BRANTFORD, Ont. — Past and present residents of the southern Ontario city Walter Gretzky helped put on the map mourned him Friday, remembering him not just as Canada's hockey dad, but as a community fixture who was always up for a chat.
Gretzky died Thursday at the age of 82, still living in the Brantford, Ont., home where he raised his five kids, including Wayne Gretzky.
Small memorials for the elder Gretzky sprung up Friday morning — two outside the arena that bears his eldest son's name, and one outside that family home.
"He was always really kind," said Mark Ritter, a former sports writer. "He was always shaking hands. He was always making eye contact with people."
Ritter, who lived in Brantford for six years but has moved away, drove about an hour on Friday morning to leave a hockey stick at Walter Gretzky's reserved parking spot outside the Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre.
His hockey stick was one of three — two full-sized, one miniature — up against a sign that reads "Reserved for Walter Gretzky, Lord Mayor of Brantford."
Ritter said he regularly saw Gretzky at the nearby McDonald's when he lived in the southern Ontario city of about 100,000.
"I think his greatest gift really was time," he said. "...He gave it up unselfishly and with kindness and love and care."
He described one chance encounter with Gretzky that turned into an hour-long conversation about hockey.
"It's not an uncommon story," Ritter said.
Others laid flowers at the foot of the Gretzky statue outside the sports centre.
The monument depicts Walter Gretzky and his wife Phyllis with a young Wayne, looking on as the adult Wayne Gretzky hoists the Stanley Cup over his head.
Flowers, a hockey stick and a teddy bear were left outside the Gretzky family home.
The mayor of Brantford, meanwhile, said Friday was a sad day for "all those who knew and loved Walter."
"Not only will he be remembered as a beloved father, friend, coach, mentor and neighbour, he will also forever be known for championing this community at every opportunity," Ken Davis wrote on Facebook.
"In the coming days and weeks, the City will announce additional ways in which we plan to pay tribute to Walter to show our deep respect and appreciation for everything he means to our city and the many people he has touched by his kindness and generosity."
Samantha Cullen, a college student who grew up in the area, recalled seeing the Gretzky patriarch on school trips to the Brantford Civic Centre, a local arena
"Everyone would be struggling to get on their skates and on the ice," she said. "Every time I was there, Walter would see the struggle of the teachers, parents and older children and always offer a helping hand — or at least a distraction long enough for us to get laced up."
She said she continued to see him around through the years, often at charity events.
"He was more of a hero to a lot of people than Wayne was," she said. "Wayne was the skill, but Walter was the heart."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 5, 2021.
Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press