Walter Gretzky was Canada's hockey dad

Reflecting on the life of Walter Gretzky and why so many Canadians felt a special connection to him.

The Great One's father was a great man himself

Walter Gretzky's modesty and generosity helped him connect with Canadians. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

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Walter Gretzky died yesterday at the age of 82 after a long battle with Parkinson's and other health issues.

In sharing the sad news, Wayne Gretzky said his father was "the reason I fell in love with the game of hockey. He inspired me to be the best I could be not just in the game of hockey, but in life."

Walter, famously, built the backyard rink on which the greatest hockey player of all time honed his talents during winters as a kid in Brantford, Ont. Wayne also credits his dad for teaching him his revolutionary (at least in North America) way of seeing and playing the game.

Walter's "go to where the puck is going, not where it's been" mantra guided the Great One as he broke pretty much every NHL scoring record and won four Stanley Cups.

WATCH | Remembering the life of Walter Gretzky:

Remembering ‘Canada’s hockey dad’ Walter Gretzky

2 years ago
Duration 2:04
NHL players, league officials and everyday Canadians reacted to the passing of Wayne Gretzky's father, Walter, after his death at age 82 following a long battle with Parkinson's disease.

But what set Walter apart from other well-known sports parents, and helped make him a cultural icon in Canada, was how generously he shared himself with hockey fans. And just how ordinary he seemed.

Long after his son became one of the richest and most famous athletes in the world, Walter continued to live at the same house in Brantford. He coached local minor-hockey teams, helped with tournaments and did charity work.

WATCH | Hockey world reacts to passing of Walter Gretzky:

Heather Hiscox and Rob Pizzo remember Walter Gretzky on CBC News Network

2 years ago
Duration 9:40
CBC News Network's Heather Hiscox and CBC Sports Rob Pizzo reflect on the life of Walter Gretzky.

He'd regularly show up to junior A, even junior B, games around southern Ontario. And you could just go right up and talk to him.

Countless tributes have poured in from the hockey world, but a simple anecdote from Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe after last night's game captured Walter's essence as well as anything.

Keefe recalls the world's most famous hockey dad visiting tiny Pembroke, Ont., a few years ago as part of some NHL old-timers event. Walter spent "what seemed like hours" signing autographs, taking photos and just talking to people.

"It was pretty cool to see someone of his stature, what he means to the game, what he's brought to the game, all the way out in Pembroke, Ontario, taking part in an event like that with people who might not usually get a chance," Keefe said.

The best thing about Walter? That story is not at all unique. Seems like everyone of a certain age who lived anywhere near him has one just like it. They met Walter at their local arena. Or a coffee shop. Or some other run-of-the-mill place. And he just… talked to them. For as long as they wanted. So friendly, everyone says. So modest.

Those personal connections are one reason why Walter's death hits so hard. Another is that it gets us thinking about our own dads (and moms) and the backyard rinks (or pitcher's mounds, soccer nets, basketball hoops...) they built for us. And hoping we can be that kind of parent too.

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