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As a basketball guy who never played hockey at a higher level than Peewee B, I am enthralled by Wayne Gretzky in the same way that I am under the sway of Charlie Parker, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jorge Luis Borges and Tina Fey — humbled by genius so foreign to me that it seems extraterrestrial.
His dad Walter, though, always seemed like someone I could have a conversation with, perhaps at the kitchen table where he liked to drink coffee into the wee hours of the morning, at the Brantford, Ont., house where, in the backyard, he built his famous hockey rink, which is why I write about him today.
There are many reasons why Walter Gretzky’s death has plunged Canada into mourning. He was, for starters, hockey royalty, a genius in his own right who nurtured the most singular talent the game has seen, but he was also far more than that.
As commentator after commentator pointed out, Gretzky senior made everyone think that greatness can emerge in unremarkable places, among ordinary people.
His personal narrative — including his humble beginnings and the stroke that he overcame — was a stirring one. He was, by all accounts, an unassuming, genuinely nice guy.
He was also, as Mike de Adder points in the cartoon accompanying this column, The Great Dad, a sentiment which led someone named Zach to reply on Twitter, “As boys we all grew up aspiring to be Wayne Gretzky. As fathers and grandfathers, we should all aspire to be like Walter. Supportive, caring, accepting. And your child’s biggest fan and supporter.”
If you have experienced that kind of parenting you never forget it. I speak with some authority on this subject because it was my good fortune to be the son of Russell DeMont.
He was the kind of father who, despite my lack of hockey promise still sat in the frozen stands of the Centennial Arena at ungodly winter hours and went outside after supper to water the two-strides-from-end-to-end rink in our postage-stamp-sized backyard.
In our driveway he tried with little success to teach me how to throw a curveball as he had on the ball fields of Glace Bay. Down at the neighbourhood playground this three-sport athlete at Acadia University stood in the hot sun throwing batting practice for me, and a little later, my younger brother, Phil -- a left-hander for whom he once hand-built a hockey goalie’s blocker, because the only ones available in the stores were for right-handers.
When I showed a little promise as a sprinter, dad bought a pair of spikes for me, filed them down so that they would not chew up the Dal track and, by hand, built a wooden starting block similar to the one his father Clarence DeMont used to tie the world’s record in the 100-yard dash. (You can look it up.)
My brother and I had all the gear: bats, sticks and balls, skates and sneakers, but also unusual home workout systems that dad would build, or write away for from God knows where.
Because basketball became the DeMont boys main sport, he coached city league teams back in the ancient times when few parents did such a thing, for fear that, otherwise, his sons might have nowhere to play.
At one point, he paved the gravel driveway in the laneway behind our house, then erected a hoop on the garage. For years, Phil and I played there, winter and summer, night and day.
If asked, he would have said it was all about making us better athletes, as he had been, yet sporting success never really seemed to the point.
“He never made me feel bad — neither did mom — about how I played,” my brother recalled. “I cannot remember him ever griping at me after a game about why I didn’t do this or that.”
Neither can I, even if my parents witnessed few brilliant moments watching me on rink, field or court. The lesson for my brother and I was that great parents just unquestionably support their kids, wherever they find joy.
I thought about his on Friday while reading and watching some of what people had to say about Walter Gretzky. At one point, I came across a long-ago clip of his son Wayne sitting in a studio somewhere, just talking.
“The greatest feeling you have as a child playing sport,” he said, “it doesn’t matter … whether it is a practice or game (is) to look in the stands and be able to see your mom and dad there, and I don’t think that ever changes.”
Athletic prowess has nothing to do with this universal idea. For there will come a time, as it has for me, when memories of some long ago game have mostly faded away. And all you will have is the image of your dad sitting in the stands of an all-but-empty high school gym as if there was nowhere in the world where he would rather be.