When Matt Holmes was younger, he never imagined that he would one day play a season of junior hockey in the British Columbia Hockey League. But the 20-year-old from Rye, N.Y., is sure glad he did.
“It became one of the best years of my life,” Holmes stated.
Based on his scoring prowess, it’s easy to see why.
Holmes, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound forward, recorded 68 points (28-40-68) in 54 regular-season games this past season with the Chilliwack Chiefs. His point total was the most on the team, the highest in the circuit among rookies and tied for the fifth most overall in the league. He also notched one assist in 11 playoff matches.
“I had no idea what to expect,” he admitted, “but it turned out great. It was definitely different living out there. It’s almost like farm country in Chilliwack (which is 53 miles east of Vancouver). As for the hockey, the rink and the facilities are amazing, and the fans are crazy, but you kind of expect that with anywhere you’re going to go.”
What impressed Chiefs head coach and general manager Brian Maloney the most about Holmes was his willingness to learn and be a good teammate.
“He followed what we preached here,” Maloney said. “He’s a big kid who has tons of hockey IQ. We pushed him in areas to compete more and to raise his game, and he was receptive to it.”
Before Holmes made his decision to head across the continent, he was selected by the Tri-City Storm 170th overall in the 2018 United States Hockey League Phase 2 draft and participated in the Storm’s tryout camp. However, after some deliberation, it became clear that Chilliwack was the optimal place for him to go for the 2018-19 campaign.
“I’m committed to Brown, and it was a situation where Brown and my hockey adviser (George Bazos of Edge Sports Management) said Chilliwack would be a better spot for me,” explained Holmes, who played four years of prep school hockey, two at Brunswick and two at Salisbury, before joining Chilliwack. “My adviser advised the (now former) Chiefs associate head coach (Cam Keith) when he was a player, so we had a good connection. I also had a few buddies — Kevin Wall, Brett Willits and Jacques Bouquot — already going there from Salisbury. It was a good fit.”
Being with his pals from Salisbury made the change to living and playing on the Pacific Coast of North America much smoother.
“Knowing that you already had guys in your corner made the transition so much easier,” Holmes said. “When I went to Tri-City camp, I knew two kids, Ian Murphy and Zac Jones, but not on a personal level. It was just from growing up playing against them.”
What also helped him quickly acclimate to life in the westernmost Canadian province was the experience he gained during his prep school years.
“When I went to Brunswick, the hockey was way better than what I had ever played,” Holmes said. “Salisbury prepared me for living on my own at a boarding school. I can’t imagine going straight from home to a random family in the middle of nowhere where I would have no idea what’s going to happen.”
In the BCHL, Holmes found himself in a league loaded with scoring, which, naturally, he enjoyed.
“It’s definitely an offensive league,” he noted. “As a forward, you got to love that. It’s different than the USHL, which is defensive, low-scoring and has a chip-and-grind game. The BCHL is more skill.”
Holmes said it took him about five games to adjust to the faster pace.
“It’s much more free-flowing, at least early on,” he said. “The systems aren’t totally driven in, whereas at Salisbury we knew what was going on, knew everywhere people were going and knew the plays. In Chilliwack, everyone is talented and it was more ‘go and play,’ which I loved. It was creative. It couldn’t have been more fun.”
In terms of his development as a player, Holmes said his strength on the ice and his skating improved the most during his season in the BCHL.
Maloney feels Holmes made the greatest strides in his compete level and consistency.
“The raw talent was there and has always been there,” Maloney asserted. “He had the will to play the game in areas where he maybe shied away from in the past, and he really learned to compete on a daily basis and not take nights off.”
Holmes considers his communication skills something that he fine-tuned the most off the ice, where he often went fishing and did “country activities” in addition to watching movies and hanging out with his buddies.
“There were a lot of different personalities on the team,” Holmes said. “I learned about everyone and a lot of different places and people.”
Being surrounded by some friendly faces, he didn’t experience any homesickness.
Said Holmes: “It felt like I was back at Salisbury.”
After being far from home for a year, the right-handed shooter will return to playing on the East Coast this fall when he suits up for the Brown Bears. He couldn’t be more excited.
“I was previously committed to Merrimack, but the coach (Mark Dennehy) who committed me got fired, so we got into a little chaotic zone,” Holmes concluded. “Brown, which was the first school to show interest in me, was there looming around the whole time, and it was a perfect fit. The coaches have faith in me, and that’s all I needed.”