“Be Gracious in Defeat” ~ Warren Holmes, former Los Angeles Kings center

“I don’t remember a time that I was not playing hockey”, Warren Holmes tells me. Our Wednesday evening conversation is rich with laughter and warm memories from his hockey, his life. Over an hour into talking with him, I am not wanting our discussion to end. But let’s start from the beginning. “Beeton, Ontario is about 40-miles north of Toronto, and I was the fifth professional hockey player to come out of my hometown”; not bad for a town of only 500-700 people in the early-1970s. “There was Wayne Carleton; he was the first. Won a Stanley Cup with Boston. He’s the other Bruin you see in that iconic photo of Bobby Orr, even if it’s only his leg in the picture. John Gould; he was a 30-goal scorer with the Vancouver Canucks, and he played in Buffalo and Atlanta too. Larry Gould is John’s brother, and he got into a few games with the Canucks as well. And then Jimmy Rutherford; he’s the General Manager for the Pittsburgh Penguins, but played as a goaltender for the Detroit Red Wings, Penguins, Maple Leafs, and the Kings too. Jimmy and I also ended up being teammates together with the New Haven Nighthawks in the twilight of his career. And then I was the fifth”.

Warren Holmes is jovial and gracious, and is the kind of gentleman who would always give you a firm handshake and look you in the eye when you meet him. “We all lived within a mile to a mile-and-a-half radius of each other. I was fortunate in that I had the only swimming pool in the whole town, so in the winter time I could learn to skate on the frozen pool. I probably started skating at a year-and-a-half. Our town also had one of the first indoor ice rinks north of Toronto”. Throughout Warren Holmes’ hockey career, he was always capable of playing at a level higher than where he was assigned to or what his age afforded him. It also helped matters that he had the size, standing at 6-feet, 2-inches and weighing around the 200-lbs. mark. “At one time, I was playing on a Pee-Wee, a Bantam and a Midget team. Now, part of that was from necessity because I was from such a small town and the teams needed the bodies. But I was good enough to play on each of those teams, even if I was younger than some of the other older players. So I would play on one team for a game at 7:00 o’clock. Go into the next locker room, change my sweater, and then play a game for the next team. Then I’d go back to the first locker room to change again because the town only had four locker rooms <laughs>”.

Growing up in Ontario in the 1960s, Warren Holmes saw some of the greatest players who ever played the game. Though he lives in Texas now and has not lived in Ontario for over 40-years, he still has Maple Leafs blood flowing through him strongly. “Even though I played for the Kings, if it came down to it that the Leafs and the Kings were in the Stanley Cup Finals, I would have to want the Leafs to win”. That being said, Holmes’ hockey hero is one of the most underrated players throughout the history of the game. “Plain and simple, my all-time hero is Red Kelly”. Leonard “Red” Kelly won eight Stanley Cups during his 20-year NHL career; the most of any hockey player who did not play for the Montreal Canadiens. It is interesting to me that Holmes has such an affinity for Kelly, a player whom many of today’s hockey fans are not familiar with, but it makes sense when considering the type of player Red Kelly was and what he did for the game. The 1989 Hall of Fame inducted Kelly would win four of his eight Cups with the Maple Leafs of Holmes’ childhood, and a factor that Warren points out to me is even more noteworthy. “You have to remember”, he says, “it is more likely that as a player is aging that he would transition from center to defense. Red Kelly did the opposite; the later stage of his career he went from being a defenseman to playing center”, arguably the most arduous position for a positional player. Kelly would play the last six-and-a-half years of his career with the Leafs as a centerman, between the ages of 32 and 39. “The local Rotary Club used to bring in the Leafs players to speak at our hockey banquets, and it was just a thrill to meet Red Kelly there”.

Warren Holmes 3
Center Warren Holmes would play 45-games in the NHL with the Los Angeles Kings. He would score 8-goals and 18-assists for 26-points during that time. (Photo provided courtesy of Warren Holmes).

A secondary hero of Holmes’ would be more of a contemporary of his, as opposed to Kelly, who had retired when Warren was still a boy. “In the late-60s, for three years I went to Phil Esposito’s hockey school up in Sault Ste. Marie. Now I don’t know if he remembers it like I do, maybe he does, but Phil really took me under his wing there and bonded with me. The last year that I went was right around the time of the Summit Series (1972)”, referring to Esposito’s brilliant performance for Team Canada against the Soviets in the best of eight series; “Espo” would lead all scorers throughout the legendary hockey series and iconic occasion in Canadian history with 7-goals and 6-assists in 8-games.

At the age of 15, Warren Holmes would leave his hometown Beeton and would end up playing junior-B hockey with the Toronto Young Nationals. Holmes tells me, “without a doubt, that was the most talented team that I ever played on. Guys like Dave Shand, Dwight Foster, Barry Scully, Rob Palmer would all have great careers. It was the best team that I played on in terms of pure talent. The Young Nats would actually set the record for the most players drafted into the OHA for major junior”. Holmes strings me along a little bit with what he says next. “Yeah, there was another guy who would end up playing for the Young Nats a few years later from Brantford…. I want to say his name was… Gretzky”. Holmes actually got me on that one and I tell him so, as I had not known that “The Great One” had been a product of the Young Nationals. “Yeah, I like to tell people that it was really Dave Shand and I who paved the way for Wayne Gretzky to play for the Young Nats”, he chuckles. As Holmes recalls, it would not be long after his own time playing for the Young Nats that he would find himself drafted into the OHA by the Ottawa 67’s. “Tony McKegney was drafted before me, and then I think Trevor Johansen was drafted right after me”.

