Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Louis Holmes, hockey player (1911-2010)

Louis Holmes takes a twirl on the ice. BELOW: Holmes with the Portland Buckaroos.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 24, 2010


The career of Louis Holmes resembled that of many of his Depression-era peers — long winters spent in the minors with a stint in the National Hockey League so brief as to seem a dream.

He toiled in American hockey outposts for several seasons, returning to Edmonton each summer for regular employment.

The hometown newspaper referred to the indefatigable skater as The Man With the Rubber Legs.

His greatest hockey accomplishment came not on the ice, but behind the bench, as he guided the amateur Edmonton Mercurys to the Olympic gold medal in 1952.

For a half-century, he was remembered as the last coach of a Canadian gold medal-winning Olympic hockey team, a designation he happily surrendered, at long last, when Canada finally triumphed again at the 2002 Winter Games.

His great longevity — he died six weeks after turning 99 — also earned him unofficial acknowledgement as the oldest living former NHL player.

Sadly, he suffered from dementia in his final years, denying historians an opportunity for further insight into hockey of the 1930s. Mr. Holmes made his NHL debut in only the third season during which forward passing was permitted in the attacking zone.

Mr. Holmes also belonged to the list of players whose offspring also played in the NHL. Interestingly, Holmes father and son managed to score just one goal each in their NHL careers.

Louis Charles Carter Holmes was born to Ellen (nee Carter) and Charles Holmes in a Staffordshire mining town known for limestone quarries and coal collieries. His father was a miner. The family emigrated to Canada when the boy was aged 18 months. His father, also an ardent gardener, found work as a greenskeeper. The family lived near the North Saskatchewan River in Edmonton and it is believed Louis learned to skate on its frozen, winding expanse.

A smooth skating stride and stylish play for his junior team won the notice of Bill Tobin of the Chicago Black Hawks, who signed the prospect.

The 5-foot-10 forward weighed just 150 pounds, a scarecrow on skates.

In 1931, at age 20, the rookie travelled by train through Winnipeg to attend camp in Minnesota.

“I trained with Chicago at Duluth before being farmed to Pittsburgh for experience,” he recalled many years later. “However, the Hawks got away badly and the first thing I knew a wire came ordering me to report back to the big-league team.”

He left the Yellow Jackets to report to the parent club for a game to be played in raucous Chicago Stadium on Dec. 2, 1931.

The Hawks had suffered two consecutive losses, and no longer had the services of defenceman Helgy Bostrom, whose tendon had been slashed by an opponent’s skate. They next faced the Montreal Canadiens, the defending Stanley Cup champions.

Mr. Holmes remembered being in “something of a daze” as he changed into his hockey gear in a dressing room shared with the likes of NHL stars Clarence (Taffy) Abel, Harold (Mush) March, and goaltender Chuck Gadiner.

Wearing uniform No. 9, much later to be made famous by Bobby Hull, he stepped onto the ice with his teammates to a roar which he would never forget.

“Nothing ever gave me the lift I got that night,” Mr. Holmes said.

In the third period, the great Howie Morenz scored for the visitors to tie the score at 1-1. With a few minutes remaining, Canadiens goalkeeper George Hainsworth tripped a Chicago player. The goalie was banished to the penalty box for two minutes. (The rule was later changed so goalie infractions could be served by another player.) Tommy Cook scored what would be the winning goal by driving the puck past an overmatched Albert (Battleship) Leduc filling in between the posts.

The boney Mr. Holmes played 41 games in his debut season. So smooth was the rookie’s skating that a team publicist concocted a fanciful story about the young man perfecting his stride by delivering mail on skates along the frozen rivers and sloughs of northern Alberta.

He scored one goal and four assists, while being assessed three minor penalties while mostly used in spot duty.

The goal was scored at Maple Leafs Gardens on Feb. 27, 1932, in the arena’s first season of service. The home team’s Red Horner, a defenceman paired with the legendary King Clancy, had just scored the game’s first marker.

“Less than a minute later the Hawks got the equalizer when Holmes planted the puck in the net following a speedy exchange of passes inside the Toronto blue line,” the Globe reported.

The goal was scored against Lorne Chabot.

