From the time I moved to SW Ontario, I was told many stories about Walter Gretzky. I heard that he was extremely approachable, very friendly, and super chatty. Since I only lived about 30 kms away from Brantford, I figured it was just a matter of time until I ran across him myself. That day did come for me in late 2015, and it was a day that provided a lesson I will never forget.
I was a timekeeper for a boys’ junior team that played out of the Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre on Walter Gretzky Boulevard in Brantford. It was my very first time at that arena, and one of the first things I noticed, as I searched for a parking spot, was that Walter Gretzky had a permanent reserved parking space! What was most exciting was that there was a car parked in that space.
Once in the arena, I set up for the game and I had some time to kill before puck drop. I spotted an older gentleman in a varsity jacket sitting alone in the stands, and occasionally young kids would approach him. I figured that was the famous Walter Gretzky himself. Since I had time, when he was alone again, I went up to him and introduced myself. I told him my name was Mary, and he said, “Oh, Mary! Will you marry me?” I chuckled and thought, “Yeah, this guy is old school!”
He was holding a pad of paper with his name printed on it, clearly for autograph purposes. I thought about my then nine-year-old hockey-loving nephew in Chicago, and asked, “Mr. Gretzky, would you mind signing an autograph for my nephew?” He asked me for my nephew’s name and with a very shaky but determined hand, wrote out a personalized autograph. As he handed it to me, I thanked him, but then he said to me: “Is there anyone else you would like an autograph for? Does [your nephew] have a sister?”
I was a bit stunned that he seemed to intuit this fact, and I answered, “Why yes!”
Walter’s whole demeanor instantly changed and his eyes narrowed, and he stared me directly in the eye and said very sternly, “Don’t EVER ask for something for him without also asking for the same thing for her!”
As someone who has been a passionate advocate of equality for women in sports since I was very young, I must have turned the deepest shade of red. I couldn’t believe I had just been given a lesson in gender equity by a man almost twice my age.
A few months later, I proudly gave the two personalized autographs to my niece and nephew. But what I had learned from Walter that day was more priceless than anything tangible.
I will never forget his words: Don’t EVER ask for anything for him without also asking for the same thing for her. This is a sentence that would be well remembered by so many of us, especially those who are lobbying their local governments to rebuild the arenas and changerooms where boys’ hockey teams are based while ignoring or disregarding the needs of the girls’ teams who also play in those cities and towns.
Don’t EVER ask for anything for him without also asking for the same thing for her. –Walter Gretzky