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Eric Walters, author of 100-plus books, says he is not a hockey guy. Yet, everywhere he goes across Canada promoting his books written for kids and young adults, he tries to catch a junior hockey game.
“You want to see a game, see a game in Kamloops, or Kelowna, or Swift Current. I like to see them more than I like seeing the Leafs,” he said in August 2020, on a night when sports shut-down to protest the shooting of Jason Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and police brutality. “When you go to those games, the people are so alive, and so real, and they're so friendly.”
Promoting what is just his second-ever hockey-themed book (compared to 10 on basketball), Walters is friendly and happy to talk about many subjects, and lament the state of the publishing industry ... even if his pandemic-instant book, Don't Stand So Close to Me, put together and published in 41 days, made him (again) a bestselling author during the health crisis.
This hockey book is set a long, long way from Kelowna, though.
It's called Hockey Night in Kenya, written with Danson Mutinda and illustrated by Claudia Dávila, and published by Orca in October 2020.
The connection to the story is very real for both Mutinda and Walters, and African culture has been the subject of many of Walters' books (see www.ericwalters.net but allow some time for browsing).
Years ago, Walters' son raised $20,000 to build an orphanage and school in Kenya in memory of his uncle, who died of cancer. It was organized through their church, and they had already met Kenyans through its outreach program. One of them asked the Walters, “While you're in Kenya, could you visit my family?” That was Danson's sister, and took the Walters into the more rural mountains. “We were in a community where they said my son and I were the second and third white people that had been to that community in the last 20 years,” said Walters. The Canadians were disturbed to see hundreds of orphans, eating out of the garbage dump, sleeping—and dying—on the streets.
“We decided that we wanted to try and help. So we started, we paired with a family there, and we started supporting a kid, it became two kids, it became four kids, it became 400 kids,” he said. An orphanage was built, in large part with money raised by Walters and his wife Anita.
Danson Mutinda's parents, Ruth and Henry Kyatha, co-founded the Hope Development Centre orphanage, and, when his father died, Danson took over.
To say that Walters and his family have become part of the larger community in the town of Kikima, is a bit of an understatement. “It's funny, about a month ago, I got a call from the Bishop of the African Inland church—the bishop—and he just said, 'Eric, I want to see if you are fine during the pandemic, because you're a member of my flock.'”
Even Mutinda sees Walters as a father-figure. “He makes jokes that I don't look anything like his father,” chuckled Walters, who calls Danson “Kioko.”
Danson Mutinda and Eric Walters
The chapter book details Kenyan orphans, Kitoo and Nigosi, spending their days studying, playing soccer, and helping their elders with chores around the orphanage. Then Kitoo discovers hockey through an old book gifted to the sparse library, and he becomes intrigued. Roller blades come into the narrative and then a trip to the one and only ice rink in Kenya. It's fanciful but grounded in reality.
Walters and Mutinda communicate regularly, often through WhatsApp; this author did the same for an occasionally spotty chat with the Kenyan co-author.
“The story is actually based on two of our kids from the orphanage,” revealed Mutinda, and it was Walters who liked the idea.
Hockey is not as foreign to Mutinda as one would assume. He spent five years as a youth living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, leaving after Grade 4, so learned plenty about Canada's passion for the game.
Mutinda has seen the difference the Walters have made with the Hope Development Centre. “They basically rallied sponsors and funds from Canada, channelling it to the kids here,” he said. “What Eric does every time, I think every time he does a presentation, there is a percentage that he sends to the orphanage, for upkeep of the orphanage and also for every book sold based on the orphanage stories, there's still another percentage that comes to the orphanage.”
But ultimately, it's the hockey that matters, for this column at least.
The story ends on actual ice, with the promise of more, a cliffhanger of sorts.
If there's a part two, it will have to be tied into the actual Kenyan hockey team. You might remember them from the fall of 2018, when Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon skated with them for a Tim Horton's commercial.
Walters is so connected, that he got a call:
“Eric, we are in Canada.”
“What are you doing in Canada?”
“We're not allowed to tell. Would you like to join us for a cup of tea?”
Mutinda knows the players too, and is rooting for the team to continue to progress and eventually gain associate membership in the International Ice Hockey Federation, and be able to compete in tournaments. [See the IIHF website for more.] He mentioned the parallel between another warm country competing in a cold sport.
“When Eric saw the team, in his mind he remembered this movie from Jamaica about the guys who wanted to do bobsledding in the Olympics, Cool Runnings,” Mutinda said. “It was the same thing using hockey. Finding an ice rink on the equator, the hottest place in the world.”
