By Leo Scaglione, Jr., The Fischler Report
Before Patrick J. Kelly became the ECHL’s first commissioner in 1988, he had toiled in hockey as a player, coach -- sometimes both at the same time -- and general manager. His resume was already loaded with championships and accolades.
Then came the tribute that topped everything – having the ECHL’s championship trophy named in his honor.
“Not many people get Cups named after them,” said Kelly, 82. “I’m one of the fortunate ones.”
It didn’t happen overnight. For the first eight seasons, the championship trophy was the Riley Cup, named by Kelly after Jack Riley, a close friend of his who mostly played in the Eastern and American Hockey Leagues before becoming AHL president and later the first general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“Mr. Riley had a good name in hockey and he deserved some credit,” Kelly said.
On June 1, 1996, Kelly was succeeded as commissioner by Richard Adams and named commissioner emeritus, a role he still fills today, and the Riley Cup was replaced with the Kelly Cup.
The reasoning behind the trophy change was simple. If not for the leadership provided by Kelly, there would’ve been no ECHL, which is now the third oldest professional hockey circuit in North America, behind only the National Hockey League and AHL.
His involvement with the league started with a phone call from Henry Brabham, one of the ECHL’s co-founders along with Bill Coffey. And it took a lot of persistence, since Kelly was ready to leave the ice game after over three decades of work to spend more time with his family and perhaps join forces with a neighbor, who owned a hardware store.
“I wasn’t home ten days before Mr. Brabham called and asked me if I was interested in helping form a league,” remembered Kelly, who resides in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his wife, June. “I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ He must’ve called me ten times that week.”
Brabham made some headway after Kelly accepted his invitation to go to his lake house in Vinton, Virginia, where they could play golf and talk in person. It was there where Kelly accepted the job, but it was after he convinced Brabham that the league was going to deviate from other minor leagues at the time, which were littered with violent activities, causing fans to opt not to go and leagues to fold after just a few seasons.
“I played or coached in the old Eastern League for 14 years,” said Kelly, who was in the EHL from 1959-1973. “We had some tough guys such as Ian Anderson, Don Perry and John Brophy. But those guys could play. When the Philadelphia Flyers started dressing tough guys and became the Broad Street Bullies, other NHL teams started doing the same. For a while, if you had the toughest team, you won the Stanley Cup, and teams in other leagues won championships. But it got to the point in the minor leagues where there were bench-clearing brawls, gang fights and players fighting fans in the stands. Families stopped going.”
Kelly wasn’t going to tolerate the shenanigans. So, he instituted a simple, yet profound, rule: If a player was suspended, he could not be replaced, and the team would be forced to play shorthanded. Also, if a coach let his team leave the bench to start a brawl, he would be suspended and a player would have to assume those duties.
The team owners, Brabham (who owned the Johnstown Chiefs, Virginia Lancers and Erie Panthers), Coffey (Knoxville Cherokees) and John Baker (Carolina Thunderbirds), gave Kelly the go-ahead, even though there was never any doubt that the rule would be established.
“I told them this was the only way moms and dads were going to bring their families back to games,” Kelly said. “They weren’t going to bring their sons and daughters to four-hour games with swear words and fights on the ice. I pride my name too much to put that stuff behind me in hockey.”
Kelly, preparing to embark on his journey as commissioner, now wanted to make sure he made correct decisions, so he relied on his support system, which included Riley, Bud Poile and Jack Butterfield, friends who had served in that role in other hockey leagues.
“If I had to make a decision on something, I phoned them,” he said. “They said they would give me ideas, but would never tell me what to do. I can remember all three of them telling me, when I’m at a game, to never say a player would get suspended. I was to wait until I got all the details from the referee and linesmen reports; we didn’t have video back then. That stuck with me, because if I said it and fans heard me, and then the other guy gets suspended, I would have a problem.”
Kelly’s first major test came in the inaugural Riley Cup finals, when he suspended three Thunderbirds before the winner-take-all Game 7. He didn’t budge from his rule, and Carolina had to play the game with a depleted roster. Despite this, the Thunderbirds still defeated the host Chiefs, 7-4.
“I couldn’t go back on my word just because it was the playoffs,” Kelly asserted.
In his final season as commissioner, just before the postseason, Kelly handed out one of the stiffest penalties in ECHL history following a fight-filled game that marked the season finale for both the Hampton Roads Admirals and Richmond Renegades.
He suspended Admirals players Mike Barrie (five games for leaving the bench to join one altercation and later the penalty box to join another), Aaron Downey (three games) and David St. Pierre (one game), who was also fined. Brophy, the Admirals head coach, was suspended two games and fined. The organization also had fines levied against it.
Adding to the drama, the Admirals and Renegades were to play each other in a first-round playoff series.
“That was one of the toughest decisions I had to make as commissioner,” Kelly said. “I know the Admirals weren’t happy.”
Kelly’s commitment didn’t go unnoticed. Prior to the first season, he asked his friend Jim Gregory, an NHL executive who is now the league’s senior vice president of hockey operations, about a training program for referees and linesmen, but he was met with resistance.
