By Martin Cleary
Imagine being asked, out of the blue, by the president of the International Ice Hockey Federation to coach the national men’s team for an overseas country and you’re only 21 years old. That’s right, 21.
Ottawa octogenarian Derek Holmes doesn’t have to imagine what that monumental moment was like. It was all true to life for him in 1960.
As Holmes finished his first and only season with the Wembley Lions of the British National League, Bunny Ahearne approached the skilled goal scorer with a proposition and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Ahearne told Holmes that Finland needed a head coach for its national men’s team for the 1960-61 season because current coach Joe Wirkkunen, a Canadian, had become ill. Holmes was deemed as the next bench boss.
Holmes was shocked. He explained to Ahearne, a travel agent by profession who never played the game, that he had signed a contract for a team in Italy for the 1960-61 season. But Ahearne told Holmes not to worry and he would take care of that contract.
Still wanting to be a player since his hockey skills perfectly suited the larger European ice surfaces, the idea of coaching a national team was still intriguing and enticing. He accepted the coaching job.
To this day, Holmes can’t figure out why the British-born Ahearne approached him to coach the Finnish national team. His only explanation was Ahearne must have liked his fast, fluid skating and goal-scoring style as opposed to the rough-and-tumble brand exhibited in North American hockey. But Holmes also was mature and knowledgeable about the game.
The British National League was like that about sixty years ago. When Holmes played for Wembley sold-out crowds of 10,000 were the norm. It was a special night out for some Wembley fans, who often made reservations to have dinner inside the arena and found their tables and chairs right in the middle of the general row seating.
“He liked the play more gentile,” Holmes said in an interview to talk about his extensive and accomplished hockey career, which will take another step on March 29 when he is inducted into the Ottawa Sport Hall of Fame during a virtual ceremony aired on Rogers22 and youtube.
Holmes was inducted into the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame in 1999, and the Kemptville District Sports Hall of Fame twice, once in 2012 as an individual player and again in 2017 as a member of the 1962-63 Kemptville-Prescott Combines.
“Of course, I’d love to coach, but do I have the nerve to coach at 21?” he wondered at the time. “After I accepted the job, I called my mother and asked her to send me Lloyd Percival’s book The Hockey Handbook. When we played the Soviets, I noticed (Soviet Union head coach) Anatoly Tarasov had the same book.”
Tarasov was considered the driving force behind the powerful Soviet hockey powerhouse, which won nine world championships and three Winter Olympic gold medals during his reign. Percival’s book, which was first published in 1951, was one of his hockey bibles. Tarasov has been quoted as saying: “Your wonderful book which introduces us to the mysteries of Canadian hockey I have read like a schoolboy.”
Holmes wasted no time and traveled throughout Finland scouting players for the fledgling national team as well as staging coaching and goaltender clinics.
“I was learning on the run. I was Finland’s first foreign coach. I was Canadian and I played hockey. That was the respect (that he had),” Holmes said.
When Holmes assembled his team, he had 17 players (two goalies, four defencemen and 11 forwards), a rather thin roster compared to today’s 20-man game-day lineup. The players’ average age was just under 23, the second youngest team at the 1961 world championships.
Finland finished seventh at the worlds with one win, one tie and five losses, defeating West Germany and tying East Germany. At the European championships, Finland was fifth.
“The players were OK with me (as their coach). Two players spoke English and my interpreter was a guy from Thunder Bay, but he was over enthusiastic passing on my message,” Holmes said. “Finland was starting to come, on the edge, and had a tremendous rivalry with Sweden. Finland was still a notch behind the Soviets and Czechs. They had better and more players.”
As much as he enjoyed the Finnish coaching experience, one year was enough. He wanted to reconnect with the game as a player, the reason he left Toronto at 19 in the first place.
At 15, the Kemptville-born Holmes earned a berth on the town’s Royals intermediate men’s team and shared in winning the St. Lawrence Hockey League title under coach Lloyd Laporte. The next year (1956) was recruited by Toronto Maple Leafs’ head scout Bob Davidson to attend Toronto St. Michael’s College and play for the junior B Buzzers.
Skating with future NHLers Dave Keon, Gerry Cheevers, and Terry O’Malley, the Buzzers overcame a mediocre regular season (10-12-2) to win the 1957 city league championship. But they had to pass on the All-Ontario championship as it conflicted with school exams.
Returning to Ottawa, he played one season and was captain for the Ottawa Shamrocks of the Junior Interprovincial Hockey League under coach Brian Lynch, who is a member of the Ottawa Sport Hall of Fame.
