She was a role model

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:21 AM ET

If Wayne Gretzky was the Great One, Phyllis Gretzky was the Strong One.

Even though her husband, Walter, spent more time in the spotlight and earned a reputation as the nation's exemplary hockey dad, Phyllis Gretzky was the nation's hockey mom.

Everyone knows that Walter built the backyard rink, supervised his sons and was their primary hockey coach.

MANY SACRIFICES

But not everyone knows that Phyllis was the one who sacrificed their nights out, drove the other sons to their games and made sure that the family unit stayed intact.

Because of Wayne's notoriety, it was not easy growing up as a Gretzky in Brantford. It is an unfortunate aspect of the Canadian psyche that success is more likely to provoke jealousy than admiration.

While Walter was helping Wayne rise through minor hockey, it was Phyllis who was helping the others deal with the verbal and physical assaults they had to endure in their schoolyards and hockey rinks.

On the night that Wayne shattered Phil Esposito's record of 76 goals in a season, Walter was in attendance. Phyllis wasn't. She was in Quebec City where Brent, another of her sons, was playing in the annual peewee tournament.

Like hockey moms all over the nation, Phyllis cleared the decks so that everything ran smoothly for the entire family.

With four sons, a daughter and Walter's sister, Ellen, in the house, there was rarely a quiet moment. Ellen had Down syndrome, and as Wayne has often pointed out, she was like another child in the family.

In many ways, Ellen needed more supervision, but Phyllis never complained about it. She treated Ellen as she treated her other children. They all received love and compassion -- together with the discipline that is necessary for the proper development of any child.

It was not just mere coincidence that through Wayne's efforts, Joey Moss, one of the Edmonton Oilers dressing room attendants, became the most famous person in the country with Down syndrome.

Nor is it just coincidence that Wayne has spent years at the pinnacle of his profession and is regarded by everyone who knows him as one of the finest human beings in any sport anywhere. It's the influence of Walter and Phyllis.

Phyllis died on Monday of lung cancer, a battle she thought she had won. When Wayne turned down the opportunity to be the executive director of Canada's entry in the world championship last spring, it was clear that her situation was grave and that prognosis was duly noted in this space.

Phyllis sent a message though one of her sons. "Tell him I'm not dead yet," she said.

It was typical Phyllis. Straight to the point. And to everyone's delight, it appeared that, as time went on, she had indeed managed to beat the odds. Her situation improved and it seemed that she might be able to return to a normal life.

But cancer is the most insidious disease we know and the remission period ended.

By the time Wayne came to town two weeks ago to do some Olympic scouting, there was no doubt the outlook was bleak.

Wayne usually goes out with friends after a game in Toronto. On this occasion, he went to Brantford to see his mother -- while he still could.

JUST HOCKEY

Normally, on a day such as this in the hockey calendar, all attention would be focused on the announcement of the 2006 Olympic team.

But that's just hockey. The passing of Phyllis Gretzky takes precedence. She was the matriarch of the clan and her departure leaves a gaping hole.

It must be remembered that this is not just Wayne's loss. It is Kim's loss, Keith's loss, Glen's loss and Brent's loss. It is also Walter's loss.

And it is a loss to all the hockey moms in Canada. Phyllis was the role model. Our thoughts and prayers are with her and her family.

You are invited to sign Phyllis Gretzky's Book of Condolence at ObituariesToday.com.


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