By Michael Sharp
Press & Sun-Bulletin
BINGHAMTON, N.Y. – Twenty-nine years ago this afternoon, Pat Kelly stepped off a plane in Charlotte, N.C., rode home from the airport with his wife, and walked in the door to the sounds of his telephone ringing.
The night before, he had stood behind the home bench at the Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena, coaching the Broome Dusters. Now here he was, standing in his kitchen, back with his family, home for a brief holiday respite.
That telephone call, though, would change everything.
“(A reporter) from Binghamton called me and said, ‘Sorry to hear about your job,’ ” said Kelly, now 73, looking back on that day. “I said, ‘My job? Why?’ He said, ‘You don’t know?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘You were fired this morning.’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s news to me.’ “
It is indeed a story about communication, and of course, about timing.
One now woven into Binghamton hockey lore. One that played out with a string of phone calls between three men who would go on, years later, to hold notable positions in the hockey world. And one that certainly would make Ebenezer Scrooge proud.
December, 24, 1979: The day the Dusters fired their coach. Christmas Eve.
“Whenever I’m invited to talk about my journalism career to people, I’m invariably asked, ‘What are some of the most memorable stories you’ve written?’ ” said Barry Meisel, who was a rookie reporter working the Christmas Eve shift at the old Sun-Bulletin and the first to call Kelly that day.
“And you can mention Super Bowls, the Stanley Cup finals, and World Series and big trades that you’ve broken. And then I always tell the story of the day, unfortunately, that I was the one to tell a coach he was fired.”
Not that the move came as a total surprise to all.
The Dusters had entered the holiday break with a less-than-stellar 8-19-3 record. And perhaps just as costly, they were coming off a 2-0 loss the night before to a visiting Springfield team led by goalie Ken Holland, a popular former Duster who hadn’t been re-signed that offseason.
Meisel remembers the home crowd beginning to turn on the team that night.
“(It) was a very, very ugly night for Duster management,” said Meisel, who quoted Binghamton general manager Jacques Caron in his article two days later as saying: “(Owner) Andre (Veilleux) made up his mind this (Christmas Eve) morning, and that was it. Last night was an embarrassment, and it broke the camel’s back.”
And so the Dusters decided to fire Kelly — a move that, as Meisel began making phone calls that Christmas Eve, came as news to both Kelly and Harry Sinden, the general manager of the Boston Bruins, who as an NHL affiliate of Binghamton’s had initially hired Kelly.
Meisel said he was told Dusters’ management couldn’t get in touch with Kelly initially because he was flying home to North Carolina.
“We didn’t know what was going on, why it happened,” Kelly said. “But, when you’re in the hockey business, as I learned over the years, or any sporting business, you’re hired to be fired. So, it could happen. But I just thought the way it happened. … In all my other years in the business, since then and before then, I had never heard of not telling the coach first.”
The one who called Meisel that morning to read him the press release was Caron, who went on to become the long-time goaltending coach for Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils. That’s a position he still holds today.
Following a 19-year career as a sports writer — this story broke during his fourth month on the job — Meisel is now the president and chief operating officer of The MeiGray, a familiar name around the Arena these days for its work selling game-worn jerseys.
As for Kelly? Perhaps his story can best be told by tracing the hall of fames.
Be it the hall of fame in Peoria, Ill., where he led the IHL’s Rivermen to a title in 1985. Or the ECHL Hall of Fame, for his work in getting the fledgling East Coast Hockey League off the ground as the first commissioner in league history.
Today, he serves as commissioner emeritus for the ECHL, which has grown from five teams in 1988 to 21 today. He’s still very active with the league’s hockey operations — as well as on the golf course — and in 1996, the league’s championship trophy was renamed the Patrick J. Kelly Cup.
“Going to (coach the NHL’s Colorado Rockies in 1977), I thought that’d be my biggest thrill, would be coaching in the National Hockey League,” Kelly said. “I remember the night I stood behind the bench in Toronto … in the old Gardens. I thought, man, I only wish my father had still been alive to see it. But he had passed away young.
“What a thrill. But then when they named the Kelly Cup after me 12 years ago … That still today is the biggest thrill. There’s a lot of guys who win Cups and do things in hockey. But to have one named after you, I’ve always felt there aren’t many guys around that have had a Cup named after them.”
At the end of a recent interview, Kelly emphasized he didn’t want to come across as knocking a man like Caron by answering questions about his firing and the way it was handled years ago. Should they run across each other again, perhaps at this season’s NHL All-Star Game in Montreal, Kelly said he would reach out and shake his hand.
Still, he’s asked whether he ever just thought to himself: I can’t believe they fired me on Christmas Eve.
“No,” he answered, with a laugh. “Because when I got fired in Colorado, with the National Hockey League, I was fired on Thanksgiving Eve.”