Early in his sophomore season with Chicago, Mr. Holmes was replaced by the unpromisingly named Clarence (Pudge) Mackenzie.

After his demotion, Mr. Holmes found himself skating for the St. Paul (Minn.) Greyhounds. The deprivations of the Depression hurt the box office. Only 871 paying customers watched the Greyhounds defeat the St. Louis Flyers, 2-1, in a match played three days before Christmas in 1932. The normally mild-mannered Mr. Holmes exchanged punches with Pete Palangio, a rare display of fisticuffs by two players with a reputation for a lawful adherence to the rules. (Mr. Palangio, who died in 2004, aged 95, was so pacific that he was employed as a chocolate dipper for a candy manufacturer.)

Though he did not yet know it, Mr. Holmes’ NHL career was over after just 59 games. He embarked on an hockey odyssey that would have him skate for the Tulsa (Okla.) Oilers, Oakland (Calif.) Clippers, Spokane (Wash.) Clippers, Oklahoma City Warriors, and Portland Buckaroos.

The swift forward had his best season in 1938-39, scoring 34 goals and 40 assists in 48 games to lead the Pacific Coast League in scoring. The Buckaroos also won the league championship.

Family lore has it that his future wife spotted him skating in a game during which she leaned over to tell her mother, “That’s the man I’m going to marry.”

After the United States entered the Second World War, Mr. Holmes returned to Edmonton to play amateur hockey.

By 1946, he was the playing coach of the senior intermediate New Method Laundry team, sponsored by the business for which he made deliveries. The amateur club won the provincial title with an 8-7 overtime victory over a squad from Coleman, Alta. The victors were each presented a “Flying Wing” razor set.

Mr. Holmes won the Allan Cup, emblematic of senior hockey supremacy, with the Edmonton Flyers in 1948.

Four years later, he was coaching the Edmonton Mercurys, a team sponsored by Jim Christiansen, the owner of a local automobile dealership.

Before arriving in Norway for the Olympics, the team endured a long tour of the continent. The Merks defeated a team in Krefeld, West Germany, by 14-2 with the 41-year-old coach dressing for the game, managing even to score a goal.

On a highway in Sweden, the team bus crashed into a tree.

“The wheels locked as we rounded a curve on the highway and the bus went over a ditch and toppled against a tree,” the coach said a few days later. “The players were tossed around and we were lucky to get out with only slight injuries.”

One player suffered cuts to his face, another to his arm, while a third complained of a sore back. They defeated a Swedish team that night by 7-2.

At Oslo, the Mercurys had little problem handling their opponents, winning seven consecutive games before tying the United States, 3-3, to claim the gold medal. It was the only gold won by Canada at the Olympics that year. The Canadians outscored their opponents 71-14 in the Olympic tournament.

One of the final games in which Mr. Holmes laced up his skates came in 1954, when he joined a pickup squad of all-stars for a charity game against the junior Edmonton Oil Kings, whose captain was his son, Chuck Holmes.

The younger Holmes also played briefly in the NHL, dressing with Gordie Howe and the Detroit Red Wings for 23 games. He scored his lone goal against Bruce Gamble of the Boston Bruins in 1962.

The Mercurys, including their coach, were inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame in 1968 and the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame in 2002. His Edmonton Flyers squad of 1947-48 has also been honoured by the Alberta hall.

Mr. Holmes kept his Olympic medal, encased in plastic, atop the family television.

Louis Charles Carter Holmes was born on Jan. 29, 1911, at Walsall, Staffordshire, England. He died at Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton on March 11. He was 99. At the time of his death, he was believed to be the oldest surviving former National Hockey League player.

He leaves sons Charles Holmes , known as Chuck, of Bainbridge Island, Wash., and Greg Holmes, of Calgary; a daughter, Gail Plican, of Surrey, B.C.; five grandchildren; and, five great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife of 63 years, the former Helen Ruth Coulson, known as Buddy, who died in 1997.

The Edmonton Mercurys pose for a team shot in the dressing room. Coach Louis Holmes is standing on the right in a suit and tie.


Lori said...

Thank you so much for writing this obituary about my Grampa. I'm so proud of him and his accomplishments. But, all that aside, he was the best Grampa anyone could ever hope for.

Lori Rutherford

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.