Holmes joined the Montagnards for his 1958-59 junior season and had a stellar year. He was the league’s MVP, an all-star, and finished third in regular-season league scoring. When the Montagnards were eliminated from the Interprovincial playoffs, Holmes was picked up by Pembroke Little Lumber Kings and they won the league championship. He finished his season playing for Ottawa CTC of the Senior Interprovincial Hockey League, losing to Hull Legion in the East Division final.
Looking for adventure, Holmes and friends Nick Foster and Viger Gendron signed with the Wembley Lions for the 1959-60 British National League season. That was the beginning of a 15-year stretch that saw Holmes experience many levels of the game around the world.
In the first half of the 1960s, he won four senior St. Lawrence Hockey League titles with Prescott-Kemptville Combines, Prescott-Kemptville Royals, and Morrisburg Combines. But sandwiched between winning titles with Prescott-Kemptville and Morrisburg, he made a name for himself in Europe.
After serving as a player-coach for Switzerland’s EHC VISP in 1963-64 and winning the Swiss Cup, he moved to EC Kitzbuhel in Austria for his next season, capturing the MVP award in the 1965 Spengler Cup.
In the latter part of the 1960s, he played for the Eastern Canadian national hockey team in the 1967-68 Quebec Senior Hockey League. The team also was known as the Hull Nationals and played only exhibition games, finishing with a record of 19-19-3. Internationally, the Nationals went 5-7-2 in preparation for the 1968 Olympics.
Canada won the bronze medal at the 1968 Winter Olympics, which also doubled as the world championships, but Holmes missed that excitement because of a hip injury. He concluded his national-team career in 1968-69 as captain of the team, which finished fourth at the world championships in Stockholm.
At age 30, Holmes started to scale back his hockey playing days and enrolled at Carleton University, where he earned a BA in history and played for the Ravens. In his second year (1970-71), he was team captain of the Ontario-Quebec Athletic Association eastern division champions, placed second in scoring behind former national team player Morris Mott of Queen’s University, and was named a league all-star.
After graduation, Holmes went to Switzerland as a player-coach in the Swiss National League in 1971-72 and 1973-74 respectively. He also was the head coach for Switzerland at the 1972 Winter Olympics, when Canada didn’t ice a team because of a disagreement with the International Ice Hockey Federation. Switzerland finished 10th with a record of 0-3-2. At the 1972 world championships, Switzerland placed sixth at 1-9.
In 1974, Holmes was recruited to join Hockey Canada, the national sport governing body for amateur hockey, because of his multiple European experiences and understanding of the overseas game.
During the next seven years, he held various high-level positions and was a key member of the group directed to find a way “to beat the Russians,” and put Canada back in the Winter Olympics, after missing the 1972 and 1976 Games. Holmes was responsible for selecting the rosters for the 1977 and 1978 world championship teams and served as an assistant coach when Canada placed fourth and won a bronze medal respectively.
Sixty-five junior, senior, university, and European players were scouted for the Lake Placid Olympic team and the two-year project produced a sixth-place result at the 1980 Olympics.
When Holmes left Hockey Canada in 1980, he stepped away from hockey to work in the private sector for six years. But during that time, he would get the occasional request from players who couldn’t make it into the NHL and wanted to go to Europe.
By the mid-1980s, Holmes entered his final role in hockey as a player agent. He remained in that role until 2018 when he was 78.
Using his European contacts, he would send talented Canadians overseas and later connected with former Czechoslovakian national team player Jaro Tuma to have European players come to Canada.
“All along I was getting calls. There was no one in the business. I became the guy,” Holmes said. “It came to me naturally. I knew the business on both sides of the ocean.”
Holmes extended the hockey careers of dozens of Canadian players, including former Ottawa 67’s Bruce Cassidy, who is now the Boston Bruins head coach, Dale McCourt, Rick Middleton, and former national team player Fran Huck.
Cassidy called Holmes “the best in the business” and an incredible friend, exemplifying loyalty, professionalism, kindness, and compassion.
“He became like an adopted father to me, offering much more than simple hockey advice,” Cassidy wrote in his nomination letter to have Holmes inducted into the Ottawa Sport Hall of Fame. “My father had passed a few years prior and Derek was always available to talk about whatever was necessary at the time.
“I will be forever grateful to him for being there in good times and bad.”
“It’s something special to go into the hall of fame in your hometown. The IIHF was a whole other group of people who recognized me. When you play your hockey, you don’t think of things like this happening.”
Derek Holmes will be inducted as a builder into the Ottawa Sport Hall of Fame on Monday, March 29 at 8 pm on Rogers22 and youtube.