Monday, May 10, 2010

Clinton Comets' Pat Kelly Won Over Fans


Clinton Comets' Kelly won over fans
Former player-coach headed to Greater Utica Sports Hall of Fame
By JOHN PITARRESI, Utica Observer-Dispatch

Pat Kelly heard it good the first time he took the ice in a Clinton Comets jersey.

“They booed me!” Kelly remembered.

Yes, they did. Kelly had been an enemy, invading the Clinton Arena with a couple of opposing Eastern League Hockey teams over the course of the previous half-dozen seasons, and he had arrived in a trade the team’s boisterous fans didn’t like much.

They didn’t boo for long.

The Comets already were an EHL power, but as a defenseman and player-coach, Kelly helped transform them into a revered small-town hockey legend. They eventually won three consecutive Walker Cup championships under his leadership, recorded one of the most dominating seasons in professional hockey history, and cemented their mythic position in Mohawk Valley sports history.

For that, and an ongoing six decades as a player, coach, and administrator everywhere from the EHL to the National Hockey League, Kelly will be inducted in the Greater Utica Sports Hall of Fame June 6.

Kelly has worn many hats in his 57 years in the game. He played for a quarter century and he’s coached in eight different leagues, including the NHL with the Colorado Rockies and the World Hockey Association with the Birmingham Bulls. He’ll be 75 in September, is in great shape, plays a lot of golf near his home in Charlotte, N.C., and still works as commissioner emeritus of the ECHL, which named its trophy for him.

His teams won six playoff championships, and his record in 25 seasons behind the bench was 936-798-170. He had fun doing it all.

“I never had a real job,” he said. “Hockey’s not a job. Hockey’s something I love. If there is such a thing as reincarnation, I want to come back as a hockey player.”

Maybe in Clinton, where he made many friends and left a imposing legacy that was
built with the help of a core group that included Jack Kane, Borden Smith, Ian Anderson – all Greater Utica Sports Hall of Famers - Dave Armstrong, Pete Prevost, Len Speck, Don Davidson, and Bill Bannerman. That group was bolstered regularly by first-year and replacement players like goalies Ed Babiuk, Ted Tucker and Lyle Carter.

It took a while, but Clinton fans soon were cheering Kelly, who was obtained from the Jersey Devils by general manager Wren Blair along with Smith and Ed Babiuk in exchange for popular coach Benny Woit, Orval Tessier, Hec LaLande, Norm Defelice, and Ted Szydlowski.

The Comets had won the Walker Cup as EHL champions in 1959 and 1964. After two strong seasons under Kelly, they grabbed the title again in 1968, 1969, and 1970. The 67-68 team went 57-5-10 during the regular season, believed to be the fewest losses in pro hockey history. That run is Kelly’s favorite memory.

“Winning that third championship, that hasn’t been done often in any league,” he said. “That topped any

Kelly said the Comets were easy to coach.

“They wanted to play!” he said. “The hardest part was trying to get them off the ice. ‘Come on,’ they’d holler from the bench, ‘You’re taking half my shift.’ They’d come to work. They got along great together. The wives and kids got along. It was a team that just got along on and off the ice. When I put Kane, Smith and Bannerman together, it seemed they’d known each other forever.”

Anderson, the Comets much-feared defenseman, said Kelly kept everybody happy and everybody working.

“He did a great job; the record speaks for itself,” he said. “He had a system that worked. It was basically simple. And we all (the veterans) came together to help him. He didn’t panic, ever. He got upset when he had good reason to, but he’d say, ‘Don’t push the panic button.’ He was pretty good at that.”

Kane was well-established as the Comet captain when Kelly arrived, but said their relationship was good.

“It’s not easy being a player coach; he handled it very well,” he said.

They might have had words once or twice, though.

“One time he decided to put Smith back on the point on the power play where Anderson normally played,” Kane said. “Smitty let one go and nearly took my head off. I skated to the bench and said, ‘Kelly, you get Anderson back there and get Smitty up front or I’m not going back out there.’”

Whatever. It worked, and Kelly did his job on the ice, too, as a hip-checking, puck moving 5-foot-9, 180-pound defenseman, having moved to the blue line as a teenager despite a great desire to be a lefthanded-shooting right wing.

“The coach said you either play defense or we let you go,” Kelly said. “My dad said, ‘Try it. You might like it.’ I’ve played defense ever since. I was a pretty good playmaker. I pride myself on being able to get the puck to people.”

Kelly is a native of Sioux Lookout, an outpost in far Western Ontario that is a lot farther from Toronto – about 700 miles – than Clinton is. His father was a logger, but the family moved to Welland, not far across the Niagara River, in the early days of World War II. He played on a three-time Southern Ontario juvenile team in St. Catharines, then moved up to that city’s junior team. He began his professional career with the Trois Rivieres Lions in the Quebec Hockey League in 1957, starting the long journey to Clinton and beyond.

Along the way, he got to room with Don Cherry for a while in training camp with the Springfield Indians, owned by Eddie Shore, an all-time great player, a stern taskmaster, and, by most accounts, more of a pitiless skinflint than Ebenezer Scrooge ever thought of being.
“Tell me about it,” Kelly said. “Eddie Shore was a nightmare.”

Kelly and his wife June had three sons, one lost to cancer several years ago, with the other two living in Charlotte. The couple will celebrate their 57th wedding anniversary in October.

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