While playing his major junior years in Ottawa, Warren Holmes suffered a number of injuries that would limit his opportunities to play with the team. Among his injuries, Holmes would suffer repeated shoulder dislocations that would eventually require surgery. The injuries hampering him enough that during his sophomore campaign, Holmes would put up a mere 3-goals in 28-games for Ottawa. On top of that, Holmes would have a rather contentious relationship with head coach for Ottawa, Brian Kilrea; a man who is a Hockey Hall of Fame inductee and widely known for his 35-year association with the 67’s. As an interesting, even ironic side note, Kilrea scored the very first goal in Los Angeles Kings’ history; the same team with whom Warren would spend all of his time with in the NHL.

Warren Holmes 2
Warren was an extremely versatile player during his career, killing penalties regularly and helping to man the point on L.A.’s power-play unit in the early 1980s (Photo provided courtesy of Warren Holmes).

“I was on the team that got Brian Kilrea his first win in the OHA as coach with the 67’s. But to be brutally honest, I did not like him and he did not like me. But what I can say about Brian Kilrea is that he taught us to be professional hockey players. He also taught us a lot of different skills in practice too. Kilrea was a great passer of the puck when he played, and he worked a lot with us on our passing. The way he coached us prepared us to be professional hockey players. If it were not for Brian Kilrea, we would not have had our successes in pro hockey”. So while he and Brian Kilrea had a mutual dislike for one another, Warren still acknowledges the many skillsets and the intangibles that he garnered from his former coach; all of which would be applied throughout his career.

Though his playing time was limited due to injuries, when Holmes was healthy he was flanked by two incredibly talented hockey players, one of whom was an eventual Stanley Cup champion and scorer of over 1,000-points in the NHL. “When I was healthy, Bobby Smith would be on my leftwing, and Timmy Higgins was on the right. Kilrea would double-shift Bobby by having him center the fourth-line”. Smith would win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year with Minnesota in 1979 and a Stanley Cup title with Montreal in 1986, while Tim Higgins would become a veteran of over 700-NHL games across 11-seasons. With star defenseman Doug Wilson patrolling the blue-line and this trio up front, the 67’s would win the 1977 J. Ross Robertson Cup as the winner of the OHA playoff championship that season. This being done despite the fact that Holmes had briefly distanced himself from the team, demanding a trade. “I had left the team for about 6-weeks, and demanded a trade. I had later heard, and I don’t know how true it is, that Brian Kilrea had asked an exorbitant price in return for trading me and no deal could be completed. I mean, how could you ask much in the way of compensation when you had a player who only scored 3-goals the year prior? You couldn’t. Eventually Kilrea talked me into coming back to the team”. Holmes was absolutely on fire during the 67’s playoff run that championship season, on a tear with 11-goals and 10-assists for 21-points in 19-playoff games.

Winning the ’77 J. Ross Robertson Cup vaulted the 67’s into the Memorial Cup tournament where they would face both the Sherbrooke Castors and the New Westminster Bruins. The tournament, which featured the first time that a double round-robin format was used, saw Holmes and Ottawa lose their first game to the Bruins 7-6, followed by three wins in a row; 6-1 over the Castors, 4-3 in overtime against the Bruins once more, and then 5-2 victory over the Castors after that. Holmes maintained his scoring prowess during the tournament, tallying 3-goals and 2-assists to have 5-points in 5-games. Unfortunately, the 67’s would lose to New Westminster in the Cup Final, 6-5. Holmes recalls, “we had brought in (goaltender) Pat Riggin from the London Knights specifically for the Memorial Cup. Brad Maxwell scored against Riggin on an end-over-end shot that he just fluttered to the net. I guess that’s why they always tell you to put the puck on net. It ended up going five-hole on Riggin, and that ended up being the game-winner for New Westminster”.

The 1977 amateur draft saw both rival professional leagues, the NHL and the World Hockey Association (WHA) draft Warren Holmes; the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings drafting him in the fifth-round, number-85 overall and the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets selecting him in the eighth-round, the 72nd-overall player. But according to Warren, the WHA was not really a route that he seriously considered. “Nothing was ever really up (with the Jets)”, he tells me. “At most, in the Fall of ’77 they had stated that they were going to having their training camp over in Europe, and that they were only taking 23-players or so, and I was not one of the players included in that mix. No, the Kings were really the only team that wanted me at the time”.

Though the Kings may have been the only team wanting to enlist Warren’s services, it was still somewhat of an odd setup or situation for him to become a part of. “What you have to understand is that the Kings of late-70s and early-80s were not a team that presented a lot of opportunity, unless you were uber-talented like Marcel Dionne. They were not developing their team through draft picks and growing it the proper way. They were kind of their own worst enemy. In fact, they traded many of their assets away and were not fostering homegrown talent. With the exception of probably Dave Taylor (drafted in the 15th-round of the 1975 draft)”, Warren recalls. The Kings did not even invest in a full fledged farm team system at the time either; electing instead to share minor league affiliations with other NHL clubs. And without the commitment to develop their own talent pool, there was little of a farm system to work with. In fact, the Kings of that time period had built a penchant for trading away their high draft selections time and time again in exchange for players that had once been talented but were now in the twilight of their careers. “That’s why you saw guys like Glenn Goldup, Rick Martin, Dave Schultz, Brian Glennie coming in for very brief stops”, Holmes tells me. The one instance in which the Kings would strike gold was when they had signed winger Charlie Simmer as a free agent in August of Holmes’ draft year (1977). With Dionne, Taylor, and Simmer together, the Kings would have their famed “Triple Crown Line”. Most of the remaining assets of the team were disparate.

