My afternoon in Walter’s basement

It was on a whim that I knocked gently on the door of the two-story house on Varadi Ave.

I was in Brantford after driving a friend home from the University of Ottawa. On the long drive I randomly asked if he knew where Wayne grew up. He did and after a bit of convincing he agreed to take me there – I grew up a huge Gretzky fan.

The door opened and the most famous hockey dad suddenly stood in front of me.

“Hello, Mr. Gretzky. I’m a big fan of your sons,” I said.

He nodded.

“If you don’t mind sir, I would love to see the trophy room in your basement.”

He shook his head.

“I’m sorry son, it’s all at the Hockey Hall of Fame.”

I reached out for a handshake and said: “Ok. No problem. It’s an honour to meet you sir.”

Then, he looked me in the eye and said: “well, we do have some stuff left” and waved us in.

We took off our shoes and followed into the childhood home of the most famous hockey player to ever live.

To my left a ’98 black Roots Olympic winter coat hang on a dining room chair. I could see straight through to the back of the house and a sliding glass door, with the backyard shining through.

Walter made a right and led us down a flight of surprisingly raggedy stairs.

He stopped at the bottom where a pile of sticks rested in the corner, just like many people had in their basements growing up in suburban Canada.

“You know what this one’s from,” he asked?

The stick was small.

“That famous picture of your son with Gordie Howe as a kid and the stick around his neck?”

“Yup”.

The basement was plethora of Wayne Gretzky memorabilia. And in no order. From very expensive collectibles, to random life size posters. There was stuff everywhere, though it was organized. One of Wayne’s brothers was even laying on a couch.

Walter told story, after story, after story.

We checked out small replica Stanley Cups. A bench made from some of “my kids’” old sticks. Cereal boxes with Wayne’s pictures. NHL jerseys with Gretzky on the back. Endless medals and trophies.

At one point, Walter lay on the ground and started signing a stack of dozens of Wayne Gretzky posters

He signed: W. Gretzky on all of them.

“I can still get away with that,” he howled.

And then this.

“You know why I speak to all these groups, and do all this community work,” he asked motioning us to come closer.

“Because the wife….she don’t listen no more,” he whispered to us motioning upstairs.

His wife had passed many years before.

I was sort of numb and overwhelmed when I left. Walter chased my car down as I pulled away – I had left my camera case behind and he was returning it.

Months later, a box arrived at my apartment in Ottawa, where I was just about to start my fourth year of university back in 2002. I had been hired to serve as the Editor-in-Chief of the Fulcrum, the University of Ottawa’s student paper.

The box was from Walter. Inside were two hardcover Wayne Gretzky books, one signed by Wayne the other a nice message from “the Gretzky family”. There was a signed plastic drinking pint from Kraft with “JELL-O Pudding Shaker” written in red, along with the logo of each NHL Team – the sort of memento they would give at the gate to every person who attended a Junior A hockey game. He had signed W. Gretzky on it too. I drank out of it for years.

Most importantly the box included a hand-written message on a small piece of lined paper.

“To Adam. Good luck with the paper. W. Gretzky.”

I taped the note to the wall behind my desk at the Fulcrum. It lived with me every day and guided me through.

Walter is a legend. Countless people all over the world have Walter Gretzky stories. He was accessible, relatable, local and everyone loved him. Now, as I build my own backyard rink, I often think about the hours Walter spent perfecting the craft that birthed the greatest player who ever was.

He spoke at so many charity events, lending his fame to causes and raising who knows how much money. He was patient and real.

He was a good, kind person. The type of person I want to be. He represented a different era of celebrity.  

Walter has nothing left to give.

Thank you, Walter. You sure did have some stuff left in that old basement.

Author: Adam Grachnik

I am a 30-something father and husband, proudly raising my two little maniacs (girl and boy) in a happy suburban home in Richmond Hill, Ontario.

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