Walter 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.
During Saturday’s ceremony, Wayne eulogized his father as a perfect dad and a man with “a heart of gold” while speaking about his last days.
“We thought weeks ago, the end was here. He has a tremendous amount of faith, faith like I’ve never seen, but he had a love for life and he didn’t want to leave. We were 21 days sitting with him and just enjoying life and we got a chance, an opportunity, to tell stories,” said Gretzky.
“We’d be a way better world if there were so many more people like my dad. We’re all hurting, this is a tough time. I’m so proud of the fact that so many people have reached out and given him such great tributes because he deserves it. He has a heart of gold…” the Great One closed as his voice trailed off in emotion.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the funeral service was limited to family. But hundreds of people – including many kids wearing Gretzky jerseys – gathered outside St. Mark’s Anglican Church.
Following the service Brantford residents paid tribute to Walter Gretzky by tapping their hockey sticks on the ground as the funeral procession made their way from the church.
A small memorial sprung up for Walter Gretzky outside the arena that bears his son’s name in Brantford on Friday.
Two hockey sticks – one full-sized, one miniature – and a Canadian flag adorn the sign marking off Walter Gretzky’s parking spot outside the Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre.
An employee with Bell for more than three decades – and long after his son became hockey’s biggest star – Walter remained a loving, blue-caller symbol of devotion.
“A deeply humble man,” said Rev. Dr. Tim Dobbin, who officiated the funeral. “He spoke the truth. Wally’s word was his bond.”
The elder Gretzky stayed out of the limelight at first during Wayne’s rise, but especially after suffering a brain aneurysm in 1991 that cost him much of his memory. Still, Walter became a household name on par with the Great One.
“(His) grandchildren had never seen my dad before his brain aneurysm,” Wayne said before adding playfully: “We were telling them all we were thankful you didn’t know him before his brain aneurysm because he was a lot tougher.”
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.”
Wayne told a couple of stories during his remarks, including a family tale about how Walter missed the birth of his youngest, Brent, for one of Wayne’s hockey tournaments.
“My mom said, ‘Walter, we’re going to have this baby this weekend,'” Wayne recalled. “And he said, ‘It’s OK, you can wait until we get back.'”
Wayne then added with a smirk: “So, Brent was born on the Saturday.”
Once father and son arrived home in Brantford, family and neighbours were wondering what Walter had been thinking before one final comment pushed him over the edge.
“He was so mad,” Wayne said. “He stood and he grabbed the trophy and he goes, ‘Yes, but we got the trophy!'”
A video tribute towards the end of Saturday’s service included pictures from the early days on the backyard rink, Wayne’s triumphs, Walter on the ice teaching kids, the Gretzky memorabilia in the family home, and highlights from his son’s final games in the NHL.
As the casket was about to be led out of the church and into the sunshine, “The Hockey Theme” song made famous on “Hockey Night In Canada” was played.
Walter Gretzky is survived by his five children – Wayne, Kim, Keith, Glen and Brent – as well as numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Phyliss, his wife of 45 years, died of lung cancer in 2005 at age 64.