A co-worker at a Kitchener radio station I once worked at handed me a fax printout of a news release from a Canadian satellite company with a headline that read, and I’m paraphrasing, “Phyllis and Walter Gretzky will no longer be able to watch their son Wayne play hockey when the Canadian government makes their satellite service illegal.”
“Maybe there’s something you could do with this,” said the co-worker. I said thanks, but didn’t understand what I could do with it. There was a bigger story brewing that day. It was April 13 1999, the day the news broke that Wayne Gretzky, one of the greatest hockey players at that time, was retiring from the NHL after 20 years in the league. His parents wouldn’t need the satellite service if the rumour was true.
At the bottom right of the page was the name and number of the president of the satellite company. On the opposite side of the page was Walter Gretzky’s name and his home telephone number in nearby Brantford.
It was at that moment I realized what I could do with that news release.
What timing, that on the day a rumour about Wayne’s imminent retirement the station received a faxed news release that had his dad’s home number? Did the colleague who handed me the release see the number?
Was it a joke? Would Wayne have told his dad about his retirement plans? Was that really the home number of the parents of number 99?
I had questions, so I called.
A young male voice answered the phone. I asked for Walter. One second, he said.
This is no joke, I thought!
Then Walter Gretzky, Canada’s most famous hockey dad picked up the phone, and said hello.
I immediately recognized his voice!
My mouth got pasty, my breathing became short but somehow despite my anxiety, I managed to introduce myself and asked him if I could talk to him about Wayne. He agreed and I proceeded to record the interview.
I can’t remember if I asked him a question about the satellite company, but if I did it never made it into the final edited interview.
Q & A
Walter Gretzky told me that while he hadn’t spoken to Wayne personally, most likely he would announce his retirement that week.
He explained how, when he had asked Wayne the summer before when was he going to retire his son said, “the day I stop enjoying it is the day I’m finished.”
Mr. Gretzky explained that Wayne had not enjoyed the latest season with the New York Rangers as it had been a trying year and the second season in a row the team missed the playoffs.
“Having…. a rough year would sort of lead him to make that decision,” I asked?
“Yep, absolutely. I would think so, yep. I would strongly suspect Sunday will be his last game,” answered Gretzky.
My first scoop!
We continued speaking about memories of the skating rink in the backyard of their home, the conversation they had when Wayne scored 50 goals in 39 games, and life after hockey.
“One thing he will never ever do for sure is be a coach,” said Walter, “I know that for sure. He’ll never ever do that. And most likely never be a GM.
“I’m sure he’ll be involved with a team in one capacity or another but not as a coach or manager.”
Wayne would end up coaching the Phoenix Coyotes in 2005 and be a managing partner of the team until 2009.
The interview was played on a noon-hour news magazine show; I spoke to the afternoon sports anchor about what Walter Gretzky had said and then went home.
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‘I would strongly suspect Sunday will be his last game’
At that time I was working a morning radio shift that started at 4:00 a.m. and ended around 1:30 p.m. I was the morning news anchor on the FM music station and would stay to host a noon hour news magazine show on our AM talk station. After my shift I would try to work out, have a nap, meet my children after school, start dinner, and after family time, make lunches and have an adult conversation with my wife. I would normally go to bed around 9:00 p.m.
That particular day I didn’t listen to the station I worked at or pay attention to any news and had not been told the reaction my interview had received.
But the next day I discovered that the radio sports anchor apparently sent the story to our newswire service. After that sports reporters started to call to ask exactly what Walter Gretzky had said and they wanted to hear the audio.
The next morning the quote “I would strongly suspect Sunday will be his last game” was used in newspaper articles written by Dave Fuller in the Toronto Sun, Mary Ormsby in the Toronto Star and David Shoalts in the Globe and Mail. All of them quoted Walter Gretzky making that statement to a Kitchener radio station.
Throughout the morning news shift some radio stations from across Canada and the U.S. were calling wanting to find out more about the interview and what was said.
I received accolades from my co-workers for a job well done. While the papers didn’t say which radio station from Kitchener Mr. Gretzky spoke to, we all knew it was ours. It was pretty cool to add a piece of the puzzle to a developing story.
“Everything starts at home.”
During a news conference later that week Wayne Gretzky confirmed the rumours and announced his retirement. A reporter asked him about any personal reflections he had leading up to making the decision.
“Everything starts at home and I had a great upbringing. My mom and dad put everything they could into our whole family,” Gretzky said.
“I became the person and the player I became because of my dad and my mom and Glenn Sather and John Muckler. And that’s why I became what I became.
Those were the people that pushed me. Those were the people that patted me on the back. Those were the people that made me Wayne Gretzky. Simple as that.”
That following Sunday Wayne Gretzky would play his final NHL game.