The Fischler Report: Comet Coach Kelly Reflects On Clinton
Pat Kelly celebrated his 83rd birthday on September 8. However, his gift won’t arrive until later in the month. And he’s fine with that.
On September 25, Kelly’s one-time hockey home, Clinton Arena in upstate Clinton, New York, will host the 2018 Kraft Hockeyville USA preseason game between the Buffalo Sabres and Columbus Blue Jackets.
Commissioner Emeritus of the ECHL after being the league’s first commissioner, Kelly overflows with hockey stories from his career when he was a player, player-coach, coach and general manager. But some of his most treasured tales come from his eight seasons as player-coach of the old Eastern Hockey League’s Clinton Comets from 1965-1973, with the highlight being the team’s three consecutive Walker Cup championships, in 1967-68, 1968-69 and 1969-70.
“When I heard that Clinton won the award, I was thrilled,” said Kelly, who won’t be able to attend the game since he’ll be traveling to the following day’s ECHL Preseason Board of Governors meetings. “Clinton reminds me of Green Bay, which won many championships in the National Football League. To see that happen to that little village…”
His voice trailed off as the memories flooded back.
The year was 1965.
Kelly, coming off his only season as player-coach of the EHL’s Jersey Devils after five campaigns as a player with the Greensboro Generals, had just been traded to the Comets along with Ed Babiuk and Borden Smith in exchange for five players, including player-coach Benny Woit.
The Comets were already a powerhouse in the league, having won the championship in 1958-59 and 1963-64. But with Kelly behind the bench and also roaming the rink as a left-handed shooting defenseman, the club climbed to the circuit’s – and in one way all of professional hockey’s — highest echelon.
After losing in the second round of the league’s three-round playoff in each of his first two seasons, Kelly commanded the team to a record-setting mark in 1967-68.
“57 wins, 5 losses, 10 ties,” Kelly rattled off. “No professional hockey team has ever lost only five games. Then in the playoffs we went 11-3 to win the Walker Cup.”
It was the first of three straight Walker Cup titles.
“To win it three years in a row,” Kelly stated, “was a thrill.”
Equally impressive is that the Comets captured the Cups with a different starting goaltender each season — Babiuk in 1968, Lyle Carter in 1969, and Ted Tucker in 1970 – with heavy roster turnover.
“You had to carry so many rookies each season,” Kelly explained. “Each year, we changed seven of the 14 players on the team. Wren Blair, our general manager, got me some great players to coach, from Don Davidson to Ian Anderson to Bill Bannerman to Joe Robertson.”
The championship run eventually ended, as the Comets were eliminated in the first round in each of the next two postseasons, and missed the playoffs entirely in 1972-73, the last season in the league’s history.
But those defeats didn’t dampen Kelly’s memories of his time in central New York.
He always wanted to coach ever since he had begun playing the ice game in his hometown of Crowland, Ontario, in 1948, and was fortunate enough to have been able to do that for the first time in his one season with the Cherry Hill-based Devils.
However, he was willing to give up that opportunity, if he didn’t first get approval from his loving wife, June.
“After the Generals traded me to the Devils to be player-coach, I asked June if I could do it for one more year,” Kelly remembered. “By then we already had two boys, Wayne and Joseph.”
With June’s blessing, he stayed in the game for another year. And many, many more.
“She’s been a savior for me,” Kelly asserted. “We’ll be married 65 years in October.”
During Kelly’s first four seasons in Clinton, June stayed home in St. Catharines, Ontario, so Kelly roomed with teammates Len Speck and Pete Babando during the 1965-66 season, and only Speck during the next three campaigns.
But they didn’t rent an apartment nor live in a hotel.
“We rented people’s trailers every winter because they went south,” Kelly said.
Speck was a Comet defenseman for ten seasons (1961-1971). He was more than that though.
“Lenny was a character,” Kelly chuckled.
Speck was born in 1929, which meant he celebrated his 39th birthday in 1968. But in his world, he was 39 for much longer.
“Every year he was 39,” Kelly recalled. “I said, ‘Get out of here. 39.’ If you look at all the programs, he never put his age.”
Two other “characters” were Anderson and Bannerman. Pranksters would’ve been a better description.
“We always had to wear shirts and ties with a sport coat or suit on during road trips,” Kelly said. “I woke up after sleeping on the bus for four hours on one trip and I had no buttons left on my suit coat and my tie was cut in half. And some of the guys had shaving cream on the top of their heads.”
At least his foot wasn’t set on fire during the trip.
“If a guy was reading a paper, they would sneak up on him and stick a match in his shoes and light the other end of it until it caught on fire and gave him a hot foot,” Kelly added.
It got to the point on road trips where Kelly roomed them together next to him because they were always up to some sort of caper.
“This way I only had to look after one room when I was checking curfews,” he said.
One night on the way home after a trek south, Kelly asked Comets part-owner Ed Stanley if the team could stop in Washington instead of driving all the way back in one shot. Stanley approved. Maybe he shouldn’t have, since it gave Anderson and Bannerman’s teammates a chance to exact revenge on the mischievous duo.
