TORONTO (CP) - Phyllis Gretzky was the glue that held her family together. Share your condolences in our forum
Gretzky, who had battled lung cancer since being diagnosed in the autumn of 2004, died Monday night. She was 64.
"Throughout my career, she was in the background but she was the glue,'' Wayne Gretzky said at the time of her diagnosis. "She's always been the toughest in the family.''
The Hockey Hall of Famer and coach of the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes took a leave of absence from the Coyotes and from his position as executive director of Canada's Olympic hockey teams on Dec. 17 to fly home as his mother's condition worsened.
The Coyotes confirmed Phyliss Gretzky's passing late Monday night.
Brother Brent, who plays for the Motor City Mechanics, also took a leave of absence from the United Hockey League team to be by his mother's side.
The down-to-earth mother of five was perhaps the least known of the Gretzky family as she tried to maintain privacy for all her children amid the spotlight of son Wayne's celebrity status.
Wayne's phenomenal success created much curiosity about the family. His father was comfortable in the public eye, while his mother preferred to keep a low profile. She sought to maintain a normal lifestyle, and the community around her respected that.
Phyllis Hockin was born and raised in Paris, Ont., of British ancestry. She was a descendant of Isaac Brock, a general with British forces during the War of 1812.
She was 15 when she met Walter Gretzky, then 18, at a wiener roast on the Gretzky family farm, where their daughter Kim lives today.
"I took one look and knew she was the one for me,'' Walter Gretzky wrote in his book.
He described her as a "very attractive, strong-willed and popular girl.''
She would attend his Jr. B hockey games, and he'd go watch her play softball.
They married three years later, in 1960, at the Anglican church in Paris, and they settled in Brantford. They purchased a home on Varadi Avenue, and never left.
Wayne Douglas Gretzky was their first-born child, and he learned how to play hockey on a backyard rink as his brothers would do after him.
The family's first brush with tragedy was in 1961 when Walter, working as a Bell lineman, suffered a fractured skull in a work accident. He was in a coma and after awaking was off work for 18 months. The accident left him deaf in his right ear. It was tough to make ends meet on his disability payments but the family made it through that difficult time.
He was transferred to another Bell department and became an installer and repairman.
"You had to be resourceful to get by, but both Phyllis and I came from big families, where you learned how to do that,'' he would write many years later in his book.
The family grew. Kim arrived in 1963, Keith in 1967, Glen in 1969 and Brent in 1972.
Walter was away with Wayne at a hockey tournament in the United States when Brent was born.
"Phyllis remembers that when I walked into her room in the maternity ward the first thing I said to her was, `We won, we won,' '' Walter recalled. "She looked at me like I was crazy and said, `It's a boy, Walter.'''
Hockey was always front and centre in the Gretzky family. New curtains for the living room once were vetoed in favour of skates for the boys.
Phyllis would drive them to early-morning practices, and Walter would go to games after work in the evenings.
Walter drove the same model Chevrolet station wagon for years on end, and named each Blue Goose. He was a whirlwind, working and taking the boys to hockey games and tournaments, while Phyllis held down the fort at home and also attended as many games as possible.
"I looked after the kids and the house; Wally went to work and looked after the finances,'' Phyllis Gretzky said in her husband's book.
Wayne was becoming a hockey star but Phyllis and Walter gave equal attention to all of the children, travelling more than ever when Kim became a successful track and field competitor in her teens. Wayne moved to Toronto to play hockey when he was 14, which meant longer trips to watch him play.
Wayne's growing celebrity status could sometimes be annoying. Strangers would pull their cars up in front of the family home and take photographs, sometimes asking the parents to pose. Two young girls jumped out of a car one day and pulled up tufts of grass as souvenirs.
For their 25th wedding anniversary in 1985, Wayne bought his parents a blue Cadillac. He'd tried on several occasions to buy them a new home but they declined. They didn't want to be seen as living off Wayne's fame. They did put on an addition, and Wayne's wife, Janet, gave them a pool, which was built where the backyard rink was once flooded each winter.
Walter Gretzky's 1991 stroke at age 53, just after he'd retired from Bell Canada, resulted in a trying time for the entire family. His recovery was a painfully slow process. He wrote his book about it -- On Family, Hockey and Healing -- and a made-for-TV movie aired on CBC in November.
Ian Kohler, his rehabilitation therapist, married Kim. There is a thank you in the book to Sandi McLean, Phyllis' sister, whose support during the most difficult years of the recovery was never forgotten.
The inner strength of Phyllis Gretzky helped her husband regain a productive life, minus parts of his memory as a result of the stroke.
Keith works as an amateur scout for the Coyotes. Glen lives in Edmonton.
Phyllis Gretzky is survived by husband Walter, five children and 12 grandchildren.