The late Walter Gretzky was a man of many qualities.
Besides being Canada’s hockey dad, he was a benevolent man. He’d hand out Wayne Gretzky autographs and his own to parents and children. When passersby stopped in front of his house in Brantford he’d invite them in to try on No. 99 jerseys.
“Wally’s mission was to make everyone in the whole world happy,” said Tom Bitove, who co-owned Wayne Gretzky’s restaurant with No. 99 on Blue Jays Way, where Walter was a regular.
Some Maple Leafs game nights at Scotiabank Arena, Walter Gretzky would accept Bitove’s invite to sit in his luxury box. They’d go to the 100 level in search for an adult with child between the ages of five and nine.
“I’d say, ‘Sir can you come over here for a second,’ ” Tom was remembering Saturday afternoon. “The adult would follow me, he’d recognize Wally and Wally would say, ‘Would you like to sit in my seats tonight?’ To watch it happen … the look on the father’s face was unforgettable. I’m sure that the child said, ‘Who is Walter Gretzky?’ ”
And we’re sure the father had three periods’ worth of stories to explain to his child and to tell at work the next day.
Walter, who died Thursday at age 82, would often sit down at Wayne Gretzky’s with parents and children in town for a hockey tournament or grabbing some food before a Maple Leafs game. He would walk around the restaurant with a whole pad of his pre-written “Your friend, Walter Gretzky,” autographs with a blank “To …” on it.
“He’d ask the person his or her name, fill it in,” said Bitove, brother to Jordan Bitove, one of the owners of Torstar and publisher of the Toronto Star. “Then, he’d say, ‘Do you have a friend? … What’s his name? Do you have a brother? … A cousin?’ Think I saw him hand out 12 autographs at one time.”
And he’d pose for pictures for every single guest, Bitove recalled. In fact, Walter posed so many times he acquired an artistic sense, saying “No, no, aim a little bit higher … a little to the left please.”
Bitove said he would often tell Wayne “your father is my best employee.” Wayne would reply “and he’s not even paid.”
Walter would be in the restaurant for a couple of hours and “every customer would walk away happy” and with a story to tell.
“The Leafs lost … but guess who we met?”
A homeless man named Frosty was often outside the restaurant. Walter would always give him a $20 bill and say, “Take care of yourself.”
Walter raised so much money for charity he was named a Member of the Order of Canada in 2007, for his dedication to helping a myriad of local, provincial, and national charities.
In 2007, Canadian basketball officials were in Glendale, Ariz., to attend a fundraiser for the Steve Nash Foundation. Tom Bitove was there too, along with his brother, Jordan.
Wayne Gretzky, then head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, hosted Leo Rautins, head coach of Canada’s national basketball team, and others in his luxury box for a game against the Minnesota Wild. Walter was there, too.
At the back of the box, the wife of a Canada Basketball official listened to Walter tell a story of burying his wife, Phyllis, in Brantford in December 2005.
Walter explained that before the service, the funeral director told him he would leave him alone in the room with Phyllis’ coffin. What was Wally supposed to do now?
The man from the funeral home explained that it was up to him, and that he would be back in 15 minutes.
“What did you do?” asked the woman.
“Well, I didn’t know what to say …” explained Walter. “So, I sang.”
“You sang? What did you sing?” asked the woman.
“I sang …
Have I told you lately that I love you
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Have I told you there’s no one else above you
You fill my heart with gladness
Take away my sadness
Ease my troubles that’s what you do.
The men at the front of the luxury box looked back and saw both Walter and the woman were crying. The woman had mascara and eye shadow running down her face as they held each other’s hands.
That was Walter’s love for his late wife.
Bitove had heard Walter sing the song before.
“I wouldn’t say he was a great singer,” Bitove said, “(but) he was a good singer. And he knew all the words. He’d sing the whole song if you let him. If people made a fuss after the second stanza he’d stop. The thing was — he had timing.”
Imagine that? A Gretzky with timing.
There were many emotional moments for Bitove watching Walter’s funeral on TV. One was Serita Perkins and Brandon Corke singing “Amazing Grace.”
“Wally used to sing that song all the time and he’d own the room,” Bitove recalled. “Sometimes he’d hook up with (famed Canadian tenor) John McDermott … they were special nights.”
Walter Gretzky’s favourite meal at the restaurant his son and Tom Bitove partnered on for 26 years — perogies.
From the restaurant’s opening in 1993 until it closed in October 2020, perogies and Grandma Gretzky’s meat loaf were the only items that stayed on the menu.
Through a mutual friend, Wayne Gretzky and Bitove were connected in 1992 when Gretzky missed the first half of the season due to a back injury and began to think about life after hockey. Gretzky had had tons of offers to get into the restaurant business.
“We flew to Los Angeles, met with Wayne and (agent) Mike Barnett,” said Bitove, who took with him his late father, John Sr.
The deal was done in 2 1/2 hours.
When the 10-year contract ran out, Gretzky and Bitove re-upped on a handshake — and continued that way for the next 17 years.
Bitove first met Walter when Wayne came to look at possible locations for the restaurant with Barnett. Walter wound up in the front seat of the car Bitove was driving.
“Wally asked ‘Where’s Wayne? Where’s Wayne?’ ” Bitove recalled. “Wayne leaned forward from the back seat and said ‘Dad you are fine … Tom’s our new partner.”
That was the start of a beautiful friendship, one that often saw Walter teasing Bitove.
Bitove once asked Walter: “Why do you always cut me up? You are the nicest guy in the world.
“And Wally said, ‘Because I like you.’ ”
Wally liked everyone.
And everyone loved Canada’s hockey dad.
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