BONNYVILLE – Starting a month into the 2021-22 season, Derek Hemsley was selected from a stack of qualified applicants to fill the position of assistant coach for the Bonnyville Pontiacs, following a vacancy that was created when the former assistant coach, T.J. Miller, was hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs in August.
Hemsley, who was born and raised in the Yukon, moved to the Lakeland region when he was only 17-years-old to play for the Cold Lake Ice Jr. B team.
“I did practice with the Pontiacs a long time ago, but wasn't a player who cracked their roster,” he laughed looking back.
Following his time playing junior hockey in Cold Lake, Hemsley went on to study at Mount Royal University in Calgary. From there, he moved and worked in Edmonton as a coach for Volleyball Alberta.
“It's been an interesting journey from playing junior, mostly playing Junior B... and how I ended up in Edmonton. There was a position with Volleyball Alberta, which was just to cover a maternity leave, the first year turned into an 11-year career,” he said.
Hemsley says he never imagined that he would be moving back to the Lakeland region, but he is excited return to coaching hockey full-time.
“I’m very excited to do it, to be immersed in hockey and have that as my main focus,” he said.
When the opportunity came up to apply for the assistant coach position in Bonnyville, it was an opportunity that was too good to pass up.
“I felt it was a great position to be in to work alongside Rick, Neil and a great opportunity to find out and discover what it's like to be a full-time coach,” he said.
Prior to accepting the assistant coach position, Hemsley had been introduced to Rick Swan, the Pontiacs coach and general manager, through Hockey Alberta programs and the Alberta Cup. He had also spent two weeks in Bonnyville this past summer while working at both the prospect and main hockey camp offered by the AJHL team.
“I had an opportunity to be immersed in the Pontiac culture and work alongside with Rick and get introduced to T.J. Miller, Neil Langridge, and everyone who's involved in the organization. Both of those opportunities gave me great insight into what it would be like to work with them and work with the Pontiacs.”
During the short time he spent with the Pontiacs, Hemsley says he realized it was an organization he would be proud to be part of.
“There was a lot of positives in seeing a culture that they have built and then getting to know a few of the returning players as well. The main camp definitely showcased the quality of the organization and the positive approach that they taken building up the team and building an association for the organization.”
Hemsley’s main role within the Pontiacs will be to work with the defensive core and on individual skills of the players. He will also offer onsite feedback to the goalies to supplement the training provided by Kelly Brooks, the goaltending coach for the Pontiacs.
Arriving a month into the season, has had some challenges Hemsley admits.
"There's a lot of things I need to catch up on and learn, just so I'm on the same page as coaches and players. I’m trying to add value wherever I can right now. Find my footing and find my voice so I am as impactful as I can be as well.”
Pontiacs earn 13 goals in three games
Switching to the showcase that took place in Brooks over the first weekend of October, Hemsley said the Pontiacs played hard and earned each of their goals.
“In terms of our play, we had a strong game on Saturday against the Blackfalds (Bulldogs),” he said.
On Oct. 2, the Pontiacs beat the Blackfalds Bulldogs 5 – 3 during a showcase tournament that took place at the new Centennial Regional Arena.
“It was a good first game for me. It was the first time I was on the bench with the staff and the players. There I started to get a feeling for how things are running on the bench, interacting with coaches interacting with players,” he said.
The following day, “We found a way to have success late in the game. It was a day where things weren't going 100 per cent our way, but we found a way to earn points, even though it wasn't the final result that we wanted.”
Playing against the Olds Grizzlys on Oct. 3, the Pontiacs lost 3 – 4 in overtime.
According to Hemsley, the Pontiacs were able to even the score by gaining two goals in roughly the last four minutes of the third period against the Grizzlys. Pushing the game into overtime the with the score 3 – 3.
“It was good to see from our players and the adversity that they faced throughout that game to still earn those points and push it into overtime,” he said. “It was still an exciting game and fun to be a part of.”
On Tuesday the Pontiacs beat the Fort McMurray Oil Barons 5 – 4 during their away game at the Centerfire Place Arena.
“We were outshot 15 to two in the first (period) and our goaltender was phenomenal in that period, he definitely gave us the opportunity to come out,” described Hemsley.
“It was it was pretty intense in the first period when we're under siege I'll say but really proud of the guys and their response after the first two periods to take control of the game a bit more and get the Oil Barons on their heels a bit.”