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Paul Stewart's Fond Memories of Walter Gretzky; Fri's Buzz w/ Kevin Allen

March 5, 2021, 10:06 AM ET [4 Comments]
Eklund
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Ek's Note: I will be back with a rumor blog later today, but this article by Stewy deserves top billing right now...

It is not false modesty when Wayne Gretzky has said over the years that rather than Walter Gretzky being primarily known as Wayne Gretzky's father, Wayne himself views the greatest honor in his life as being Walter Gretzky's son.

If you ever met Walter, you know why.

At NHL officials training camp in Barrie, Ontario in fall 1998, while I still was on chemotherapy, I met cancer patient Daniel Kruz who was only about 12 years old. His sister had given him three bone marrow transplants and none of them had taken. He came to our training camp on his last legs. He was a friend of then-NHL referee Lance Roberts.

He sat beside me in the dressing room. He was a goalie and we dressed him up and gave him a uniform. He came out to our training camp and skated with us. A bunch of different people, including then-recently retired Mike Gartner, now a Hall of Famer, came by to be with Kruze and skate with him.

I met the boy's mother, father, and sister. We found out he was returning for more treatment at The Hospital for Sick Kids in Toronto.

"Well, I'm going to come by and see you," I told him.

I was walking up the street to the The Hospital for Sick Kids in Toronto and I ran into Walter Gretzky. Come to find out, Walter used to go in there quite often to visit with the ailing children, which tells you a lot about Walter's character.

"What are you doing?" Walter asked me.

"I'm going to see this sick boy who loves hockey," I told him. "He's up against it. Really tough."

"I'll come with you," Walter said.

Walter put on the gown and mask, scrubbed up and then he went and talked with the boy and asked him, "If you could have any wish, what would it be?"

"I'd like to meet Patrick Roy," Kruze replied.

The little boy was in the bed and you could see him failing.

He was about to have another bone marrow transplant, and his sister was there. It was painful for her, too, because they were taking the marrow right out of her hip. She's the hero, too.

Walter didn't tell the boy, but he took care of it. He told me he'd get several NHLers, including Toronto goalie Felix Potvin, Wayne Gretzky, Patrick Roy and others to stop by the hospital to see Kruze.

I thought it was great when he told me his plan. I was flabbergasted when he got everyone he asked to come visit this boy.

Daniel Kruze rallied and survived, and he's still alive to this day. I always think of him and his brave little sister. What toughness.

The doctors credited Walter and all those players going to see him for reigniting his will to live.

I still get emotional about it because that's the part of hockey that keeps me coming and makes me glad I was a part of it. So many players and others in the league — past and present — have that common decency and a concern for other human beings and it makes me feel gratitude toward the game.

Without even knowing it, the Gretzky family once helped me out during the most tumultuous period of my life. As most readers know, my son McCauley was born on Feb. 22, 1998. Twelve hours later, I found out I had stage three colon cancer.

On Feb. 26, 1998, I refereed a game in Toronto between the Rangers and Maple Leafs. The NHL season had just restarted after the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano.

When I officiated, I never paid too much attention to who was playing beforehand. I was more focused on the city where I was scheduled to work and which linesmen would be working with me. I knew it was the Leafs vs. Rangers playing on this night, but I had a lot of other, more important things on my mind.

Almost literally, I bumped int Gretz that afternoon, before the game, while walking down the street near the CN Tower.

"Stew, hey good to see you," he said. "I heard that you had a son and named him after John McCauley. That's terrific."

I was in a bit of a daze and said, "Oh, hey Gretz. What brings you to Toronto?"

Wayne furrowed his brow and studied my face.

"Are you alright, Stew?" he asked. "We play the Leafs tonight. Are you OK?"

I was not about to tell anyone yet about my health situation. I didn't want sympathy and I didn't want to burden Wayne with the news. He had his own things going on.

"Me? Nah. I'm still tired from all the baby goings-on. It's been a long week with little sleep," I said.

"Well, after the game tonight, go over to my restaurant," Gretzky said. "John Bitove, my parents, my family and some friends will be there. You will know a lot of them. Go on over."

"Gee Gretz, that's nice of you but drinking with the Rangers after a game, might not look so cool to the Leafs, their fans or the League," I told him.

"We're flying out of Toronto right after the game, so no players will be there, I promise," he replied. "Will you go?"

"OK. Yes, thanks. It will be good to see Phyllis and Walter again," I said.





Wayne did his thing as usual on the ice. He recorded three assists in a 5-2 victory for New York over Toronto. Afterwards, I showered and changed and went over to Gretzky's restaurant. The maitre d' at the door escorted me into the back room for the private party.

Tables and chairs were set up with an empty spot between Walter and Phyllis. A lot of people turned out. I enjoyed every moment of conversing with Wayne's parents.

Then I looked up and had to fight back the tears. Hanging was a banner with the inscription "Congratulations McCauley!"

The party was for ME, to celebrate the birth of my first child.

Sitting near my seat also was a stick Wayne had used in that night's game against the Maple Leafs and given to Walter for safe keeping. Wayne autographed with these words, "To McCauley, health and happiness, your friend, Wayne Gretzky #99."

We then enjoyed a toast with a big magnum of champagne. Have you yet to figure out why I love my life in hockey and why the Gretzky family means so much to me and to so many others?

********

A 2018 inductee into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.

Visit Paul's official websites, YaWannaGo.com and Officiating by Stewart.
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