By Len Bardsley
The Times of Trenton
You would think someone who once helped smuggle legendary tough guy John Brophy out of a rink in a stick bag to avoid a possible arrest would not be the right man for the job to run a new league.
It was episodes like the Brophy incident and the experience Patrick J. Kelly gained during his 30 years of minor league hockey, however, made him the perfect man to become the first ECHL commissioner in 1988.
Kelly has become the man every player is trying to meet at center ice in late May when he hands the league championship trophy bearing his name to the ECHL champion.
Patrick J. Kelly is the man behind the Kelly Cup, and now holds the title of ECHL Commissioner Emeritus.
Kelly had seen just about everything in pro hockey before being hired by Henry Brabham to become the commissioner of the league.
Kelly was playing for the Greensboro Generals in the Eastern Hockey League in 1961 when Brophy was thrown out of the game and tossed his stick into the stands after being heckled by the fans. It didn’t take long before police were waiting outside the Long Island Duck’s locker room waiting to arrest Brophy.
Kelly convinced Brophy to climb into a large stick bag and have his teammates carry him past police officers waiting for the bombastic player.
Twenty-five years later, Kelly was adamant about making sure the ECHL would not become like some of the brawling leagues he had seen as a player and as a coach.
Kelly came to the ECHL with a resume that included a playing career in the rough and tumble Eastern League, the American Hockey League and the International Hockey League. Kelly started his long coaching career in Cherry Hill coaching the first Jersey Devils in the Eastern League, before a legendary stint in Clinton (N.Y), which included a season with a 57-5-10 record. Kelly also would coach the Colorado Rockies to the NHL playoffs during the 1977-78 season before guiding Peoria to an IHL championship during the 1984-85 season.
“I played and coached in the Eastern League for 15 years,” said Kelly. “They would suspend guys and owners would vote it down. I told Mr. Brabham that kind of league is not going to work. Mr. Brabham loved the fights, but if they fought all night no one would come back, no one would bring their families at all.”
Kelly was a jack of all trades during the early years of the ECHL. Being commissioner was not a full-time job, so Kelly was hired by Brabham to run his LancerLot Arena in Vinton, Va. On any given night Kelly could be found, driving the Zamboni, cleaning a bathroom, or as commissioner even suspending Brabham, who was owner of three of five of the first-year teams.
“I threw him (Brabham) out of his own building and fined him $1,000 once,” said Kelly. “Something had happened in a previous game and he was on the ice during warmups trying to make sure nothing happened the next game.”
Kelly’s biggest test came during the playoffs when he was forced to suspend three Winston-Salem players before Game 7 of the final series against the Johnstown Chiefs.
“We could not believe he did it,” said Toledo Storm coach Nick Vitucci, who was a goalie for Winston Salem. “He stuck to his guns and didn’t allow any rules to be bent.”
Vitucci and his depleted team ended up defeating the Chiefs to claim the first title.
Vitucci, who has been involved in the ECHL as a player or coach since its inception, gives all the credit for the success of the league to Kelly.
“There is one person responsible for the league being what it is and that is Pat Kelly,” said Vitucci.
Kelly gave Vitucci’s parents a sense of relief when the rookie goalie joined the fledging league.
“He set my parents’ minds at ease,” said Vitucci of Kelly. “Their little boy was leaving to play hockey down south, but (Kelly) and I are from the same town. My parents had a few conversations with him and had a comfort level with me playing there.”
It has been rewarding work for Kelly.
“I never dreamt the league would be where it is today,” said Kelly. “I was hoping one day we might have 12 teams. It is the thrill of my life to see how things have grown. It was always my goal to have a league to develop players and people for the next level. I am so proud of seeing our (people) in the AHL and NHL. I feel I had a little part of their life in helping them out.”