Spartans News

Walter Gretzky- the “Greatest one” in terms of Hockey Dads

By Matthew Thompson
Growing up as a goalie in Pickering, Ontario right across the city line from Toronto, my hockey idol outside my family was none other than Wayne Gretzky. I have vivid memories of watching #99 play for the Kings and the Rangers. (The Oilers were a little before my memory kicked in, and the Blues, well, that happened a little too fast.)

How did a goalie decide to idolize the best goal scorer of all time? I don’t have the answer for that, but I do know that my parents helped feed my love of all things Gretzky, because. let’s face it. has their ever been a better role model of success within their sport while maintaining a great, clean image outside their sport? I don’t think so, and Wayne would be quick to thank his dad for all his lessons.

Today is a day that, sadly, many saw coming. It was well known that Wayne’s father Walter’s health was declining, and many of us woke up this morning to the news that Walter Gretzky had passed away at the age of 82. When I read this news, my mind flooded not only with memories of winning the Wayne Gretzky Tournament in Brantford, Ontario and being presented a medal by Walter—arguably the most famous Canadian—but I also thought about hockey dads in general. Walter Gretzky was the ultimate hockey dad. Of course he is the father of hockey’s greatest superstar, but as we saw him live his life from afar, it was clear that he represented all good things about raising children through sports. 

Often hockey parents, and hockey dads in particular, get the reputation of being a little crazy. I think we all know a version of that description, but the majority of people raise their children in sport wanting to be just like Walter Gretzky, not in the sense that they are going to raise the next Wayne, but more that they are going to be passionate, supportive and down to earth while enjoying the journey. 

This morning I reached out to a number of people connected to our hockey program. I wanted to get a sense of what it means to be a hockey dad, a role that I love even so early on in Gabriel’s life. I was lucky because my dad, Tim Thompson, was a Head’s List hockey dad. He was quiet and supportive of me and truly wanted the game to give me what I deserved. He would drive the car where it needed to go, but he knew that it was my work that was going to get me where I was going to go. To this day none of that has changed. I know how much he supports me through this amazing hockey journey that I am still lucky to be on, and I know that his life is brighter when things are good for me at the rink. In his words, my dad described the life of a hockey “goalie” dad as “a lonely job sitting by yourself at the opposite end of the rink.” My dad would never sit at the same end that I was in the net, but we would always make eye contact as we went from one end to the end and we knew what each other were thinking.

Here are some other hockey dads on being hockey dads:

“Hockey has provided my kids with the greatest environment a parent could wish for, allowing them to grow and develop physically and mentally. Surrounded by great teammates, coaches and volunteers, both on and off the ice, the hockey world has allowed my kids to experience competition, friendship, sacrifice and personal growth in every aspect imaginable. One shift at a time for a lifetime of benefit.” - Todd Johnson father of Ryan and Matt (2020)

A lesson from a fantastic hockey dad of a Stanstead alumnus:

“There is one thing you can control out there… your work ethic, don’t let anyone outwork you and have fun.” - Phil Huckins father of Cole

Hockey Director James Rioux’s view on being a hockey dad:

“As a coach and teacher, I have had my share of experiences with hockey parents. But as a parent myself, and father of a 10-year-old Atom player, I can say I have always approached Benjamin’s hockey with my own experiences with others in mind. I have allowed my son to play the game because he wants to play. The memory of his first time on ice at the age of four always resonates with me. He has cherished the game for 7 years now, and I have done my best to respond when he has questions but ultimately just be there for him without pushing or judging. He loves to play, and my role is to support him without creating any pressure. Strangely enough, the pandemic has shown us all how what we love can be taken away so quickly. Fortunately, our little town includes an outdoor rink and my son has skated everyday since December. What’s my role: to drive him to the rink. And to watch him skate around with his mates. No rules. No whistles. No stress. Just the creative bliss of being outside and having fun playing the game in its purest form. Oh, and no one ever leaves the rink without a smile.”

Former NHL referee Paul Stewart and dad to Max had this to saw on his blog this morning

“It is not false modesty when Wayne Gretzky has said over the years that rather than Walter Gretzky being primarily known as Wayne Gretzky's father, Wayne himself views the greatest honor in his life as being Walter Gretzky's son.”

A current parent summing up how Walter Gretzky showed everyone else how to be a hockey dad:

“As a hockey dad and as a kind human, Walter Gretzky led the way for other dads. He demonstrated what it meant to be inclusive, supportive, kind, fun-loving and time-giving. Like Wayne’s records, Walter’s way of life will be hard to surpass. Combine Walter’s legacy with Bobby Orr’s belief that when kids are participating in sports, the only thing that should be said is to work hard, have fun and see what happens and you have the right perspective. Walter will be missed, but will always be present for all hockey dads to follow. RIP” - Don Dyke father of William

It is clear to me that I am the lucky coach dealing with young men who have wonderful role models at home to help them embrace the ups and downs of a life in hockey. Those dads at home are lucky to have a role model like Walter Gretzky to look up to and see how to help their boys handle this crazy life and wonderful game.

As I coach today and for the rest of my career in this wonderful game, I hope that I can teach my student-athletes all that is needed for them to be the next generation of hockey dads when the time is right for their hockey journey to have that chapter… it will be the best chapter in your hockey book, I promise.

- Coach Thompson