Recounted Kelly: “At about two in the morning I got a phone call from the front desk telling me to come down to a different floor. He told me, ‘I got two gentlemen down here, and I’m in the room and there’s nothing in it except a telephone.’ I said, ‘It’s not Bannerman and Anderson, is it?’ He said, ‘You would know the names. Just come down here.’ I told him to give them another room and that I knew where the furniture probably was – in other guys’ rooms because these two guys always played tricks on the others. Sure enough, I went down and there was nothing there but a phone, plugged into the wall.
“I got the guys the next morning and told them that furniture better be back in that room, in place, or guys are going to get fined. It was back by 10 a.m. before the bus left. But Bannerman and Anderson played enough tricks on the other guys, so they finally got back at them. They were young kids, and as long as they didn’t destroy stuff, we had a great time.”
The close bond of the players, clearly evident off the ice, was equally so on it. And it had to be, particularly in that hockey era, which featured fight after fight, brawl after brawl.
The brawn and bloody battles of the period have since been immortalized in the classic movie Slap Shot, some of which was filmed at Clinton Arena. The protagonist, Charlestown Chiefs player-coach Reggie Dunlop, played by Paul Newman, was in part inspired by rugged minor-league blueliner John Brophy, a villain of both Comets players and fans alike who played 18-plus seasons in the EHL.
“Broph and I had a few battles as players,” Kelly said. “The Clinton Arena used to have folding chairs in it, and fans would throw them at Broph and he would throw the chairs back at them.”
One memory from their EHL days stands out above the rest for Kelly. However, it happened not when they were opponents, but when they were on the same side for the 1966-67 All-Star Game.
The match featured an All-Star team, of which Kelly and Brophy were members, which played against the defending league champions, the Nashville Dixie Flyers, who hosted the event.
“Broph always came to play,” Kelly explained. “I used to ask him, ‘When you walk into an arena, does the other light bulb go off in your head?’ This one year at the All-Star Game I was player-coach but only coached; they said I didn’t have to play. Before the game, we were getting dressed, and Broph was running around like we were playing the seventh game of a playoff series. I said, ‘John, it’s just an exhibition.’ He replied, ‘We ain’t letting these southern guys beat us, Kelly.’ I said, ‘Alright, but just cool it down a little bit.’ He was a winner. He came to win. And he was a tough customer. I would know; I suspended him a few times when I was ECHL commissioner and he was a coach. But we became great friends when we were together in the ECHL. He coached there for 13 seasons and helped build the league. He was great for hockey.”
Unfortunately for Brophy and Kelly, the All-Stars lost, 3-1, to the Dixie Flyers, who went on to win their second successive Walker Cup championship.
In February, Kelly learned that the wooden chairs which once surrounded Clinton’s rink have been taken out. He was in town for a three-day event, “Thank You Albert Prettyman,” a celebration of 100 years of hockey in the village. The namesake of the event, Prettyman, who coached the U.S. Olympic ice hockey team in 1936 to a bronze medal, was a founding father of the ice game in Clinton. He took over as coach of several sports, including hockey, at Hamilton College in 1917, and helped build Clinton’s first outdoor ice rink.
In addition to the chairs, the banners celebrating the Comets’ championships are also gone.
“One year somebody took the banners down to dry clean them and they all fell apart,” Kelly said. “They disintegrated because of all the smoke. Back in those days, the fans could smoke in the arena. Sometimes the big operating fan at one end of the arena would freeze up when it was too cold and the referees would tell us to skate around a few times to get the smoke, which was eye level, back up. Some nights we’d come out for the third period and we couldn’t see the other end of the ice; that’s how bad it used to get.”
But while the chairs and banners are history, what does remain is the old clock at one end of the arena. According to some former Comets, the clock is made from pinball parts and many players still don’t know how to read it.
“You have to be a magician to understand it,” Kelly said. “It has different colored lights around it showing the minutes and the seconds. Teams would come in and ask me how they would know how much time is left in the period. I told them they have to pay attention. Look at it; you’ll learn how to read it.
“During the 100th-year weekend, (former Comets captain) Jack Kane and I were standing there and were asked to pull the curtain off the old clock. A jeweler had been there working on it and they got it back running.”
While keeping track of time during the game won’t be an issue when the Sabres and Blue Jackets clash, one concern from the old days will undoubtedly reoccur prior to the exhibition.
“To get a ticket, you’ll probably have to be somebody,” Kelly chuckled. “Everybody in that village wants to go to that game. I constantly talk to people about the excitement that’s still going on up there about them being the winner. I remember you couldn’t get into that arena on a Saturday night. It holds about 1,800 people, and there were 3,000 people in it, some standing back along the rails. There were people sitting up in the rafters watching hockey games. It was a crazy hockey town.”
Over four decades later, Clinton remains a crazy hockey town. It also will forever hold a special place in Kelly’s heart and memory.
“The greatest thing for me,” Kelly concluded, “was when I ended up in Clinton.”