Explained Kelly: “Mr. Gregory said we had to prove to him that he wouldn’t be sending his officials down there to get beat up and hit with sticks or punched. I told him it wouldn’t happen; I guaranteed it. He said we had to prove it. It was the same when I talked to (then-New York Islanders general manager) Bill Torrey. He told me he wasn’t going to send his rookies down there to get beat up.”
The NHL and its clubs soon saw all they needed to see, and the results are evident.
Entering the 2017-18 campaign, approximately one-third of the NHL’s active on-ice officials had spent time developing in the ECHL, and the ECHL had affiliations with 27 of the 31 NHL teams.
During the season, 18 former ECHL players made their NHL debut, bringing the total amount of former ECHL players to reach the NHL to 641, which includes goaltender Scott Gordon, who became the first former ECHL player to skate in The Show when he took the ice for the Quebec Nordiques on January 30, 1990, and defenseman Kevin Dean, who became the first former ECHL player to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup when he won with the New Jersey Devils in 1995.
“That was the best rule I ever made,” Kelly stated. “It seemed to revive minor league hockey.”
The ECHL grew from five teams in its first season to eight in its second to 11 in its third to 15 in its fourth. The league’s high point came in 2003-04, when it iced 31 teams. Today, the ECHL has 27 clubs.
As much as Kelly’s rule saved minor league hockey, he’s quick to credit the many people who helped along the way, starting with Brabham.
“Mr. Brabham owned three of the five teams that first year, but he never once tried to send players from a non-playoff team to one that was making the playoffs,” Kelly said. “He wanted the league to grow. The ECHL was his baby. I’m just lucky he hired me and gave me this chance. I give him a lot of credit for my career for the past 30 years.”
Kelly isn’t only proud of the players and officials who’ve made the leap to the NHL. Seeing people from coaches to trainers to front office staff – everyone – reach the game’s highest league makes him smile.
Said Kelly: “During that first meeting with Mr. Brabham, I said, ‘Henry, we are not going to just form a league for players. We need to form a league that’ll help with anything that hockey needs.’ When I see the names of the people who started here, especially those who have their name on the Stanley Cup, I like to think I was a little part of their careers, and maybe one they’ll think back and say the ECHL was a great place for them to start their careers.”
For most players who’ve reached the pinnacle of the ECHL, Kelly has already had a direct impact. He handed out the Riley Cup to every champion except one, in 1995 when Riley presented the Cup to the Renegades, and has presented the trophy that bears his name every year since its inception.
“Handing it out is a big part of my life,” he said. “It’s a thrill to see the smiling kids’ faces and to see them skate around, kiss it and hug it. I hate to see the other team leave the ice forlorn that they didn’t win. I’ve been on both sides so I know how it feels to win and how it feels it lose, but it’s a part of growing in the hockey business. Still, just to give out the Riley Cup and then to have my name on it, there are no words for me to describe the feeling.”
Kelly remembers when he was told by Adams that the Cup would be named in his honor.
“I said to Mr. Adams, ‘No way! Jack is a great friend of mine,’” Kelly said. “He said he already talked to Mr. Riley and he had given his blessing. I said to him not to do anything until I spoke to Mr. Riley.”
Riley had no qualms about it.
Recalled Kelly: “He said to me, ‘Pat, you’re the guy who formed the league. You did all the work. I didn’t form it. You gave me the honor of having my name on the first Cup. I already told Mr. Adams and the owners that you have my blessing. Maybe I would’ve been upset if they wanted to name it after someone else, but you deserve it and are welcome to it. It’s done.’ I said thank you very much, and was very appreciative.”
In 2000, the championship-winning Peoria Rivermen did something that hadn’t been done previously but has been repeated several times since – they invited Kelly, who had coached the International Hockey League’s Peoria Rivermen to a Turner Cup title in 1984-85, to drink out of the Cup.
“I was outside the dressing room,” Kelly reminisced. “Don Granato was the coach and he told player-assistant coach Jason Christie to come out to get me. Mr. Christie said, ‘Come on in and take a drink out of the Kelly Cup.’ I asked him if he was sure and he said he was. I said, ‘As long as you don’t spray me with champagne because I only got this suit! I’m only here for the night and I’m leaving in the morning.’ He said he would make sure they don’t get me, but they did. It was a thrill. I have a big picture of me drinking out of the Kelly Cup that they sent me.”
Kelly will once again present the trophy this weekend to either the Florida Everblades or the Colorado Eagles following Game 7 of the 30th edition of the ECHL’s championship series.
And before, during and after the presentation, in the back of his mind, he will consider himself blessed -- for the honor, and for having a “great family.”
“My wife and my three boys (Joseph, Wayne, who passed away in 2001, and Barry) put up with me being in hockey and traveling all these years,” concluded Kelly, who was inducted into the ECHL Hall of Fame as part of the inaugural class in 2008 and received the Lester Patrick Trophy for outstanding service to hockey in the United States in 2016. “June has been a savior at my side and spent a lot of nights by herself with the kids. I wish I had spent more time with my boys when they were growing up. I missed a lot. But now I have grandsons and granddaughters, too, and I’m sort of learning that business. They are the apple of my eye. And I’m still involved with the ECHL. It’s a thrill.”