Time to heal

STEVE MACFARLANE -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:57 AM ET

Walter Gretzky hung up his cellphone in the bowels of the Saddledome and, with a wide grin on his face, asked what Alexander Graham Bell would think of the mobile connection between Brantford, Ont., and Calgary.

The call was from his daughter, Kim, who was checking up on her dad after a long flight from Toronto that Walter embarked upon with the Toronto Maple Leafs yesterday.

The trip is a gift from his son Wayne that was purchased months ago but couldn't come at a better time.

Canada's most famous hockey family has been through a lot since Walter's wife, Wayne's mother, Phyllis, died of cancer Dec. 19.

"It's hard without her," said the 67-year-old Walter yesterday after the Leafs practice at the Stampede Corral in preparation for their game against the Calgary Flames tomorrow night. "I'm trying to keep busy."

Walter Gretzky and his longtime pal, Bryan Wilson, who coached Wayne when he played peewee hockey in Brantford, will accompany the Leafs on their Western Canada road trip from Calgary to Edmonton and then Vancouver, thanks to Wayne's bid on the package at a fundraiser for Hockey Canada last summer.

"Wayne got this trip for us," said the proud papa, who never had the opportunity to travel with an NHL team, even when his son was a player. "I'm looking forward to it. Wayne wanted to do it for me and here I am."

Wayne Gretzky spent 10 days at his family home in Brantford in December after receiving the news his mother was seriously ill, leaving his post as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes.

Walter says the time his son spent with his mother in her final hours was meaningful.

"It was important," said the family patriarch.

"He stayed at home with us. It was good for Wayne because he was there the moment she took her last breath. He was right beside her. If he wouldn't have been, it would have bothered him forever."

Wayne's presence was equally important to his mother, whose commitment to family rubbed off on her five children.

"He was always so close to his mom," said Walter. "He would always phone her. Whenever she needed something, he'd just make a phone call and she'd have it. So lucky to have Wayne.

"I was so glad he was right there. Matter of fact, she looked at him for the last time. Wayne was the last person she ever looked at."

Walter also was by Phyllis' side when she finally succumbed to cancer, which had been cleared from her lungs but ultimately spread to her lymph nodes.

The presence of the entire Gretzky family over the last few days was treasured by Walter.

"I was so happy everybody was there. All the kids," he said. "We're so lucky that way."

Wayne returned to the Coyotes Dec. 28, an important step in returning to a sense of normalcy. Walter said Wayne's return to work was very important.

"Hockey's his life, just like all these guys around here, it's his whole life," he said.

For Walter, being around a hockey rink has a healing influence, too.

He's grateful for the opportunity to travel with an NHL club and thankful he's being treated so well by the Leafs.

"That Pat Quinn, he's a saint," said Gretzky of Toronto's coach.

"He's the nicest man in the world. I can see why Wayne likes to be associated with him.

"He's a great individual, very caring for everyone.

"Normally, when I travel across the country like this, it's on a speaking engagement. I've never ever gone with a team like this ever before. I've gone to the Olympics and just stayed there where they've stayed for the week but never to go from one city to another. It's quite the thing."

The trip has just begun and, so far, Walter has spent most of his time on a plane.

But his friend, Wilson, said the time away will be great for both of them.

"Wally slept," Wilson said of the flight over.

"I think he needs that. He needs to have some rest."


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