Peter Holland’s Hockey Homecoming
Scoring with the Leafs. A Caledon boy’s hockey dream comes true.
The phone call that changed Peter Holland’s life woke him from a deep sleep.
It was November 16, 2013, and he had earned the rest. The night before, the 22-year-old NHL prospect had put on a show, racking up two goals and an assist to lead the Norfolk Admirals, an Anaheim Ducks minor league affiliate, to a 4-3 victory.
But the phone call brought the words he had dreamed of hearing since he was old enough to lace up his first pair of skates. He had been traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team he had scored countless goals for as a boy skating on his pond back home in Caledon. “I didn’t believe it at first,” Holland said in an interview this past summer. “It’s still kind of hard to put into words.”
After getting the news from Anaheim general manager Bob Murray, the man who had drafted the 6-foot-2, 190-pound centre into the NHL four years earlier, the first call Holland made was to his equipment trainer, who would have to pack up his gear.
The second was to his mother, Jude. And the third. And the fourth. When he couldn’t reach her, he called his father, Jan, at work. “He was pretty excited and let out a big roar in the office,” said Holland.
And for good reason. Holland was finally coming home.
The Hockey Dream is Born
For many young Canadians, getting that first pair of hockey skates and taking those first wobbly steps on a fresh sheet of ice is a rite of passage.
Holland’s family moved to their home just north of Bolton when he was four years old, and he spent hours on the family pond or in the basement perfecting his shot.
For his father, that dedication to improving his craft stands out. “I’d say, ‘You know, Pete, your backhand needs work,’ and he would go down to the pond and work on his backhand, and he’d come home at six o’clock that night and say, ‘Dad! Dad! Let me show you my backhand!’”
Holland’s love of hockey translated into a passion for the Toronto Maple Leafs. To this day his bedroom at his parents’ home is still painted blue, and he has posters of some of the Leaf greats of the 1990s and early 2000s: goaltender Curtis Joseph, goal scorer Alexander Mogilny – and one of his all-time favourites, former captain and fellow centre Mats Sundin. Holland even had a Sundin jersey and wore the big Swede’s number 13 on the ice.
Holland’s hockey career started like that of most young kids: early morning practices and a lot of personal sacrifice. Most of his closest friends were also his teammates. “It was kind of tough building too close a relationship with some kids because it felt like every night I was going to a hockey rink,” he said.
When the pond wasn’t frozen, he would work on his shot in the basement, destroying much of it in the process. “There was no wood left untouched – anywhere,” laughed Jude.
So when he was 14, his parents installed a shooting area in a corner of the basement, complete with hockey boards and Plexiglas to protect the walls, and simulated ice on the floor. They even hired an artist to draw a crowd of Simpson characters, along with a few familiar hockey faces, who watched their son shoot.
“They put in Sundin, [Tie] Domi is over there, and Don Cherry and Ron MacLean,” chuckled Holland, who was born in Toronto and now lives just north of the Rogers Centre.
The highlight of Holland’s minor hockey career was winning the Quebec International Peewee Tournament in 2004 with the Brampton Junior Battalion. The championship game was played in front of 12,000 people at Quebec City’s Colisée, where the Nordiques played before relocating to Colorado in 1995. “That was crazy,” said Holland, who was the team’s 13-year-old captain.
In his Ontario Hockey League draft year two seasons later, Holland led his minor midget AAA team with 59 goals and 60 assists in just 60 games, catching the eye of OHL scouts along the way. In 2007 the OHL’s Guelph Storm drafted him in the first round, 11th overall.
Though Guelph is just an hour or so by car from Bolton and Holland’s parents never missed a home game, the transition to junior hockey required an adjustment. “Moving out of your house at 16 isn’t the easiest thing to do,” said Holland. “Not only are you in a completely new town, but you’re living with a completely new family.”
Though Holland held his own in his first year with the Storm, his second year proved to be a turning point. Not only did he become a point-a-game player, scoring 67 points in 68 games, but he also earned a spot in the OHL all-star game, played in the Canada-Russia Challenge, and suited up for the Canadian Hockey League’s top prospects game. He was also named to Team Canada for the International Ice Hockey Federation’s 2009 Under- 18 Championship.
That team finished a disappointing fourth, and Holland, who had won gold a year earlier with the U17 team, finished the tournament with a goal and four assists. “It was definitely a tough pill to swallow,” he said.
Despite that disappointment, his strong year put him on the radar of NHL scouts. They liked his size and scoring touch, as well as his ability to play in the defensive zone.
“I like the responsibility of centre,” said Holland, who tries to model his game after Hall of Famers Joe Sakic and Sundin. “[Centres] have to be one of the smartest players on the ice. They have to look after everyone and play in all situations.”
