Canada’s favorite hockey dad is adding his voice to those urging the NHL to impose tough new penalties for hits to the head.
Walter Gretzky, whose famous son Wayne Gretzky was often targeted for hits by other players, feels terrible for the young Boston Bruins member, Marc Savard, whose game and life were stalled by a blindside head shot from Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cooke.
Savard is almost certainly out for the season as he tries to recuperate from a serious concussion.
“Sure, they should tighten up the rules for head shots,” said the senior Gretzky, who was in Red Deer for several weekend appearances, including a Notre Dame High School fundraiser for students headed to a festival in Scotland, and a Pond Hockey event in Sylvan Lake.
The Brantford, Ont. resident, who suffered two workplace head injuries during his long career with Bell Canada, often hears hockey coaches and even parents shouting “hit him, hit him” to players on the ice.
“It used to be the fathers, now it’s the mothers” who aggressively push their kids, said Gretzky, who admits he sometimes feels his son’s phenomenal success has created unreasonable expectations for other children.
The 71-year-old knows at least one youth who quit playing at 16 because the pressure made it “not fun anymore.”
Gretzky stressed that only one of his four sons made the NHL a career, although Keith, Glen and Brent Gretzky were also very good hockey players.
The young Wayne was “obsessed” with the game and didn’t need much pushing, recalled his father. As a youngster he wanted to practise so much at various outdoor hockey rinks that Walter froze while supervising him.
“I couldn’t sit in the car, with the car running, because gas was 21 cents a gallon. That was a lot of money!” he recalled, with a laugh.
Walter said he built a backyard skating rink “out of self-preservation,” so he could stay inside the house while his son practised.
One night, he recalled his wife Phyllis, who died in 2005, came downstairs to scold him because nine-year-old Wayne was still outdoors on the rink at nearly midnight. “I had forgotten he was out there!”
These days, the hockey dad — who carried the Olympic torch in Vancouver, before Wayne lit the cauldron (which was complete surprise to the elder Gretzky) — can’t go anywhere without being mobbed by admirers. This includes the Central Albertans, who clamored to meet him at restaurants and on the street.
Walter was stopped by so many autograph-seekers on Saturday that Penny Omilon, a friend who invited him to town for the fundraiser, jokingly asked at one point if he could walk behind her so no more people would see him. “It was the only way we were going to get anywhere on time!” said Omilon, who noted one Sylvan Lake driver even hopped out of his car with a camera and pleaded to take a picture.
“I guess people can’t get the first W., so they settle for the second W.!” said Walter, who doesn’t find the attention annoying. “I always treat people the way I would like to be treated.”
But the public shouldn’t assume he has lived a charmed life, said the elder Gretzky, who added most people don’t realize his son Glen was born with two club feet that required surgeries, or that Walter’s sister — who moved in with Walter, Phyllis, their sons and daughter Kim, after her parents died — had Down Syndrome and couldn’t dress herself.
“She didn’t even know what day it was, but she would always come to us every Sunday to ask if it was time for church.” Gretzky said this was because church was the only place where people would make an effort to talk to her.
Having a disabled family member taught all the Gretzky children compassion, said Walter, who believes this is one reason Wayne does so much charity work.