That ice rink, the Solar Ice Rink in the Panari Sky Centre in Nairobi, is only 32 on 12 metres, good for three on three hockey. Mutinda has skated on it. How is the ice? “I can say it's average. The rink is quite small, you can't compare to anything you guys have in Canada, even the smallest one. And then also it's square. It's not circular like yours. But with more people taking up the sport maybe there will be a better rink with time.”
On top of helping the orphanage, Walters worked with various authorities, including an RCMP officer stationed at the embassy in Nairobi, to get some hockey equipment sent to the team.
Walters' standing in the youth market means that he gets a little more pull, whether it's putting out an instant-book during a pandemic, or actually getting to interact with the Toronto-based artist, Dávila, which is not the norm in many children's picture books.
“I have so many pictures because I probably take 1,000 pictures every year I'm over there,” said Walters. “I just said, 'Here's pictures of this,' 'Here's what park looks like,' 'Here's what the skating rink looks like.'”
However, there is still a global pandemic ranging, and Walters, like everyone, is concerned. The kids in the orphanage have been in lockdown since it started. Kenyan medical resources are not the same as in North America. “The disease there is insidious and underneath, because they're not testing for it, and people die all the time, 'Oh, it's a COVID death.'”
Walters hopes to get back to his annual visits, but for now, has to be content with the videos, including a recent one of the children playing on a newly-constructed playground.
It was one of those positive moments, like when the Kenyan hockey team came to visit the orphanage a while back, and the plan was to reciprocate.
“They brought up hockey sticks. We cleared our dining room and they played hockey with our kids,” recalled Walters. “I was supposed to be there all of April, we were bringing the kids up to the rink and then we were going to teach them how to skate. I was going to have these wonderful memories and pictures of our kids, who have never seen ice, have never been in the cold, learning how to skate with the Kenyan hockey team. Wouldn't that have been spectacular?”
The Kenyan national hockey team visits the Hope Development Centre
THE OTHER WALTERS HOCKEY BOOK
Eric Walters' young adult book, Power Play, came out in the fall of 2015, from HarperTrophy. The synopsis: “No one is tougher than Cody: not his hockey teammates, not his rivals on the ice, not even his old man after he’s been drinking. Cody only wants one thing "to make it to the NHL" and he won’t let anything get in his way. When a Junior A league scout helps Cody make the draft and becomes his coach, Cody can hardly believe it. Finally, someone who sees his potential! But he soon learns that his new champion will take as much as he gives. And, before long, Cody’s lucky break has transformed into a nightmare of secrets, lies and a terrible abuse of power.”
The author noted that it's the game is in the background to the story he wanted to tell. “The other one really wasn't hockey, it was more sexual abuse of hockey players,” said Walters. He sought out a former NHLer, who had been abused as a junior, to make sure that it was grounded in reality. “Sheldon Kennedy was a good consultant on that book, he give me good information. He was very centered and very, he's really just a remarkable person.”
ANOTHER AUTHOR WITH A BAJILLION BOOKS
ECW Press announced that Brian McFarlane has a new book coming out in the fall of 2021. It'll be titled A Helluva Life in Hockey: A Memoir. If you have ever spent any time with the legendary McFarlane, you'll know that even this can barely touch the surface of his remarkable life. The promotional bumf: “It’s been 85 years since Brian McFarlane first laced a pair of skates and tested the black ice on a tiny pond. And then he discovered the joy of hockey. Ultimately, there would be grade school hockey, high school hockey, junior hockey, college hockey, and, miraculously, two decades with the NHL Oldtimers anchoring his life. He was the rank amateur playing on a line with the Big M and Norm Ullman, facing off against icons like Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay at Maple Leaf Gardens — even scoring a goal. He suited up at the Montreal Forum, elbow to elbow against John Ferguson, before thousands of fans. (There was even a stint with the Flying Fathers who ordained him a “Bishop” after a hat trick.) Off the ice, in 1960, MacFarlane was the first Canadian to be a commentator on CBS’s coverage of the NHL. He also survived 25 years of Hockey Night in Canada — despite confrontations with Punch Imlach, Harold Ballard, Bobby Hull, and Eddie Shack. Now, in this revealing autobiography, he remembers it all. For Brian McFarlane, it has been a helluva life in hockey.”
WHAT A STAR
I did want to send out kudos to Dave Feschuk at the Toronto Star, even if, in pro wrestling terms, he's “stealing my gimmick!” The last few Saturdays, he's had feature interviews about books, including Jerry Rollins' Enforcer to Entrepreneur: Achieving Hockey Stick Growth in Life, Business and Sports, Nick Kypreos' memoir (where he worked with Perry Lefko, Undrafted: Hockey, Family, and What It Takes to Be a Pro, and Willie O'Ree's Willie: The Game-Changing Story of the NHL’s First Black Player (written with Michael McKinley).
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