Heading into the 2009 NHL entry draft, the NHL’s scouting bureau ranked Holland 19th overall. In the event, Anaheim called his name 15th overall. “To hear your name called is a bit of a relief and is very exciting too,” he said.
Jude chimed in, “And whatever team drafts him, it happened to be Anaheim, they instantly become your favourite team.” Jan, too, was excited, but he also knew that the draft was just the first step. More hard work lay ahead.
Reaching for the Brass Ring
Holland finds it difficult to pinpoint the moment he knew his passion for hockey was going to transform into a career. It might have been when he was about 14 years old, he said, and hockey agents began asking about representing him.
It was then the Hollands realized the NHL might be a possibility. “We never told him he was going to make it, but we said, ‘You’ve got a decent shot,’” said Jan.
After the 2009 entry draft, Holland played two more seasons with Guelph, scoring a career-high 37 goals and 51 assists in his final year with the Storm.
He finally realized his dream of making it to the NHL on November 5, 2011, when he suited up for Anaheim in a 5-0 road loss to the Detroit Red Wings. His first NHL goal came six days and two games later in a home game against the Vancouver Canucks. His wrist shot from the left-wing circle beat goaltender Roberto Luongo and turned out to be the game winner.
That moment will stick with him forever. “My first shift in the NHL was awesome,” he said. “It was cool to be out there on the ice, but I’d say my first goal was that ‘aha’ moment.”
But the Ducks were knee-deep in talent that season, and opportunities to stick with the club were few and far between. Just a few days later, Holland was sent back to the minors, where many players hone their skills before earning a permanent spot in the NHL.
The next season he played 21 games with the Ducks, scoring three goals and earning two assists. And early in 2013, he suited up for four games before he was traded to the Leafs.
Holland’s parents were as delighted by the trade as he was. “To have him in this hockey hotbed, it’s a thrill,” said Jan. “A hometown boy and a hometown team.”
On Toronto’s Hockey Culture
It takes a certain kind of player to handle the scrutiny of being a Toronto Maple Leaf. The media and fans alike have an insatiable appetite for news and analysis of their team and the players.
It’s a world away from playing in southern California.
Despite winning the Stanley Cup in 2007 and remaining perennial favourites in the Western Conference, the Ducks have never dominated their local sporting scene the way the Leafs do.
“Anaheim was a wonderful place to play,” said Holland. “They do have some diehard fans there, but it’s a completely different culture for sure.”
The differences were sometimes startling. “[Anaheim has] one sports reporter, Eric Stephens, and he’s a great guy and he travels with the team,” said Holland. “When I was traded to Toronto, on my first day I think I had a media scrum of about 20 people, 15 cameras and 12 microphones in my face, so it was a bit crazy.”
At the beginning of last season, Holland struggled behind centres Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri and Mike Santorelli. So to earn more ice time, he asked to play on the penalty kill.
Killing penalties can help boost players’ morale, head coach Randy Carlyle told the Toronto Star at the time: “They earn confidence, they earn the coaches’ trust and they earn teammates’ respect.”
The assignment certainly helped Holland. Despite being sidelined a couple of times with injuries, he played a career-high of 62 games last season, racking up 11 goals and 14 assists, and posting a dead even plus-minus rating while the team’s big guns, such as Phil Kessel and Bozak, languished in the minus 30s.
Last season was a bit of a “rollercoaster” for the Leafs, Holland acknowledged. After starting well, the team struggled to score goals and Carlyle was fired on January 6. The Leafs went on to lose 17 of their next 19 games and missed the playoffs for the second straight season.
Some frustrated fans took to throwing their Leaf jerseys on the ice, and as a Leaf fan himself, Holland sympathized with their disappointment. “Toronto is such a storied franchise. It’s been such a long time since the cup’s been here, and the fans deserve better, for sure,” he said.
This season Holland is entering the final year of a two-year, $1.5 million contract. But with the Leafs in full rebuild mode, Kessel has already been traded and more players could find themselves on the move. With the team in flux, no one’s job is guaranteed.
Despite the uncertainty, Holland hopes his steady play, coupled with his relatively low salary, will help make him part of the long-term vision of team president Brendan Shanahan, new head coach Mike Babcock and new general manager Lou Lamoriello.
“Leaf fans have a lot to look forward to, but I think Leaf players have a lot to look forward to as well,” said Holland. “I want to be one of those players who’s here … to see this plan through.”
The ultimate goal of any NHL player is to win the Stanley Cup, and asked how Toronto might react to ending the nearly 50-year championship drought, a grin flashes across Holland’s face. It’s a glimpse of the boy who grew up scoring the Stanley Cup-winning overtime goal for the Leafs on his pond back home.
“I don’t think you could even put it into words,” he said. “I can’t even imagine what it would be like in the city if we won the Cup. It would be amazing.”