In 64 seasons of hockey ECHL Commissioner Emeritus Patrick J. Kelly has seen more professional success than most of us could ever dream.
Kelly, who celebrates his 64th season in hockey in 2016-17, began his career in 1952 with the St. Catherine Tee Pees of the Ontario Junior Hockey League. As a player, he spent time in the American Hockey League, Quebec League, International Hockey League and Eastern Hockey League. Kelly began his coaching career in the Eastern Hockey League, picking up 1969-70 Minor League Coach of the Year honors from The Hockey News. Kelly served as head coach and general manager for the Charlotte Checkers in the Southern Hockey League from 1973-76, leading them to two regular season titles and two postseason titles, while earning Coach of the Year honors in the SHL twice.
He coached the Colorado Rockies in the National Hockey League in 1977-78 and is the only coach in history to lead the Rockies into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Following coaching stops in the AHL, Kelly went to Peoria in the IHL where he led the Rivermen to the Turner Cup in his first season behind the bench in 1984-85.
“I still remember when we won the Turner Cup – they said the rink was sold out, 9,200 people they said,” Kelly fondly recalled. “They said there were more people downtown celebrating the Rivermen championship than there was when the second World War ended. It was the first professional championship that any sports team had ever won in Peoria.”
Kelly served as Commissioner of the ECHL for the first eight seasons of the League, and was named Commissioner Emeritus following the 1995-96 season. It was at this time that the Riley Cup, the League’s original championship trophy, was retired, and replaced with the Patrick J. Kelly Cup, the trophy awarded annually to the playoff champion of the ECHL. Kelly was inducted into the ECHL Hall of Fame as part of the inaugural class in 2008.
“A lot of guys coach and manage and win championships, but to have the ECHL name the Kelly Cup after me – that was just mind boggling. And being a commissioner of a league – I had never put in my repertoire thinking I’d ever be a commissioner of a league or have a Cup named after me.”
On Wednesday, Kelly adds another distinction to his resume as he, along with Hockey Hall of Famer Mark Howe, will receive the Lester Patrick Award, as part of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Induction Celebration in Philadelphia. The award, one of the most prestigious in hockey, is presented annually for outstanding service to hockey in the United States. It honors the memory of Lester Patrick, who spent 50 years in hockey as a player, coach and general manager and was a pioneer in the sport’s development.
“Now having this Lester Patrick award – I was happy just being a player and a player coach and a coach, and winning some championships with some great hockey players who helped me along the way.”
The prestige of the Lester Patrick Award isn’t lost on Kelly, who has seen success at all levels of the sport. “I never dreamt anything like this could happen to me. It never crossed my mind that this would ever happen to me. It’s been thrilling to have this award bestowed on me.”
The ultimate team player, Kelly is quick to point out those who helped him along the way to success. ‘Without my wife June being with me for these past 63 years, it wouldn’t have probably happened. When they say that I was one of the founding fathers of the ECHL – well I could name her the founding mother. She is just as worthy of this award as I am for doing this for the past 63 years with me.”
“I have to thank Mr. Henry Brabham – he is the guy that had the dream, he put up his money for it. He had three of the five (original ECHL) teams and then had some money in the fourth team in Knoxville, so he was the gentleman that had the idea to get this thing going, and I was the lucky guy that he picked to run the league for him.”
“I have to thank (ECHL Commissioner) Brian McKenna – this is his 15th season running the ECHL and he’s let me come along beside him, and treated me so well. It’s been a privilege to do the things he’s let me do for the league and keep me being a part of it – he’s done a great job in building our league for the past 15 years and he’s put us where we are today. All the other people that work in the ECHL Office – (Senior Vice President of Business Operations) Ryan Crelin, (Vice President of Hockey Operations) Joe Ernst, and all the other people that work in the ECHL Office. We’ve had some great people work in our ECHL Office, so I feel maybe with Mr. Brabham and myself getting the league going, we’ve been a little part of other peoples’ lives to help them on with their careers.”
Pat Kelly’s hockey career is a collection of milestone achievements, championships, and various honors. While it may be second nature by now, handing out the trophy bearing his name is just as special each season as it was the first time.
“Thrilling. To hand out the Kelly Cup for the first time in 1997 when the South Carolina Stingrays won it on the road in Lafayette, Louisiana. That building was packed in Lafayette. I had handed out the Riley Cup seven times, which was also a great thrill, but when it came to have my own name on the Cup, it was mind-boggling to do that that night, and to be able to still do it every year. Every year I do it feels just as good as the first year.”
Despite being the namesake for the Kelly Cup, it took a few years before Kelly actually was able to have a drink out of it, a tradition in hockey that is custom after winning a championship.
“It was 2000 when the Peoria Rivermen won the Kelly Cup. I had coached in Peoria for five years and they were playing Lafayette, Louisiana and the night they won the Kelly Cup, I was out in the hallway in front of the dressing room talking to some people. I had already presented the Cup on ice and I think it was (current Tulsa Oilers Head Coach) Jason Christie who came up and said ‘Mr. Kelly – we want you to come in and have a drink out of your Cup.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding, you know Jason, nobody has ever asked me that.’ I still have a picture of me drinking out of that Cup which was my first ever in all the years that I had presented it to the different teams.”
Pat Kelly is – undoubtedly – as much of a hockey legend as he is a man of the people. Throughout his career, he always took time to meet fans – whether they cheered for him or against him in his days as a player and coach – and throughout the league as ECHL Commissioner & Commissioner Emeritus. Everyone who has had the chance to meet Pat Kelly has a great story about him to share. And if it were up to him, that’s exactly what he’d want his legacy to be.
“Oh just that I was a person that loved to meet people, that I was also always cordial to them. I just love talking to people – just to see what they think. Even if some fan doesn’t like you, and you get to talking to them a bit, the next thing you know, they say ‘Oh yeah, you’re not a bad guy after all.’ I remember my Junior A coach told me, ‘Pat, if they’re booing you at home, you know you have a problem. If they’re booing you on the road, you’re doing something to hurt their team so they must not like you. So just keep getting booed on the road,’ he said. So I thought about over my years a lot of times – I’m glad they’re booing me on the road and cheering for me at home, I must be doing the right thing.”
Safe to say when Pat Kelly takes the stage Wednesday to accept the Lester Patrick Award, we’ll all be cheering for him.