April 4, 2012, 6:30 PM
An Emotional Gretzky Talks About His Father’s Illness
By BOB MACKIN
Wayne Gretzky and his wife Janet Jones-Gretzky at a Kings game in Los Angeles last month.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky paced the stage in the vast Vancouver Convention Centre hall as the featured speaker of the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ 49th annual convention Tuesday.
Next door is the Olympic cauldron that the four-time Stanley Cup winner famously lighted on the opening night of the 2010 Winter Games.
Now 51 and retired from the National Hockey League for 13 years, Gretzky is at ease before crowds. And Tuesday, he revealed a family secret as his voice quavered and his eyes welled up. His 73-year-old father, Walter, had been diagnosed with the degenerative disorder Parkinson’s disease earlier in the morning.
“That’s something that hits you right in the gut,” Gretzky said.
Walter Gretzky is probably Canada’s best-known father. The retired telephone repairman has had his share of adversity. A workplace accident 50 years ago left him deaf in one ear. In 1991, he nearly died from a brain aneurysm the week he turned 53. He has been a widower since 2005 when wife Phyllis, who stayed out of the public eye, died from lung cancer.
“My dad put everything good into helping me play the game of hockey, he even would borrow two dollars from my grandmother so that I could get a hockey stick, to make sure that my stick was brand new.” Wayne told the convention. “He always motivated me and pushed me.”
There was one time when it didn’t work. That was April 18, 1999, before Wayne played his 1,487th and last career game for the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Just like old times, they shared a ride. Wayne conceded he was “just no good anymore” and had to call it quits.
“He drove with me to the arena, obviously I was a little emotional, it was my last game. As we’re driving to the arena, all he said to me the whole way there is ‘Will you play one more year?’”
Gretzky’s retirement ceremony included a gift of a new car, driven onto the MSG ice by Walter.
“I opened the door to help him get out and he’s got his seatbelt on. I said ‘Why do you have the seatbelt on?’ He said, ‘Well, you never know.’
“He gets out and says to me, ‘Geez isn’t this a really nice car they gave me?’ I had to break the story and said, ‘No, it’s for me; I was the one retiring, not you.”
“The Great One,” a Canadian hero and hockey’s all-time greatest scorer, also recounted his first, ill-fated public speaking engagement as a 10-year-old in Brantford, Ont., where the Lions Club recognized him for scoring a record 378-goals in a season.
As if speaking in class was stressful enough, he had to walk onstage as his idol and head-table mate Gordie Howe looked on. The young Gretzky nervously said thank-you and cried before bashfully returning to his seat.
In keeping with his audience, Gretzky also reminisced about his involvement in a 1981 Brantford tennis tournament that raised $2,000 for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and how he convinced Edmonton Oilers’ teammates Mark Messier and Paul Coffey to play a 1980 wheelchair basketball game against future cancer fundraiser Terry Fox and spinal cord research fundraiser Rick Hansen. The hockey players were clobbered 58-4, he said. Last fall, Gretzky joined Howe to raise $500,000 for Toronto East General Hospital at a private party for 100.