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Gretzky: Dog of a Lifetime

 Warren Winkler

It was just another morning at the Cozy Corners restaurant in Port Rowan toward the end of the 1999 duck season. Two regulars, Marsh Forchuk and Dan Devos, were having a late breakfast. “ Any trained dogs for sale?” asked Marsh. “Nothing”, replied Dan. “Too bad about Gus”, Marsh continued. My Lab Gus had died the previous week. Dan had trained Gus. “The dog is for Warren!” countered Dan,  picking up on the name “Gus”. “I have just the dog for him”. When Marsh called me later that day and told me to come down to Port Rowan, he said to bring a cage. “You will take him home”, Marsh advised. “I know you will really like this dog.” Little did Marsh realize that Gretzky would be the dog of a lifetime.

Gretzky was a four year old black Labrador Retriever.  He had been a field trial dog, had competed in the “National” retriever championship when he was only two years old, and was a “placing” short of completing his field trial championship. A training accident had cut short his field trial career. When I was introduced to him, it was love at first sight. A British style Lab., Gretzky had a large broad head, long ears, short nose, and a big barrel chest. His most prominent characteristic, however, were his huge eyes. My daughters nick-named him Mr. Googles. Marsh opined that he was a big dog and so he was. Gretzky definitely had a physical presence about him.

Although Gretzky’s official name was Drakesheath Gambler, his given name was Bret. But once I got him home to the farm and watched the way he worked in the marsh, plowing through mud, crawling over submerged logs and tackling the heavy going with unfailing determination, I remarked what a fierce competitor he was. He was tough, strong, had stamina and was a polished retriever. There was no give in his make-up. I named him Gretzky.

The following year saw Gretz and me at the Bluffs. He loved the big marsh. No obstacle was too much for him. On Long Point he was at the top of his game. Long, water retrieves didn’t even make him puff. As he worked, the punters would shout “he shoots, he scores” and “number 99 ”. Gretz was a favourite among shooters and punters alike. They laughed at his enthusiasm as he piled into a boat. One night I found a sandwich under my pillow with the name Gretz on it, a gift from an admirer. Len Curran referred to him as the “Great One”. Lloyd Cronmiller spoke to him affectionately as if he were a person. What no one failed to notice about him was that in addition to his hunting prowess and cool professionalism, he possessed a lovely temperament. To me he was the “gentle giant”.

Word must have spread. Later that winter I received a call from another Port Rowan resident, Dr. Dave Ankney, asking for Gretzky’s pedigree. He and his spouse Sandi, hunters and dog lovers, had heard about him, his desire, drive and, importantly, “personality”. I received a frantic call from Dave a few months later.  Coletta Bay, their female Lab, was in heat. As they say, the rest is history. Bay produced eleven pups. One of them, Maggie, lives at our farm. Dave and Sandi kept a handsome male. Brandy went to friends Joe and Rose Wells. Another pup went to North Dakota and one of her offspring  is back in Port Rowan keeping a watchful eye over Dr. Dick Rolefson. A grandson, David Smith’s dog Rex, is at the Bluffs. Gretzky and Bay’s offspring- children and grand children numbering more than fifty- now range geographically from New Jersey, to Arkansas to North Dakota and back to Markdale, Ontario. Like parents Gretz and Bay, they are all “birdy” dogs with warm dispositions. There is a legacy here and it seems to have gone full circle.

Back at the farm, Gretzky and daughter Maggie became bosom buddies. Every morning Gretz would wash her face, tidying her up while she preened for a day in the field. In time I was upset to discover that Maggie was gun-shy. My wife admonished me that I shouldn’t give up on her. She was right. As a consequence of hunting with Gretzky she completely overcame her phobia, an achievement most dog people will tell you, is to say the least, uncommon.

One of my most cherished moments came when I presented Walter Gretzky with a framed picture of Gretzky and Maggie as they appeared on the front page of the Globe and Mail. The accompanying diploma compared Gretz the dog to Walter’s son Wayne in terms of their sports accomplishments, media prominence, courage and strength of character. When I handed this to Walter and it was read out to the audience, tears ran down his cheeks. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

It was a sad day when on August 5, 2010 Gretzky passed away. He was in his sixteenth year. I can see in my minds-eye his effortless lope as he coursed through the pheasant fields keeping up the same pace all day long. I smile when I think of his habit of getting upset when I spoke on the telephone.  He would place both paws on my shoulders and lick the receiver out of my hand. I understood that he wanted my undivided attention. I loved him and I know that he liked me immensely.  We shared a lot of memorable experiences. As I said at the beginning, he was the dog of a lifetime.