Warren Holmes 1
Holmes’ size and strength made him a very formidable center during his years with the Kings and throughout his professional career. Notice Kings’ defenseman Jerry “King Kong” Korab in the background. (Photo provided courtesy of Warren Holmes).

When Warren Holmes entered into the fold, he actually was not yet under contract with the Kings himself, despite having been drafted by them. Holmes would play his first year of professional hockey with the IHL’s Saginaw Gears, one of the minor league teams that L.A. shared an affiliation with. “Wren Blair (formerly the first head coach in Minnesota North Stars history) was a part-owner of Saginaw. He was the one who helped get me a 3-year contract with the Kings. After all of those injuries in junior, it was the first time that I was playing healthy. And I was playing on a good team”.

Holmes would score the most goals in a single season for his professional career that year (notching 48 of them), and his second highest seasonal points total as well (81). “Back in those days minor league teams really only carried fourteen skaters and two goalies”, he says. “You’d skate three lines and have five-D. That’s the reason why I scored so much because I had so much ice time”. It was also during his time in Saginaw that Warren Holmes and Gears head coach Don Perry forged a longstanding relationship that would carry on for years between multiple teams and multiple leagues, including the NHL. “If you ask Don to this day, he’ll agree that of all the players he coached, I was the one who played for him the most. Maybe not in exact number of games, but for the amount of years on teams that he coached”. Perhaps fostered by Perry’s leadership at the helm, Holmes found in Saginaw a team and a place where he belonged. “We were a team of friends. Guys like Dennis Desrosiers, Dave Westner; I’m still friends with those guys to this day, forty years later. It’s the most comfortable that I felt with one team”. Warren’s 48-goals were good enough for second spot overall in the IHL that season.

The next few years, between 1978 until 1982, Warren would repeatedly find himself on the move between cities and leagues; some of it not clearly depicted in the seasonal stats from that time. Warren explains to me that for 1978-79, “I started the season in training camp with Los Angeles. Finished training camp and they sent me to Springfield for 2-weeks”. The Springfield Falcons being the Kings’ AHL minor league affiliate. “Then I went back to Saginaw. I guess I got it in my head that because I had so much success my first year that I didn’t need to work as hard my second. Well, I was wrong. So Don Perry, despite the relationship that I had with him and would end up having with him, shipped me to Milwaukee (Admirals) in exchange for Scott Gruhl, and to basically teach me a lesson. But then Saginaw brought me back again at the trade deadline and would have me for the playoffs”. The following season though, with Holmes back in the fold in Saginaw, he, Gruhl, and Dave Westner formed a very dangerous forward line for the Gears.

The 1979-80 season would begin nearly exactly the same as the one prior. Holmes would start out the year at the Kings training camp in L.A., be sent to their new AHL affiliate for that season, the Binghamton Dusters, where he would play all of two games, and then again he would be sent to Saginaw in the IHL. Easy to see why Warren’s comfort level in Saginaw was growing. In terms of points ’79-’80 would be his most productive, finishing the year with a career-high total of 92 (37-goals, 55-assists). Warren would finish second overall for the Gears in team scoring, while linemate Scott Gruhl led the way with 93-points of his own (53-goals, 40-assists), and the third part of their line, Dave Westner, was sixth with 20-goals and 41-assists. Though the Gears would sweep Milwaukee 4-games to none in the opening round in the playoffs, they would be eliminated themselves in the next round as they fell to the Fort Wayne Komets 4-games to 1. Holmes would finish the playoffs with 5-goals and 3-assists in 7-playoff games.

And then finally, a championship! Perhaps as they say, “the third time is the charm”. The 1980-81 season would be the third time that Warren would begin the year with the Kings training camp, before being sent to the Houston Apollos of the Central Hockey League (CHL). Houston was an old team that featured a wide array of veteran NHL players, including Rick Hampton, J.P. Kelly, Alex Tidey, John Smrke, Brad Selwood, and Barry Gibbs. Unfortunately for the aged guard, the Apollos organization proved unstable and the team would fold in January. But after this took place, once more Warren Holmes found himself in the familiar confines of Saginaw. “After the Apollos folded, me, Don Waddell, John Gibson, and Claude Larochelle were sent to Saginaw to finish the season and gear up for the playoffs”. Going into the playoffs, the Gears also had leadership from veteran defenseman Larry Goodenough who added some invaluable previous championship experience, having already won the Stanley Cup with the Philadelphia Flyers in 1975.

Whether it was the sudden influx of new players, having the guidance of trusted coach Don Perry, the bell-weathered goaltending of Bob Froese and Ted Tucker, or whatever intangible it may have been, the 1980-81 Saginaw Gears were awesome come that season’s playoffs. “When we won the Turner Cup that year, we did so in just 13 games. We only lost one game that year, and that was against Fort Wayne in double-OT. We had so many veterans like Larry Goodenough, Gord Brooks, and John Gibson. I don’t want to say that it was easy for us, but we had really good chemistry”. That championship team still holds a special place in Warren Holmes’ heart, as it does for all of his teammates from that year.

