Since opening its doors in 1993, Wayne Gretzky’s Toronto has hosted everyone from sports fans to celebrities.
“It starts with the name on the front door — that ‘Wayne Gretzky’ sign,” said Heather Santsche, the restaurant’s general manager.
“With that comes an expectation of a brand,” she added, referring to the favourite son of Brantford, Ont.
That brand is known to pretty much all of Canada, of course, not to mention to the rest of the hockey world. After all, The Great One won four Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers, finished his 20-year career in the National Hockey League with the all-time record for career points, and managed Team Canada to a men’s Olympic hockey gold medal in Salt Lake City in 2002.
But the eatery’s also pretty down to earth. Its menu includes an old family recipe — Grandma Gretzky’s perogies, just one of the reasons the restaurant has developed a loyal following. That’s partly why its closure next month to make way for a condo project is bringing back poignant memories for so many — customers and staff alike.
WATCH| Wayne Gretzky’s Toronto, a landmark in Canada’s largest city, gets ready to close its doors:
Santsche has worked at the restaurant for nearly a dozen years. Other employees have been there since Day 1. Now they all have to prepare for Gretzky’s to close its doors in October.
Cases filled with memorabilia will be returned to the Gretzky family and private collectors who loaned out the pieces to the restaurant.
For Santsche and her staff, the last few weeks have been spent reminiscing about the times they served tourists, locals and A-list celebrities.
“I think about the Olympic hockey games and people getting up at four o’clock in the morning,” recalled Santsche. “Some people didn’t even go to sleep and they were lined up all the way around the building … We just poured pints of draft all day long.”
Another lasting memory for Santsche is the first time she met The Great One. It was during a management team-building event.
“We were out for dinner and I looked to my right and him and Janet [Gretzky] had just come for dinner and I turned and I was like, ‘Oh, hi. How are you?'” she recalled with a laugh.
“And then all of a sudden I realized, ‘That’s Wayne Gretzky!’ … I ‘ve met him a few times over the years and he’s always been so respectful, and it just changes you.”
Number 99 visits the restaurant at least four times a year. He held a big celebration to mark its 25th anniversary in 2018. As word of its closing spreads, Santzche says staff are hearing from people all over the world as well as past customers and employees.
“I think everyone’s feeling it,” explained Santsche.
“It’s a fine line between melancholy and nostalgic because you go down that road and everyone’s laughing. And the next thing you know, everyone gets actually a little teary-eyed.”
In the final few weeks before Gretzky’s closes for good, there’s one thing Santsche is offering that might soften the blow.
“I promise you that there will be perogies until the last day.”
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