On the surface, 270 students, their families, friends and a host of dignitaries came to West Brant on Thursday night to officially open a new elementary school on Blackburn Drive.
In reality, everyone was there to honour the school’s namesake – Walter Gretzky.
Through songs, poems and smiles, students told “Wonderful Wally,” who sat beaming in front of the packed gymnasium, how proud they are to go to Walter Gretzky Elementary School.
Gretzky said he felt pretty proud, too.
“I’m honoured and humbled that this school is named after me,” he told the crowd. “If my parents were alive today they would be overwhelmed because where they came from such things don’t happen to a commoner.”
In a country like Canada, where everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed, education makes the difference, Gretzky said.
“Go to school as long as you can,” he told the students, who gave him a standing ovation while members of the Gretzky family, including daughter Kim, looked on proudly.
Principal Larry Speakman said the school’s teachers and students have a great example to follow.
“Today, Mr. Gretzky, is your day,” he said. “You’re a humble man who puts others before yourself.”
Students praised Gretzky’s charity work, unfailing good humour and all-around “kindness and coolness.”
Asked in a video what going to a school named after Walter Gretzky meant to him, one student replied: “It means we can be inspired every time we walk in and out the door.”
Mayor Chris Friel, MPP Dave Levac and MP Phil McColeman brought congratulations from their respective governments, with McColeman remembering Gretzky as a hockey coach who modelled hard work and humility while motivating his players to reach their potential.
The new school, a shared facility with St. Basil Catholic Elementary School, was built because of overcrowding at Ryerson Heights Elementary School. Students from kindergarten to Grade 7 left Ryerson and came to the new facility this year, leaving the Grade 8 class intact so those students could graduate together. Next year, Walter Gretzky will be a full kindergarten to Grade 8 school.
The name of the school was chosen by a committee after a public consultation to gather ideas.
“We had overwhelmingly huge support for Walter Gretzky,” said Grand Erie superintendent of education Greg Anderson, who said the Gretzky name received more votes than all the other suggestions combined.
After the ceremony, as parents and kids crowded around Gretzky for pictures and autographs, students proudly took visitors on a tour of their school.
“It’s huge,” said Grade 5 student Cameron Draho.
“There’s a lot more space,” agreed classmate Ben Potter, who said the sleek, modern building certainly beats studying in portables.
“Especially in the snow,” he said.