1979-80 Saginaw Gears
Some of Holmes’ best years in hockey were spent with the Saginaw Gears of the IHL. Here is a team photo of the 1979-80 Gears squad. Warren is in the second-row, second in from the left. (Photo provided courtesy of Warren Holmes).

As if some icing on the cake, after winning the Turner Cup in 1981 Holmes would receive his first bit of NHL action the following season, 1981-82. The ever present Don Perry would be called upon to coach the New Haven Nighthawks that year. Warren Holmes had been assigned to play for the Nighthawks already that year, and was enjoying a solid season which would eventually see him finish fourth overall in scoring on the team. But when the current Kings coach Parker MacDonald was relieved of his duties halfway through the season, Perry would be given the reins of the parent club. It would not be long until he would tap Holmes upon the shoulder to join him. “I remember Nighthawks owner George Maguire had called us into his office. He told me, Scott Gruhl and Al Sims, who had played a bunch of years with the Boston Bruins and the Hartford Whalers, that we were going to Pittsburgh and that we had been called up. George said, ‘You guys are going to Pittsburgh; grab 3 sticks and a toothbrush, and get on the plane. And you’ll be back here Sunday afternoon'”. Basically a one night stand of sorts, as New Haven would need them for a Sunday matinee game of their own that weekend. The details of Warren Holmes’ first NHL game in Pittsburgh against the Penguins are next to impossible to forget. The three call-ups would have their presence felt all throughout the game. Holmes tells me, “The game was a 3-3 tie. I had 2-assists and was a plus-3. Gruhl had 2-assists and was a plus-3. And Al Sims was a plus-3 too. I was named as either the First or Second Star of the game”. Not bad at all for a first NHL game.

The best was yet to come as the next year (1982-83) Warren would get his fullest amount of time in the NHL, practically splitting the season in half between New Haven and with the Kings. “I went to training camp with New Haven that year and stayed there until about mid-November. Bernie Nicholls hurt his knee, and so I got called up to L.A. and stayed there until about January. Because I had been considered an emergency recall, they had to send me back down to New Haven to avoid losing me on waivers. So I would be down in New Haven for about a month to 5-weeks before they called me back up again to finish out the season with the Kings”

Recognizing what he offered the team and where he fit in, the versatility of Warren Holmes was greatly appreciated by his Los Angeles teammates. “I killed penalties. And I would play the point on the power-play with the ‘Triple Crown Line’. I remember Marcel Dionne always asking about when I would be up with the team. I wasn’t stupid”, Holmes laughs, “a guy scores 700-goals in the NHL, I knew who to get the puck to. So I would be on the point for the power-play with the ‘Triple Crown Line’ with me and Larry Murphy on the back end”. Playing in these keys situations, especially with such great talents around him was very much reflected in Warren’s stats with the Kings that year. In 39-regular season games, he would score 8-goals and 16-assists for 24-points. “I don’t want this to sound like me tooting my own horn, but I remember Don Perry saying to me that I was the only player that he ever coached who played better in each league that he went up”.

Warren Holmes 4
Though his time with them may have been brief, Warren Holmes was a fixture on the 1982-83 Los Angeles Kings. Holmes is shown here in the center of the second row, along with his Kings’ teammates. (Photo provided courtesy of Warren Holmes).

Further elaborating on his time with the Kings as a whole, Warren goes on to say, “we were a fairly tight team with one another. Terry Ruskowski was my roommate on the road. A lot of the guys were married at the time, but we would still get together and hang out. To this day, I still stay in touch with Mark Hardy and Bernie Nicholls on Facebook. Pete Demers was our trainer and I stay in touch with him too. Dave Lewis was our captain, and occasionally we’ll say ‘hi’ to each other”. Besides thoughts on his teammates, Warren has a very interesting take on what playing hockey in the NHL was like, at least for him. “Now let me explain this fully so that it’s not taken the wrong way”, he says. “For me, the NHL was the easiest league that I played in. I am not talking about the speed of the game or anything like that, because it is the fastest league in the world and you have to make adjustments to that if you are going to play in it. But, it was the only league that I played in where everyone knew their position and how to play it. They were in the right places most, if not all the time, and knew where to be. Everyone knew what to do, which wasn’t the case in other leagues. Playing in the NHL, there was less chaos. That is what I meant by saying it was the easiest”.

I present to Warren a totally oddball question. During the 1982-83 season, Holmes played on three different teams with the first ever Soviet-born and trained player in the NHL, Victor Nechayev. More of a trivia question of sorts than anything else, Nechayev played with the Saginaw Gears, New Haven Nighthawks, and the Los Angeles Kings that season too, and also became the first Soviet player to score a goal in the NHL. When I ask Warren to tell me his memories of Nechayev, he has a one word response – “Screwdriver!”, referring to Nechayev’s love of the vodka and orange juice mixed drink. “It would be about 95-percent vodka and just the tiniest bit of orange juice when he’d make them. Oftentimes it just looked like cloudy water; that’s how little orange juice was in it”. Now I had previously heard that the reason why the Soviet Union had allowed Nechayev to defect to North America, and not players like Larionov, Fetisov, Makarov, and Tretiak, was because he was not really a good hockey player and had played mostly in the lower-tiered Soviet leagues. Holmes has similar sentiments about his former teammate and confirms that he was not a good player, and that the story of his being allowed defection would make sense. Holmes also recalled a Christmas party that the owner of the Nighthawks had hosted at his home in which a drunken Nechayev went into the backyard and jumped in the family’s frozen pool. Needless to say, Nechayev would not find himself on the team much longer after that.

