Back when children were still raised free-range, there was no such thing as the sports parent.
Star athletes had parents, but not so you’d noticed. It was not widely assumed mom or dad were the originators of their son’s brilliance, or that they should be constantly hovering around him as he moved into the pros, pulling strings and holding court.
Bobby Orr – the ultimate product of our national Valhalla, the frozen pond – said his parents almost never saw him play when he was a kid, even long after he’d become a big deal, even after he’d made the NHL. They were too busy working.
Nowadays, ‘soccer mom’ is an insult. ‘Tennis father’ calls to mind a frothing maniac standing behind his daughter, shrieking every time she misses a stroke.
Sports parents are everywhere, and usually not for the better. They’re on ESPN acting as hype-men and women for their clients – which is the better way to describe their relationship to their children. They’re getting interviewed in the stands, like they just threw the no hitter.
How do you spot the good sports parent to a modern pro? They’re the ones you don’t hear from all that much.
For a few years in the 80s and 90s, Walter Gretzky occupied the sweet spot between the two extremes.
He was always there, but never in the way. He didn’t go on TV to yell about how amazing his son was. He didn’t work behind the scenes to get the coach or the GM fired. He didn’t latch on once the money started coming in and begin siphoning. He had his own thing going on.
While Wayne was marrying a movie star and spiffing himself up for Madison Avenue, Walter held down the working-class end of the Gretzky operation. That was the key to Wayne’s national icon status. As his lifestyle became unrecognizable to the average Canadian, there was still the tether of Walter and Brantford, Ont., to make him seem like a regular guy.
Walter was every blue-collar Canadian dad from the 70s frozen in time – varsity jackets, pomade hair and a face worn beyond his years. If you were the child of European immigrants around the same vintage, Walter Gretzky was your father. Like, exactly the same. And he never changed.
When he released his autobiography in 2001, Walter wondered what point there was to it.
“Why would anyone be interested in me?” he wrote. “I’m just a guy who grew up on a farm, worked for Bell Canada for thirty-four years and raised a sports-loving family in a small Canadian town. It doesn’t seem very remarkable.”
You’ll note the only actual achievement he counts in there is all those years spent as a repairman for the phone company. If someone said it to you today – “worked for (Conglomerate X) for (huge amount of time)” – they’d make it sound like a prison sentence. Gretzky was from the last generation that took pride in the fact they’d done something well enough that someone let them do it their whole life.
The only exceptional thing about himself, he decided, was that he had survived a massive stroke at 53 and come back from it.
That he was unremarkable was in fact what made him remarkable. If your kid turned out to be the best there ever was, you’d be running up and down your street high-fiving the neighbours for the next decade. It’s human nature. You’d believe you made this happen. You. Youyouyou.
Walter didn’t think that way. Though he’d done all the janitorial work that made hockey greatness possible – icing the backyard rink, paying for all the gear, schlepping it all over the place at an ungodly hour of the morning on his one day off – he gave all propers to the person who did the real work. Sure, Walter knew you had to skate to where the puck was going to be, rather than where it was. But he was never the one skating there.
He called it “destiny,” whatever magic it was that possessed his son. “I just did what I could to help it along.”
This wasn’t humility. It was realism – an increasingly rare commodity in the sports world. Walter Gretzky understood he was the helpmeet of greatness, not its creator. Another thing that made him special was that that was enough for him.
Though shy, he did enjoy the part of fame that allows you to meet strangers and hear their stories. He was by all accounts a wonderful listener, which is another way of saying he was interested in things he didn’t already know about. These days, that counts as a superpower.
Eventually, Walter rose to the status of secular Canadian saint. There is no more tenuous perch. Just one cross word on one bad day in front of one cellphone camera and that’s it, you’re off. But he never wobbled.
Forty years being Canada’s dad, and not one bad interaction or low-grade hissy fit. The son, like all pros, got the benefit of a million mulligans. Nobody remembers his clankers on the ice. The father didn’t have the luxury of even one public screw-up, and he batted 1,000 for his career. You tell me which is the more impressive accomplishment.
As illness slowed him and he left the stage, Walter was cemented in our national imagination. He was the quiet Canadian, the gentle patriarch, the guy you’d run into down at the Becker’s who always said hello. He was our ideal image of the family man, someone who loved his wife, his kids and coaching hockey, and in that order.
In his way, Walter Gretzky was even greater than his son. Because while a fair few people have been tremendous hockey players, exceedingly few of their parents have managed to hit and maintain precisely the right tone as they became as famous as their kids.
Now that he is gone, you wouldn’t say he wasn’t the last of a vanished breed. Instead, you are moved to recognize that, in his heroic averageness, Walter Gretzky was the only one of his kind.
The Globe and Mail, March 5, 2021