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The best offensive player ever to grace the sport of hockey turns 54 years old today. I’m talking, of course, about Wayne Gretzky.

As I wrote in a blog last year, I have a long history with both Walter and Wayne. Both are incredible people. Walter is one of the most caring human beings I’ve ever seen and I have known Wayne since he was a 17-year-old rookie for the Indianapolis Races.

People have asked me why the Gretzky clan holds a special place in my heart. As a human being, Wayne inherited the values of his father Walter, whom I got to know very well over the years. Walter Gretzky has always been a humble man with an incredible capacity for caring about others and treasuring family and friends. Walter has always been dedicated to helping the less fortunate, and Wayne picked up that trait as well.

Before I talk about Wayne, here is the quintessential Walter Gretzky story to give you a sense of the man who was his son’s first and greatest role model.

Some years ago, Walter learned of a cancer-stricken youth hockey player; a goaltender. The boy idolized NHL goalies, especially Patrick Roy. It was his greatest wish to meet Roy.

Walter did even better than that. Not only did he make sure that Patrick Roy came to visit, he arranged for every other NHL goaltender to come visit the hospital when they came to town.

The regular visits became the kid’s lifeline. It gave him something to look forward to, and a reason to fight the cancer even harder. Against steep odds for survival, he beat the dreadful disease.

Walter never did things like that for publicity. Quite the opposite in fact. He has done these sorts of things because there is infinite goodness and compassion in his heart. My own father was the same way.

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

Without even knowing it, Wayne Gretzky 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, 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 Wayne’s parents, Walter and Phyllis. A lot of people turned out.

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

The party was for ME.

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? Wayne had no idea of the full story of what had gone in the previous 96 hours and he had no idea how much it meant to me then and still does now.

Another deeply personal story for me that involves an act of kindness by Wayne. On Dec. 6.1987, I was refereeing a game in Edmonton between the Oilers and Minnesota. Wayne scored five goals in the game. He scored a would-be sixth goal — which would have made him just the second player since 1968 to get six in a game — but I waved it off.

When I saw subsequent replays, it was a missed call. The goal should have counted.

Wayne never uttered a word of protest. After the game, I learned that my dad, Bill Stewart Jr., had passed away in Boston. Wayne already knew about it. That was why he simply let the mistake slide.

Wayne’s first child, daughter Paulina, was born in December of the following year. The first time I worked an Oilers game after that, I skated up to Gretz before the game and congratulated him and Janet on their daughter’s birth.

“I’m touched that you named your daughter after me,” I deadpanned. “I guess it’s tough to name a girl Stewy.”

Gretzky grinned.

************ 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.

Today, Stewart is an officiating and league discipline consultant for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as director of hockey officiating for the ECAC.

The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials. Stewart also maintains a busy schedule as a public speaker, fund raiser and master-of-ceremonies for a host of private, corporate and public events. As a non-hockey venture, he is the owner of Lest We Forget.

In addition to his blogs for HockeyBuzz every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, Stewart writes a column every Wednesday for the Huffington Post.