One last note about Holmes’ 1982-83 campaign is that he would score his first NHL goal that season too. “I wish I could tell you that it was a real pretty one, but it wasn’t. We were playing Detroit, and we had a two-on-one break with Charlie Simmer and myself. Charlie had passed the puck to me, and I tried to put it back across. It ended up hitting the stick of the defenseman and then bounced up over the pads of Greg Stefan. I remember standing at center ice in L.A. after I scored the goal, waiting for the face-off, and just shaking uncontrollably. Because I knew the next day that my dad would be listening to the rundown of the NHL scores from the night before and would hear my name being called that I had scored”. Whether the goal could be deemed as pretty or not is inconsequential. What matters is that it is still a very memorable and meaningful one for Warren.

1983-84 would see Holmes play the majority of the year in New Haven, putting up 26-goals and 31-assists. He would also see three more games with the Kings, but nothing particularly noteworthy at that point in time. Holmes goes on to explain, “This is going to sound like sour grapes, but that last season in New Haven I had been screwed over by Management. At the end of the season, I was pretty much just sitting on the bench. Coach Nick Beverley eventually came to me afterward and apologized to me for not handling the situation better, saying that he had made a mistake”. At that point, the thought of retirement crept into Warren’s mind. “The L.A. Kings didn’t offer me a contract after that. I went and played for the Flint Generals (under coach and former teammate Dennis Desrosiers). Then they moved the team back to Saginaw in 1985-86, and I had some injuries once more. I was really playing for nothing in Flint. And my heart just wasn’t in it anymore. I think I pretty much knew after that last season in New Haven”.

Today’s game is a lot different from when Warren Holmes played. “Players these days have a nutritionist and a masseuse. I never lifted weights when I was playing. Maybe for a few weeks at the end of the off-season, but not otherwise. I remember being in the fitness room at the Forum in L.A., and we still had guys on the team who smoked cigarettes and we used this area as a smoking room. Me, J.P. Kelly, Mario Lessard, Jerry Korab, We would sit on the Nautilus machine and smoke. I look at the players these days and see how committed they are to training. All I can say is, is that money is a very powerful motivator. A very powerful motivator. But you really can’t compare, and it’s not fair to compare, today’s game with when we played. It’s like comparing apples and oranges”.

With taking those thoughts into consideration, Warren proceeds to tell me that there are two things in particular that he deems as being the most important things he learned as a hockey player. Firstly, he says “I learned the importance of working with others. You need to surround yourself with talented, good people around you. You need to recognize that you are a piece of something, and you need to identify where you fit. People wonder sometimes why Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov and Adam Oates all couldn’t fit together in Detroit. Well, each is a centerman, and each player would have needed to fit. So you have to understand where you fit, and then also be able to fit”.

And then secondly, “You need to be accepting of defeat. If somebody beats you, well, take your hat off to them. There is nothing wrong with being upset if you beat yourself by making a dumb mistake. But if somebody beats you outright, then you need to be accepting of it. Be gracious in defeat. For 99% of the players during my generation, no matter what happened during the game, you go out afterward and have a beer together. See a guy, and ask him how he’s doing. If you were beaten, you need to be gracious in your defeat”.

When it comes to Warren Holmes though, even especially during our conversation this evening, I can say that he is gracious in far more than just defeat. Warren is gracious as he shares his stories with me. As he put it to me this way, “Thank you Nate for making an old man feel appreciated”. Hoisting the Turner Cup with the Gears. Or as he manned the point on the power-play for the “Triple Crown Line”. As he speaks of his relationships with two opposite ends of the spectrum in Brian Kilrea and Don Perry. Fighting to win the Memorial Cup for Ottawa. Going about everyday life. Warren Holmes did (and does) all of the above, graciously.

 

 

Advertisements

“Every Step”: A Conversation with Lorne Stamler

“The hockey world and players are like an extended family”, he says. “The person you fought with on the ice will have your back off the ice in anything that you do. We are a special breed…”. In my mind’s eye, as he shares his story with me, I realize that Lorne Stamler has hit the proverbial nail on the head. Hockey players and those who love the game are unique, but are bonded with one another. I think that this applies especially to the generation of hockey enthusiasts from the time that Stamler played the game; the colorful 1970s and early-80s were a magical time for hockey. And this former Los Angeles King, Toronto Maple Leaf and Winnipeg Jet is a very kind man, who possesses an immense understanding of the interconnection of each facet of hockey. The players, the fans, the coaches, the teams, the arenas, the dynasties, the heroes, the goats… Stamler’s introspective nature into hockey gives me both goosebumps and a warmth in my heart at the same time.

