Glen Gretzky and Lauri Holomis team up to author children's book that honours Canada's most famous hockey dad

(Pictured left to right) Walter Gretzky, Lauri Holomis, Kevin Sylvester and Glen Gretzky gather at Wayne Gretzky's Toronto Sports Bar and Restaurant on Monday Sept. 12 to celebrate launch of new children's book titled GREAT. (Courtesy: Penguin Random House Canada)
(Pictured left to right) Walter Gretzky, Lauri Holomis, Kevin Sylvester and Glen Gretzky gather at Wayne Gretzky's Toronto Sports Bar and Restaurant on Monday Sept. 12 to celebrate launch of new children's book titled GREAT. (Courtesy: Penguin Random House Canada)

Gretzky is the most famous last name in hockey and yet it never appears once in the text of a new children’s story titled GREAT, written by Glen Gretzky and Lauri Holomis. 

In fact, No. 99 isn’t even the main character, he plays a supporting role as a superstar kid known only by his first name - Wayne, and is illustrated as a blonde child wearing his famous number for an unspecified minor hockey team.  The spotlight is saved for Wayne and Glen’s father, Walter – Canada’s most famous hockey dad, known as "Coach Wally".

"Coach Wally” and a boy named Taylor are the central focus of the tale.  “Coach Wally” imparts wisdom about the game to the youngster as he tries to navigate his way on the ice.

Glen, 47, executive director of the Wayne Gretzky Foundation’s Canadian branch teamed up with Holomis to honour his father with a story they want every child to relate to.

Eh Game had a chance to speak with Gretzky and Holomis about GREAT, which was released on Tuesday.

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Eh Game:  Explain the genesis of how you  came together to write a children’s book?

Lauri Holomis:  Glen and I have worked together for many years on a lot different projects and programs with the Wayne Gretzky Foundation where Glen is executive director.  We are good friends and good partners and really wanted to tell a story that kids can keep for a long time about Walter (Gretzky).  We wanted them to have something physical they can keep for a long time because he has always been so engaging and encouraging with kids.

Glen Gretzky:  After my dad’s stroke (in 1991), part of his rehab was getting back in the community. He would help me coach little kids and we saw how great he was with them, whether it was an elite athlete or a kid just starting out.

He is so positive, we wanted to do something here to share that with everyone, that’s how it evolved.

EG:  How did you formulate the idea for the story about a young boy being coached by “Wally” and         playing alongside “Wayne”, a child phenom?                   

GG:  More or less, Lauri and I were trying different ideas of what we could come up with from my experiences and Lauri’s experiences with kids, much of the influence is our dad and how he raised us.  The whole process took about two-and-half years and this is what we ended up with.

EG:  Interestingly, Taylor  has already made “the team” to begin the book, is that where we are presently in terms of a children's story about minor hockey, have we gone beyond the traditional fairy tale and added some sense of realism, that not everyone is going to make a rep team at a young age?

GG:  100 percent, there can be so much pressure on this kids nowadays, you want to be the best, there is instant gratification in our society, there is also the idea that “I didn’t make the team so I’m not the best”.

 Wayne was not an overnight success, there was a lot of work, a lot of hours, a lot of practice, the message is try your best and be positive with people.

One of the illustrations is the boy practicing by shooting at his garage door.  That’s based on my dad’s next door neighbour, his boy used to pound pucks all day long, his garage door still looks (dented) like that.  That kid plays university hockey now.  One thing my dad always instilled in us is there is no such things as “can’t”.

EG:  We hear a lot of about Walter and Wayne on the backyard rink, can you describe your own experience with" Coach Wally" all those years ago in Brantford?

GG:  We wanted to be out there, he put the work into flooding the ice in the wee hours, it just wasn’t him, it was our mom as well. We enjoyed doing it, he made it fun, it wasn’t practice, it was something to do, we didn’t have iPads and smart phones back then, we were out of the house.

Wayne was basically gone to Toronto by then so it was really just (brothers) Keith, I and Brent, mostly us three and our friends.   There was some very healthy competition, we were playing for the Stanley Cup every day.

EG:  Lauri, do you have any stories about a backyard rink or being involved with hockey at a young age.

LH:  I wasn’t on the hockey team but I am a good Canadian girl and skated since the beginning of time. I have been involved with the game for a long time and worked with Glen and Wayne back in Edmonton and have been involved with the family.  I am still a hardcore fan of the Oilers.

EG: The predominant theme in this story seems to be, be yourself and do as well as you can, the main character is not expected to be as good as" Wayne" by "Coach Wally?  Is that relatable to the experiences of you and your brothers growing up?  How hard was that?

GG:  It is definitely a bit of real life experience.  Wayne is such an exception it’s crazy.  I think there was more pressure from outside than anything else.  My dad never tried to say "be better than or as good as Wayne". 

You just try your best and go out and do what you can.  To this day, that is his message with kids when he is at an arena in a dressing room or cafeteria. There can’t be ten Wayne Gretzky’s, Sidney Crosby’s or Conner McDavid’s.

If you put that pressure on boys and girls, you’re setting both your children and yourself up for a major let down.

EG: Choosing an illustrator is a key component of producing a children’s book, how was Kevin Sylvester chosen to do the drawings?

LH:  We had several meetings with (publisher) Penguin Random House and looked through countless books of illustrators they had worked with in the past and we kept coming back to Kevin Sylvester.  This is obviously our first children's book, we wanted to do the best we could and he seemed the best for us.

EG:  A contribution was made to the Wayne Gretzky Foundation in connection with the publication of this book.  Glen, as executive director, can you tell me some more about how long the foundation has been around and what causes it supports? 

GG: It was created around 2000-01.   I have been the executive director of the Canadian branch since about 2004-05, there is also one in the U.S.

With the foundation our main focus is to support many different causes for under privileged or at-risk youth.  In the past we have donated equipment to places like Iqaluit, NU., where we brought over a plane load of hockey equipment.  We sponsored a project in Regent Park (a neighbourhood in downtown Toronto) and have sponsored kids in every province to play the game.  We have expanded into donating to the United Way.

We are smaller foundation and try to reach as many causes as what we can, it has been very rewarding for Wayne to give back to different causes.

EG: Lauri, what types of books do you read to your young child and how has it influenced the creation of GREAT?

LH: We do a library program all through summer with our five-year-old son Wyatt.  There have been a lot of different books that we have gone through that have a positive and negative throughout (like GREAT).  It’s the idea that you don’t have to be great at something to be great.  Do the best you can do, be a good team player and a good friend and with that comes success.  That (theme) takes them from being four-and-a-half to 44-and-a-half.  It’s something that should stay with them throughout the rest of their life and Walter is someone who constantly gives that message.

EG: Can we expect that Wayne will be reading this to his grandchild Tatum?

GG: 100 percent, I would think so, (although) he hasn’t got a copy yet (laughs).  Walter loves it.  It is going to be something that can be read over and over that is inspired by my dad and what he has done.

Follow Neil Acharya on Twitter: @Neil_Acharya 

GREAT, inspired by Walter Gretzky was released on Sept. 13 (Courtesy: Penguin Random House Canada)
GREAT, inspired by Walter Gretzky was released on Sept. 13 (Courtesy: Penguin Random House Canada)