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Gretzky Keeps Troubles on Ice : Joys of Parenthood, Father's Recovery Give Kings' Star a Special Satisfaction

December 14, 1993|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"My son wants to play, he loves to play. From my point of view, that's great. He has a lot of advantages if he wants to play. The downside of it is the amount of pressure he'll be under for the rest of his life if he wants to continue as a hockey player."

At the moment, Ty knows exactly what he wants in life: "Be a hockey player, wear a suit and ride on airplanes."

*

Wayne Gretzky took his first tentative strides on the frozen Nith River near his hometown of Brantford, Ontario, swatting shots at his grandmother, Mary, the acting goaltender who was securely positioned in a big reclining chair. Years later, Ty Gretzky skates indoors before King practices and has an enduring fascination with goaltenders.

"He loves Kelly Hrudey and he calls (Robb) Stauber 'Staubie,' " Wayne said. "And then there's always No. 99."

Ty is already immersed in one aspect of the hockey culture: Wayne takes his pregame nap in the afternoon and so does Ty, right along with him.

As a parent, however, it's a constant guessing game between right and wrong. Gretzky and his wife, Janet Jones, are on the same page when it comes to the children. There are a few rules: no video games and no candy shortly before bed, and it is preferable for the children to keep busy playing outside with their friends in the neighborhood.

"People always say, 'What's your biggest fear in life?' " Gretzky said. "I don't think there's any question my biggest fear is that I can't protect my kids. And it's really noticeable as a parent. I have a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old, and even at this age I feel like they're going to be fine. My daughter is 4 1/2 and I feel like even when she is 80, I'm always going to have to protect her. It's a funny feeling you have when you become a parent."

Gretzky and Jones were married in the summer of 1988 and the timing was apparently right. "I remember my dad saying to me when I was 23 or 24, 'You're not ready to be a parent. Trust me, you're not ready,' he said. I never really understood because I felt I was a pretty mature 23-year-old and I learned a lot traveling around the world.

"I remember about two months after Paulina was born, I told him, 'I think you knew what you were talking about.' "

For Gretzky, the last two years have been a test of his character in more ways than one. Walter nearly died and it was uncertain how he would recover from the aneurysm. Talking about Walter often turns a conversation to the topic of Michael Jordan, who lost his father last summer and suddenly retired. Gretzky called Jordan after he retired. Jordan returned the phone call, but Wayne was not home. Janet spoke to Jordan, however.

"I can't imagine what Michael Jordan went through," Gretzky said. "It's got to be a horrible feeling. I had about two weeks where they said (Walter) probably wouldn't live. But I got lucky and he came through.

"I saw my dad go from being my best friend to a guy who was strapped in a wheelchair. It was tough for the family. My mom and my sister deserve a medal for what they went through, 24 hours a day, with my father.

"The funny thing about my dad is, he would always ask me questions. For two years, he never really talked about hockey. Now he's asking about the hockey team again."

Apparently Walter is recovered enough to resume coaching youth hockey and watching the game on television. He was always the sounding board for Wayne in times of celebration and crisis, always the voice of reason. When Gretzky was struggling to return from his career-threatening back injury last season, he couldn't pick up the phone and talk it over with his father.

But Wayne heard the wisdom of his father elsewhere during his time of turmoil. Janet was sounding an awful lot like Walter Gretzky.

Wayne laughed about their similarities, saying, "They say most men marry their mothers. But I married my father. My wife and father are identical--the way they discipline, the way they treat people with respect and the way they're both always late. I'm not as good a parent as my father. My wife is a great mother.

"I'm really lucky my wife's personalities and my dad's personalities are so much alike. I went right from him to my wife. I got lucky. I knew it the first minute we met."

That was more than seven years ago. Gretzky is in his sixth season with the Kings. The changes in his personal life have been momentous since he arrived in Los Angeles--three children, the back injury, his father's illness and long recuperation.

Maybe someday Walter will be able to take a picture of Ty's first goal, the way he snapped one of young Wayne's in 1967 in Brantford.

"We're just lucky that we got a second chance," Wayne said.

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