Lorne Stamler was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba on August 9th, 1951, but would live there for only the first two years of his life before he and his family moved to Atikokan; a township in the Rainy River District of Northwestern, Ontario. It would be in Atikokan where Stamler would begin to play hockey. “I started to learn to skate at the age of two, and started to play organized hockey when I was three years old”, he tells me. I know that this is not an uncommon age to begin learning the game in Canada, but I marvel nonetheless at the tender age Lorne was when he first laced up his skates. “My dad was the coach, and my older brother Greg was one of my teammates. Ice time was never a problem, since the outdoor rink was by our house. We would skate before school, during lunch time, after school, and then would play our regular hockey game after dinner”, Stamler recalls. “This is what we did from the middle of October until the end of April; all outside”.

While I am sure that the same childhood memories ring true for seemingly millions of Canadian kids, there is something about the way that Stamler describes his youth that is warm and inviting. It was a different era indeed, and as far as the NHL was concerned, the 1950s and 1960s, prior to expansion, were arguably the game’s “Golden Age” – hockey at its finest. “When I was growing up, there were only six teams in the NHL. Living in Canada, if you were French, your team was Montreal; if you were English, it was Toronto”. So many of the great players from Stamler’s childhood, almost too many to name, have since been enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Simpler times indeed, but a greater game perhaps. “I was always a Toronto Maple Leaf fan”, he recalls, “and my dream was to play for them some day. My favorite hockey player was always (Chicago Blackhawks legend) Bobby Hull, but (Toronto’s) Johnny Bower and Dave Keon were right up there too”.

1306504156920
Lorne Stamler would see many of his childhood dreams come true, one of those being playing for his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo provided courtesy of Lorne Stamler)

Though he was a Maple Leafs fan regardless, Lorne Stamler would soon find himself residing much closer to “Les Habitants” than Toronto, and would see himself delve further into the game as he worked his way from Bantams, to Midgets and Junior. “When I was eleven, we moved to Matagami, Quebec; about 600-miles north of Montreal. My dad was a miner and a master mechanic, so we went to where the jobs were”. A year before beginning his Junior career, Stamler regularly trekked back and forth between Matagami and the main town on the Harricana River, the town of Amos, Quebec – a distance of 114-miles – where he would play for the Amos Comets. “My dad and I would go to Amos three times a week for eight o’clock games, and get home at two o’clock in the morning. He would go to work, and I would go to school the next day”. Hard to even imagine, but the commitment was obviously there in Lorne’s heart from a very young age, and the support came readily from his parents.

While playing for Amos, Stamler was drafted by the Toronto Marlboros of the Ontario Hockey League for Major Junior hockey. Though he would assemble decent seasons with the Marlboros of 2-goals and 3-assists in 25-games played in 1968-69, followed by 6-goals and 12-assists in 51-games the following year, the initial transition at first was not that easy for Lorne. “I lived with a family there and went to York Memorial High School. The first three weeks that I was there, I was homesick”; though this would not last for long and Stamler had a great support network around him. “The family I lived with was exceptional and made me a part of their family. I still visit with their children to this day. My mom and dad were my rocks though; they would always call me after every game and boost me up. My second year there, Fred Barrett (former Minnesota North Stars and Los Angeles Kings player) lived up the road from me, so we became very close; still to this day”. Having numerous positives from family and friends carried over onto the ice as well, as Stamler and his Marlboro teammates would make it to the OHL’s championship that second season, but would lose the J. Ross Robertson Cup to the rival Montreal Junior Canadiens; Stamler would put up 4-goals and 7-assists during Toronto’s playoff run.

Recognizing that his success level in Major Junior was not necessarily translating into a direct route to a professional career, Lorne Stamler decided it was best to prepare for the future, perhaps envisioning the responsibilities that come with life after hockey. “I was a mediocre junior player, and I knew that I needed to get an education first”. College scouts recruited players on the edge of the professional bubble, if not outside of it, and when Michigan Tech sought out Stamler, he readily accepted the opportunity; the lasting impact upon him that attending university would have would be profound. With Toronto Marlboros teammates Graham Wise, Rick Quance, and Gary Crosby all considering attending Michigan Tech too, and eventually doing so with him, Lorne found the place where he was meant to be and play hockey. “The coach at Michigan Tech was John MacInnes, who was very well known as a great coach. So to get good coaching and an education was better than struggling in juniors”.

Tech 1974
Skating for the Michigan Tech Huskies, Lorne and his teammates made it all the way to the NCAA national championship in 1974. (Photo provided courtesy of Lorne Stamler).

Thinking back on his time at Michigan Tech, Lorne is able to summarize the experience quite concisely – “Michigan Tech was the greatest four years of my life”. While posting a modest 8-goals and 5-assists in 32-games throughout his freshman campaign, the following years would see him become a most productive scorer, putting up seasons of 20, 17, and 26-goals in no more than 39-games each season. On top of that, Stamler would be named a Second Team All-WCHA player during his senior season (1973-74) and make a run with his fellow Huskies to the National Championship game that same season. As a quick summary of those four years at Michigan Tech, especially his senior year championship run, Stamler says “I received a great education while playing the game that I love. And to top it off, my freshman year I was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings (8th-round of the 1971 NHL Amateur draft, 103rd overall). Senior year was the most memorable because we had such a good team, and going to the Frozen Four in Boston will never be forgotten. I remember playing against Harvard in the first game, and we were losing 5-to-3 with about 3-minutes to go. We scored, and then scored again with just seconds left to tie it. We went into overtime, and our line scored the winning goal. Just an awesome memory. We lost to Minnesota in the finals, but the following year the same four pairings (in the Frozen Four) were in St. Louis and Tech beat Minnesota in the finals (Stamler had already graduated). I still go back to Tech every so often for reunions and see all the guys”.

