EDITOR’S NOTE – The following article originally appeared in The Augusta Chronicle in November. The author Rob Mueller is now the assistant general manager for the Augusta Lynx.
By Rob Mueller
The Augusta Chronicle
AUGUSTA, Ga. – The worst thing Scott Kelman can do in the present is to reflect on his past.
But for the gifted Augusta Lynx center, forgetting is easier said than done.
Why in the world would he want to forget some of his remarkable accomplishments?
Kelman was a National Hockey League first-round draft pick. He was one of Canada’s top junior players in two sports, hockey and baseball, and faced some of the best competition in the world playing for the Canadian junior national team in both. He was recruited to play hockey and baseball by several major American colleges, and was courted by a handful of major-league teams.
In many ways, this hope chest full of wonderful memories and accomplishments haunt Kelman like a bad dream.
His eyes well up with tears when he talks about his decision to give up baseball a few years ago after the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes asked him to dedicate his life to hockey.
“I try not to look back anymore,” said Kelman, a second-year pro who has scored 42 points (14g-28a) in 41 games with Augusta while also scoring two points (0g-2a) in 10 games with San Antonio of the American Hockey League.
“It can eat you up.”
Thing is, Kelman isn’t eaten up by the decision to choose a pro hockey career over baseball. “No regrets at all,” he said. “I love hockey. It’s been a huge part of my life since I was 5.”
But at age 22, it’s the business of hockey that sometimes makes his stomach turn.
One business decision, in particular, perhaps is why Scott Kelman remains two giant steps away from the ultimate dream of playing in the NHL.
When Wayne Gretzky purchased the Coyotes and took over as managing partner in 2000, the entire organization was restructured. The general manager in Phoenix who drafted Kelman, Michael Smith, was let go.
Ultimately, so was the promising young forward.
“It looked like everything was working out perfect for me,” Kelman said. “Then, two months before the deadline to sign (with Phoenix), Gretzky took over, Michael Smith was fired, and they brought in their own guys. They had no loyalty to me and decided not to sign me.”
Suddenly, Kelman was no longer a hero in his hometown of Winnipeg, where he grew up idolizing the Winnipeg Jets – a franchise that eventually relocated to Arizona and became the Coyotes.
All of a sudden, Kelman was no longer a star.
He was damaged goods. He was a first-round bust.
“There’s a lot of pressure and hurt there when you’re 18, 19, picking up The Hockey News and reading all the bad things about you, or picking up the hometown paper and reading how I didn’t turn out as expected.” said Kelman, the 15th pick in a draft class that includes Patrik Stefan of the Atlanta Thrashers. “The positive things is, I learned how to deal with pressure at a pretty young age.” To make matters worse, Kelman has watched some of his former mates with the Canadian junior national team make it big playing America’s national pastime.
“I see guys like Justin Morneau with the Twins and Rich Harden with the Oakland Athletics – guys I played with my whole life – making it to the major leagues,” said Kelman, a former pitcher and first baseman. “I wonder what would have happened if I didn’t hurt my shoulder and if I kept playing baseball.”
Now in his first season in Augusta, Kelman says the only pressure he feels is self-inflicted.
Lynx coach Stan Drulia said Kelman needs to push himself, because “the talent clearly is there for Scott to play at the next level.
“I tell Scott and all these guys, only 600 players a year play in the NHL, and it’s tough to get there,” said Drulia, who played 126 NHL games for Tampa Bay. “He’s a first-round draft pick and probably has the tools and had the size in juniors and the potential to go there and play. Does he still have the potential? Very much so. But he needs to bring it every night. He needs to play with passion every night and, right now, he doesn’t do that.”
Adds assistant coach Chuck Weber: “He’s a great kid and a very talented hockey player. He just needs to be more consistent. That’s the only thing that’s stopping him from being a 100-point scorer in this league.”
Kelman would agree.
These days, he realizes Wayne Gretzky and the Phoenix Coyotes aren’t at fault. The only person he blames for punching an ECHL timecard instead of cashing an AHL or NHL paycheck is himself.
“I’m the only one who can control my fate, and I don’t blame anyone for the way my career has played out so far,” Kelman said. “I’m still trying to reestablish myself. I was labeled – I hate that word – but I was labeled as a first-round pick that didn’t pan out. People wrote me off. But I feel now I’m a better hockey player than I ever was. I have the confidence in myself now and want to prove to everyone else that I can play at that level.”
When his confidence bottomed out three years ago after the Coyotes cast him aside, Kelman nearly gave up hockey.
It took some tough love and support from his parents, Craig and Barb, and some help from a sports psychologist, to overcome his self-doubt.
From that moment on, Kelman promised he’d never again look back.
The 6-foot-3 forward with the quick feet and the soft hands finished in the top-10 in the Western Hockey League in scoring his final season of major junior hockey with Tri-City.
Kelman went on to sign a three-year contract with the Florida Panthers for the 2002-03 season.
Now with the Panthers’ secondary affiliate in Augusta, Kelman feels more confident than ever, thanks in large part to Drulia and assistant coach Chuck Weber.
“Stan’s a great coach who’s playing me lots and has shown the same confidence in me that my last coach (Troy Mick) in junior did,” Kelman said. “I just need to find one person to believe in me and give me the opportunity.”
Deep down, Kelman knows he’s already found that person.
He’s the guy in the mirror with the big smile and the blue eyes fixed dead ahead.