She was just 'a run-of-the-mill wonderful person'

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:14 AM ET

BRANTFORD -- It was bitterly cold, but the older lady walking back from Grace Anglican Church stopped for a moment to talk about Phyllis Gretzky.

"Yes, she was a lovely lady," she said.

"I remember she had prepared 1,000 invitations for a dinner for the local Liberal candidate. The night before the dinner, Wayne called and asked her not to go. Peter Pocklington (the owner of the Edmonton Oilers and at the time Gretzky's boss) was running for the Progressive Conservatives.

"A thousand invitations, and she didn't go."

It doesn't matter, of course, whether the story is true. The stories fit the woman, a great and dutiful mother, daughter wife and friend.

In Brantford yesterday, Phyllis Gretzky was the subject of a thousand anecdotes, most of them unheard anywhere but in the shadow of the Wayne Gretzky Parkway and the Wayne Gretzky recreation complex.

She was the one treasure the locals could keep for themselves.

That Wayne Gretzky, NHL team owner, greatest NHLer ever and citizen of the world was born in Brantford is a bit of good fortune for an otherwise unremarkable little town.

When she died Monday, the woman who brought that miracle about became the subject of Brantford's first state funeral.

They moved the service from the Gretzkys' home church of St. Mark's to the bigger Grace Anglican.

POLICE HONOUR GUARD

The city shut down West St. to traffic. There was a police honour guard and pesky journalists, dozens of them, were asked to stand across the street.

Flags on buildings were lowered to half-staff.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, NHL v-p Bill Daly and Players' Association head Ted Saskin paid their respects.

"She was a person who stayed back and didn't really enjoy the limelight," Wayne Gretzky said in the eulogy for his mother.

"In our house, she was the limelight. If we wanted something done, we went to our mother. If we got in trouble or needed to get out of trouble, we went to our mother."

She was, said her minister, Rev. Jim Sutton, " arun-of-the-mill wonderful person," known for her steadfast refusal to be anything but who she was, Phyllis Hockin, who was born, lived and died within a 30-km radius. She met Walter when she was 15 and he was 18. She was a smoker.

She liked bingo and going to the movies with her friends and treasured contact with her grandchildren.

"One of her favorite things in life was to play bingo," Gretzky said.

"I don't know what was the bigger story on Monday, that my mother had passed or that the bingo hall had closed down."

WOULDN'T LOOK RIGHT

Phyllis once put off living room curtains for hockey skates for the kids. When Walter Gretzky missed work for 18 months because of an accident while on the job for Bell Canada, Phyllis somehow kept the house at 42 Varadi afloat.

Phyllis and Walter refused all attempts to move into a nicer place than Varadi.

It just wouldn't look right. Neither partner wanted to be seen profiting from Wayne's success.

Gretzky's status as the ordinary superstar, the low-key, respectful everyman blessed with a hockey genius, spoke just as much to Phyllis' genes and influence as Wally's.

It had been a terrible illness. Her lung cancer was first diagnosed six months ago. A few days ago she had told Rev. Sutton how tired she was of the fight. It was time.

In his eulogy, Gretzky, a star in the secular world, took a turn in the spiritual one.

"There's life after death," he said. "We know our mother is not in pain, she's pain-free.

"Her memory will last obviously forever and more importantly, her soul will live forever."

You will, of course, ordinarily get contrasting opinions about the staying power of souls.

But not in Brantford. Not yesterday.


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