I closely examine a photo that Stamler has sent me of him posing with skates on and stick in hand, wearing the long ago gold and royal purple colors of the 1970s Los Angeles Kings. I am a traditionalist, and I wish that the Kings never strayed away from those colors and jerseys to begin with; they are far more regal in my opinion than black and silver, or any of the variations that the Kings have had since. Stamler’s first NHL goal was scored November 28th, 1976 in the long forgotten McNichols Sports Arena against goaltender Michel Plasse of the Colorado Rockies; a team and a goaltender from a bygone era. I am imagining the retro jerseys of both teams, the purple colors at least partially emblazoned on both teams, as Stamler beats Plasse from the high slot.

I am anxious to learn of Stamler’s memories with Los Angeles. He tells me, “being drafted by L.A. was a big surprise. Being in college, we never expected to get drafted because they were not taking kids from there at the time. I think they (the NHL) knew we would stay in college and let the colleges develop the players like the NFL does. They had to offer you a contract, and I remember getting a letter from the Kings offering me $3,500 a year; that was enough incentive to stay in school. But at least when I graduated I had a choice to either go to camp or go out in the workforce”.

Beginning his professional career in 1974, Stamler would see his first two seasons with the organization being spent with their minor league affiliates; the former Springfield Kings of the American Hockey League for the 1974-75 season, and the Fort Worth Texans of the Central Hockey League for all of the 1975-76 season. Stamler’s numbers with the Texans in ’75-’76 were quite good, as he finished third in team scoring by posting 33-goals and 33-assists for 66-points in 76-games. Los Angeles would take note, and it would not be long into his third season of pro hockey that he would receive a promotion to the NHL.

20160809_223041
Stamler would score his first NHL goal November 28th, 1976 against the Colorado Rockies and goaltender Michel Plasse (Photo provided courtesy of Lorne Stamler)

“I was called up in 1976-77 because the Kings had a lot of injuries”, he recalls. Stamler had been in the midst of his second season with Fort Worth when he got the call. “I remember going into Colorado, and Krazy George was in the stands”. The Colorado Rockies were one of the many professional sports teams that Krazy George Henderson, the self-proclaimed inventor of “The Wave” and drum banging wild fan, worked for during his career. “My first goal was very exciting, and then when I scored another I thought I was good to stay for a while. Well, politics plays a big roll in the game, and thus I was sent back down to the minors”. Stamler would actually have a superb second season with the Texans both before and after his call up to the Kings, and he would finish the 1976-77 CHL season by recording 19-goals and 21-assists for 40-points in a mere 48-games, plus an additional 4-goals and 2-assists in 5-playoff games as well. Despite a brief stay in the NHL, Lorne fondly recognizes, “my dream had come true though. Playing in the NHL and scoring a goal; I was a happy camper…”.

Lorne Stamler would only play two more games as a Los Angeles King, as part of a brief appearance with the parent club during the 1977-78 season. Stamler’s all-time totals as a Kings player ended up being 2-goals and an assist scored in 9-games. But memories and friendships are not captured at all in numbers. The Kings of the 1970s possessed an array of colorful veterans, with whom Lorne would receive guidance and tutelage from. “Playing with (Marcel) Dionne, (Butch) Goring and all the other greats was very intimidating, but they took me under their wing and helped me every possible way”. Recently inducted Hockey Hall of Fame goaltending great, Rogatien Vachon, likely played the biggest role in adjusting Lorne to life in the NHL and Los Angeles. “Rogie was the biggest help; he had me up to his place for dinner several times because I lived in the hotel. He is one of the nicest people around”. Recognizing that everyone had a job to do just the same, Stamler kept things in perspective. “Everybody was helpful, but deep down you are fighting for a job. They wanted you to do well, but as long as it didn’t mean you taking their job”.

June of 1978 would see a good sized trade go down between the Los Angeles Kings and the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Lorne would see yet another dream come true by suiting up with the team that most of his childhood heroes played for. The Kings would ship Stamler along with tough guy Dave Hutchison to the Leafs in exchange for Brian Glennie, Scott Garland, Kurt Walker, and a 2nd-round draft choice that would eventually become one of the Kings’ all-time great defensemen, Mark Hardy. For Stamler, the trade brought excitement and much opportunity on the horizon. “Toronto was the team I wanted to play for when I was a kid and my dreams came true. Being traded to Toronto was a good thing because Roger Neilson was the coach, and he believed in specialty teams. I was a penalty-killer and my partner was Garry Monahan. We backed up Jimmy Jones and Jerry Butler as the second set of killers. To play with greats like Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Tiger Williams, and Mike Palmateer was a thrill”.

With the Leafs, Stamler would play his most full NHL season up until that point in time. 45-games would see him contribute 4-goals and 3-assists. The stint in Toronto brought warm moments for he and his family, but bittersweet too. “My mom and dad got to see me play live and score a goal, so that kind of completed the circle. Dad was very sick, and after the game where I scored he went home and passed away shortly after. He had completed his journey in life”. Reflecting on what Lorne said, there is a profound gravity to his experience. Idolizing the Leafs, playing Major Junior in Toronto, living in Ontario, donning the Maple Leaf crest, having his parents see him play an NHL game before their own eyes, one of his last moments shared with his father. As each individual step was traced, it would not be until afterward that the circle on that portion of his life was complete. It is remarkable to contemplate this, and what Lorne must have felt at the time.

