By Andy Kent
Copyright © 2005 Naples Daily News
Once you meet the man behind the name on the Kelly Cup, the pristine trophy awarded to the champion of the ECHL doesn’t begin to do Patrick J. Kelly justice.
Still sporting a chiseled physique that could intimidate some of today’s younger hockey players, the league’s commissioner emeritus is a walking history book of professional hockey. His legacy, especially when it comes to minor league hockey, is worth a silver chalice more like the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup.
“Pat Kelly should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame,” says John Brophy, a legendary coach in his own right who is at the top of every career coaching category in the ECHL except winning percentage. “He’s played in every league but the NHL and coached in every league including the NHL. What more does he have to do?”
And this from a man who was perhaps Kelly’s most bitter rival on the ice when they were players and behind the bench when they coached against each other in three different leagues. They fought as coaches and as players but eventually developed a mutual respect.
Brophy runs a golf driving range in Virginia with his wife, former LPGA golfer Nancy White. Known for his short fuse, Brophy admits Kelly was one man whose toughness he would never question.
“He’d stay on the ice forever and play triple shifts, lasting 45-50 minutes,” Brophy recalls. “We’d go and try to get him off the ice any way we could, checking him from every angle, and he wouldn’t go to the bench.”
Kelly, who has made his permanent home in Charlotte, N.C., since 1973, smiles and his eyes light up when he thinks back to those days. Most of them were as player/head coach of the Clinton (N.Y.) Comets of the Eastern Hockey League.
Clinton was his second coaching job after spending one year with the Jersey Devils, guiding the Comets from 1965-73. He compiled a record of 151-39-28, captured three straight regular-season and postseason titles and five Walker Cups altogether.
His best season came in 1967-68 when Clinton finished 57-5-10, making the Comets the only professional hockey team in history to lose only five games or less in a season.
With 52 years of organized hockey to his credit as a player, coach, general manager and commissioner, Kelly has seen more buildings open and close and more teams and leagues start up and then fold than probably anyone else in the history of the sport.
“I’ve been to just about every corner of the country after leaving my hometown of Welland, Ontario, and moving to Greensboro, N.C., in 1959,” Kelly proudly points out. “I used to get booed in (Charlotte’s) Cricket Arena when I came here as a player with the Greensboro Monarchs. But finally in 1988, after 24 years behind the bench, I decided I had enough.”
But besides coaching a slew of winning teams and engaging in memorable confrontations with referees and opposing coaches — he and Brophy actually fought each other on the bench one year when Brophy was coaching the Long Island Ducks and Kelly coached Clinton — he has passed down many tricks of the trade.
In fact, Kelly coached 1,900 career games and has 935 wins to rank second all-time among professional coaches. Only the legendary Scotty Bowman, with 2,571 games and 1,511 wins, is ahead of him.
“I played for him for two years with the Salem (Va.) Raiders out of Roanoke in the EHL and what I enjoyed about playing for him was he was old school,” recalls Augusta Lynx head coach Bob Ferguson, who was the Florida Everblades’ first coach and guided them from 1999-2001.
“Back in 1980-81 and 1981-82 he was still old school. At that level we needed someone like that. He demanded a work ethic.
“You better finish your checks and block your shots because that’s the way he did it when he played and you respected that. I started coaching the next season after I was captain and one of the things I took was that approach.
The modern athlete looks to cut corners. He wouldn’t put up with it.”
Ferguson remembers one time midway through the season, with his beat-up team down to three defensemen, walking into the locker room to find Kelly suited up and lacing up his skates.
This was almost 10 years after he had retired as a player.
As Ferguson tells it, Kelly was simply going to be an extra guy on the bench and only take the ice when one of the players desperately needed a breather. As it turned out, he wound up playing more shifts than anybody else on the blue line.
“There he was suited up and ended up getting more ice time than all of us,” Ferguson says. “I always said as a coach I’d never do that.”
The furthest Kelly went in the coaching ranks was the NHL with the Colorado Rockies in 1977-78 and part of 1978-79 before being fired. He did lead the Rockies to their only Stanley Cup Playoffs appearance in 1977-78.
Prior to Colorado, he coached the Birmingham Bulls of the World Hockey Association, and before that he coached the Charlotte Checkers for three seasons, leading them to two Munchek Cups, Southern Hockey League championships as the coach and general manager.
When he left the coaching ranks in 1988, Kelly hooked up with Henry Brabham and the two of them founded the East Coast Hockey League. The league’s first offices were in Vinton, Va., and then Kelly moved them to Charlotte in 1991 through 1997. The offices moved to their current location of Princeton, N.J., after that.
“Henry Brabham is the guy who had the idea of putting a league together,” Kelly recalls. “I still joke with him about the curse that has been put on the trophy named in his honor, the Brabham Cup. Only the South Carolina Stingrays (in 1996-97) have won both the Brabham Cup (regular-season champion) and the Kelly Cup in the same season.”
Kelly and Brabham wanted to make sure the East Coast Hockey League was going to grow and become a top developmental league. They did not want it to mirror the old Eastern League, which Kelly described as the original beer league in the 1950s with stick fights and brawls.
For the first five or 10 years, though, the ECHL had a difficult time shaking that image. Kelly persevered as the league’s first commissioner from 1988-95 before being bestowed the honor of commissioner emeritus.
Kelly still has a strong voice at league meetings, travels the country, and always is on hand for the decisive game of the final series to present the Kelly Cup. How fitting it is that his greatest rival, John Brophy, can claim as his last championship the Kelly Cup with Hampton Roads, Va., in 1998.
“If ever a person has done it all, he did,” Brophy says of Kelly. “He kept leagues together that weren’t solid and Charlotte always had great teams, same thing in Clinton. We certainly became friends off the ice as a result of hockey and all I can say is, Pat Kelly deserves everything he gets.”
Maybe someday that will mean Kelly gets into the Hockey Hall of Fame.