• By: Dan Donovan

Canada’s hockey dad passes

— Walter Gretzky was the ‘Great One’ for parents and amateur hockey coaches (PHOTO: VIA NHL.COM)

Wayne Gretzky announced the passing of his father today at 82. I stopped and took a moment in my day to reflect on what a great person Walter Gretzky was and why I always had such great respect and admiration for him. I think it was a combination of his humility and smarts. He was, as the adage goes, a very good man indeed.

Walter Gretzky was a superb hockey player as a young man but his smaller size and a bout with chicken pox combined to stop him from playing professionally. He met the love of his life, Phyllis Hockin, at a small-town barbecue when she was 15 and he was 18. They would date and later be happily married for the rest of their lives.

Walter Gretzky worked  as a cable repairman for Bell Telephone Canada for over three decades. He loved his family and he loved ‘the game’. The family moved into a house on Varadi Avenue in Brantford seven months after the birth of their first son, Wayne. Walter said they chose the house in part because the yard was flat enough for him to  make an ice rink every winter. A daughter, Kim, and three more sons, Keith, Glen, and Brent would soon follow. 

Walter’s backyard rink was it for the Gretzky kids, their friends, and especially Wayne. Walter taught him creative exercises and drills and gave him insights into how to play successfully. This combined with Wayne’s natural abilities and love of the game were the seeds that grew a champion. After Wayne ‘made it’ Walter continued working for Bell. Throughout his life Walter Gretzky contributed to minor hockey in Canada, and helped many local, provincial, and national charities.   

Wayne Gretzky credits his dad for playing a key role in his success. In his autobiography, he describes how his Dad would teach him the fundamentals of smart hockey, quiz style:

Him: "Where do you skate?"
Me: "To where the puck is going, not where it's been."
Him: "Where's the last place a guy looks before he passes it?"
Me: "The guy he's passing to."
Him: "Which means…"
Me: "Get over there and intercept it."
Him: "If you get cut off, what are you gonna do?"
Me: "Peel."
Him: "Which way?"
Me: "Away from the guy, not towards him."

My favourite hockey line is the one Walter Gretzky famously told his son at a young age. “Go to where the puck is going, not where it has been." For hockey players everywhere the brilliance of this adage is its simplicity. To learn how to do that requires so many other things to be working in tandem on multiple levels.

Walter Gretzky did 'the hockey thing' that so many Canadian parents know well: the early morning practices, all the home and away games, the team lunches and gatherings, parent meetings and cold rinks for months on end. He did it for the love of his son and the game. He taught Wayne how to play smart and most importantly he never acted in a way that would take the joy out of the game for his son. 

In 2008, when asked about the phenomenon of youth-hockey burnout (where young hockey players become ‘burned out’ by the immense pressure put upon them by overzealous parents to succeed in competitive divisions), Wayne Gretzky referenced the lessons taught to him by his father. "First of all, I think every kid is different—some kids can play every day, all year long, like Gordie Howe—until they made him take his skates off. But that's a rarity, I really believe that. In youth hockey, in most cases, it's important for kids to play other sports—whether it's indoor lacrosse or soccer or baseball. I think what that does is two things. One, each sport helps the other sport. And then I think taking time off in the off-season—that three- or four-month window—really rejuvenates kids so when they come back at the end of August, they're more excited. They think, 'All right, hockey's back, I'm ready to go.' "

I coached minor league hockey for 11 years for both boys and girls, house league and rep. I could spend an evening telling you horror stories about the behaviour of some parents when it comes to their kids and hockey. The pressure they put on their kids or on the coaches to ‘win’ or their insistence on thinking they should be able to tell you how to ‘properly’ coach the team or their child.

My site line was always Walter Gretzky. Be humble, be smart, put the kids first and focus on the whole team, and let them have fun. Win together, lose together, have character. Be a good person. Play for the love of the game. Walter Gretzky taught all these qualities to his son and through his son’s example to an entire generation of hockey coaches and parents. He taught those lessons to Canada. For me, he will forever be Canada’s Hockey Dad. God Bless Walter Gretzky. And remember, in hockey and in life, always set your sights on where the puck is going, not where it has been.