In 1979, the National Hockey League would expand to include four new teams out of the defunct rival World Hockey Association. The NHL welcomed the Hartford Whalers, Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques, and the Winnipeg Jets into the fold. With their seventh selection in the expansion draft, Winnipeg selected Lorne, nabbing him from Toronto. The inaugural season Jets were a very interesting team in many ways. They possessed talent in leading scorer Morris Lukowich, future firepower in “Miracle on Ice” gold medalist Dave Christian, leadership from Swedish great and team captain Lars-Erik Sjoberg, toughness coming from the likes of Jimmy Mann and Barry Melrose, and though briefly, even hockey royalty and greatness in the likes of Bobby Hull, Stamler’s number one boyhood hero.

3597_517263004988378_105101909_n
Lorne Stamler would see NHL action with three different teams; the Los Angeles Kings, Toronto Maple Leafs and the Winnipeg Jets (Photo provided courtesy of Lorne Stamler).

Looking back on the expansion Jets, there are fond memories for Lorne. Jokingly he says, “We had a great time in Winnipeg, but it was too cold”. But on a more meaningful and serious note, Stamler adds, “when I went to Winnipeg, it was another chance to continue my NHL career. I still had a lot of relatives there, so it was great to see them all again. Tom McVie was our coach, and he kept things very interesting, knowing we would struggle during our first year in the league. The two most memorable things though in Winnipeg were that my oldest daughter Loren was born there, and then in January Bobby Hull sat beside me in our dressing room. The thrill of playing with an idol of mine was awesome. I had a picture of me with Bobby, Ken Wharram, and Gump Worsley when I was eleven at Bobby’s hockey school in Hull, Quebec and I showed it to him; he said to me, ‘see where it got you!'”. Once again, things had seemed to come full circle for Lorne. Returning to the city of his birth, being close to family again, and the opportunity to play alongside his childhood hero.  In what would be his final NHL season, Stamler would finish 1979-80 having played 62-games, totaling 8-goals and 7-assists.

The Jets opted not to resign Stamler in 1980, and for a brief period of time Lorne considered calling it quits. New York Islanders scout and eventual Assistant General Manager Jimmy Devellano entered the picture, and ended up signing Lorne to the Islanders organization with the thought that he could be useful to the team on Long Island as they were enjoying the beginnings of their four-year run at the Stanley Cup. Lorne instead ended up being assigned to play with the Isles’ CHL affiliate Indianapolis Checkers. “I still wanted to play, so I went. Indy turned out to be awesome, and after my second year there I was working in the office and also served as a part-time player-coach. With the late Coach Fred Creighton, we won two cups back to back and I was a big help in those victories”. In fact, Stamler played in every playoff game for both years of the Checkers’ championship campaigns. Familiar Checkers teammates on those championship teams included long time NHL goaltender Kelly Hrudey, Stanley Cup champions Greg Gilbert, Gord Dineen and Mats Hallin, as well as former longtime Buffalo Sabres general manager Darcy Regier. Rather remarkable too is that in the two years that the Checkers won the CHL championships, the New York Islanders mirrored the success those same seasons by winning the Stanley Cup.

$T2eC16RHJGkFFm5-i2EBBSGlLLq)-Q~~60_3
Stamler mixing it up in front of the Chicago net with defenseman Mike O’Connell and goaltending great Tony Esposito (Photo provided courtesy of Lorne Stamler).

After the four years with Indianapolis, it was time for Lorne to move on from hockey. Another completed circle. The last part of the circle for Lorne’s time in Indianapolis was the birth of his second daughter, Lisa, during his final season with the Checkers; a most fitting bookend to four wonderful years with the organization. “I retired in 1984. And at this time in my life, I have not had the blades on in seven years. I tried to get involved when Phil Esposito was getting the Lightning going in Tampa, but they didn’t want any help at the time. So at present, I am not involved in hockey”. Living in Florida, Lorne occasionally takes in an NHL game, but things have changed. “I go to one Lightning game a year. I am not a fan, but I like to sit in the nosebleed seats and see what should happen. The game has changed so much and has become more European; I really can’t relate to it”.

Lorne Stamler’s hockey career seems to be typified by very unique, purposeful but unpredictable circles of life that make complete and total sense once they are complete. Like I said at the beginning, it is very interesting to take notice of how Lorne recognizes, seemingly from the outside looking in at his life and his hockey, that everything is interconnected in one way or another; things happen for a reason. “I have learned many things throughout my career,  but most of all is – if you have a dream, don’t ever stop pursuing it. Things happen in a strange way, and the Good Lord will watch you every step”. As he tells me this, I have a bit of an epiphany – Lorne Stamler is absolutely, one-hundred-and-ten percent correct. Strange things do happen in our lives and in our careers, but they end up making sense in the end. Lorne has seen it take place a few times in his career and in his life. I have learned something from Lorne. Not just about his hockey career and his story. I have learned something about myself too. Perhaps we all can. We just need to keep following our own circles – every step!