By Patrick King for the Canadian Hockey League
LONDON, Ont. – Mike Kelly recalled that sinking feeling when he heard the call.
Then the former general manager of the Guelph Storm, Kelly was now the director of amateur scouting for the Calgary Flames in 1998 when the Storm made their second appearance in the MasterCard Memorial Cup. Kelly was in the middle of conducting pre-draft meetings when the Portland Winter Hawks scored the golden goal over his former team in overtime in the final.
Due to the timing of their meetings with the Flames, Kelly was unable to make the trip to Spokane, Wash. to attend the tournament but was listening to the radio broadcast. Even though he moved on, Kelly was still the main architect behind that team, which made it a sobering moment.
“My heart was still very close to that particular group,” he said.
Two years earlier, the Storm had lost all three games in the MasterCard Memorial Cup in Peterborough, Ont. They came within a game of winning the J. Ross Robertson Cup as Ontario Hockey League champions in 1997, the year after winning their first title and the year before losing to the Winter Hawks.
It was quite the run for the Storm, who would participate in the 2002 and 2004 national championships. Now attending their fifth MasterCard Memorial Cup in 2014, the Storm hold the benchmark with five appearances in this tournament in the past 19 years, more than any other team in the Canadian Hockey League.
This year’s group will have the opportunity to achieve something none of the four previous entries have done if they beat the Edmonton Oil Kings in the championship game on Sunday.
“That’s huge pride,” Kelly said of the Storm participating in five of the past 19 tournaments. “There’s also an emptiness there. We haven’t won one and hopefully a little bit of luck we might be fortunate to undo that on Sunday.”
During his first tenure as general manager, Kelly built the Storm from the ground up in 1991 when they relocated from nearby Hamilton, Ont. The Storm endured some growing pains the first two seasons but he followed the blueprint he saw from two other successful franchises and followed it in Guelph.
“I always had taken Kamloops as kind of the model franchise in the west at that time and frankly, prior to that in Ontario it was the Peterborough Petes,” he said. “I’m a Cobourg guy and grew up close to Peterborough and really liked the way they did their business drafting well, being patient with their kids and above all, having an awful lot of pride in the players and the people in the organization.”
The Peterborough model, as it related to Storm, revolved around drafting well and watching the fruits of their labour blossom. Kelly’s appetite for trading is “always pretty low,” since he believes trading a player essentially admits failure in drafting appropriately and assessing the team’s needs.
A measure of success in Guelph can be determined 20 to 25 years later.
“The ultimate success for me is when our former players have kids who might be major junior age and they have a strong desire to have their kids come back and play in Guelph because of the way they’ve been treated and their experience,” Kelly said.
Among the first draft class in Storm history in 1991 was a forward named Todd Bertuzzi. The Detroit Red Wings’ power forward is the uncle of current Storm forward Tyler Bertuzzi, who’s among the first second-generation Storm players.
“I know when we drafted Tyler one of the first calls to come was from Todd,” Kelly said. “Todd came to us as a typical 16-year-old kid and he tested us in a lot of ways but we just never gave up on him as a player, certainly didn’t give up on him in the classroom or give up on him in any areas. I’m only saying that because he knew we cared. He knew we’d work hard to make things right for kids and Tyler is a perfect example of that.”
“(Todd) told me it’s a good organization to go to. There’s great people and they do everything they can to support you and go through it,” Tyler Bertuzzi said. “Mike Kelly’s a great guy – he helped out my uncle a lot and he’s helped me out quite a lot through my injuries and schooling and everything else.
“When they picked me, it was exciting. I knew my uncle played there before so it was even more exciting for my family.”
Kelly’s hockey odyssey took him from Guelph to the National Hockey League, and to Italy. After stints with the Windsor Spitfires and Mississauga IceDogs, he returned to Guelph. Kelly is now hopeful to finish what he started 23 years ago.
“The success the Storm had after my fortunate six years with them was something I still cherished,” he said. “It will always be close to my heart.”