, watch Wally's World Episode 1, Episode 2, and Episode 3.