A respected builder in the Ontario Hockey League over a span of 20 seasons, Mike Kelly is taking time to slow down and enjoy time with his family.
A grandfather of four with grown sons living in the Niagara region, Kelly stepped down from his post as general manager of the Guelph Storm this past spring in an effort to prioritize more time with the little ones. He and his wife currently spend their time between Niagara-on-the-Lake, Fort Erie and their summer dwelling in the Kawarthas.
“I decided it was best to step back and invest some time in my grandchildren,” said Kelly, who led the Storm to an OHL championship in 2014. “I’m certainly open to future opportunities in the game, but perhaps ones that are a bit less demanding than being a general manager.
“I’ve really enjoyed the time I’ve been able to spend with my family this summer.”
Originally from Cobourg, Ont., Kelly became the first general manager in Guelph Storm franchise history in 1991 after time around the game that included playing at the University of Buffalo and serving as an assistant coach there until 1977. He was also the head coach of the men’s hockey program at Canisius College from 1977-80 and coached Italy’s National Men’s Hockey Team on two occasions during his coaching tenure there from 1983-91.
He had a hand in the development of eventual NHL talents in Jeff O’Neill, Todd Bertuzzi, Manny Malhotra and Robby Fabbri with the Storm in addition to Jason Spezza, Steve Ott and Tim Gleason during his time with the Windsor Spitfires from 1999-2005.
After 20 years in the league, Kelly was quick to extend thanks to a number of people who supported him along the way.
“Jim Rooney and John Heeley, two of the original owners of the Guelph Storm were very supportive of me during those early stages when we started with a nine win season,” he noted. “Eventually we became one of the best teams in the league, going to three OHL Championships in a four year span thanks to the great work of men like (head coaches) Craig Hartsburg, E.J. McGuire and George Burnett.”
“I had the pleasure of working with Tom Webster in my four years in Windsor,” Kelly continued. “I certainly had a lot of respect for his professionalism and manner of handling a junior hockey team.”
“Additionally, Commissioner David Branch has been a mentor and supporter throughout my time in the league and I’m very thankful for the great job he has done.”
OHL Commissioner throughout Kelly’s tenure in the league, Branch was quick to echo words of gratitude.
“Mike Kelly’s personal values clearly carried over in the way he conducted himself in terms of always providing support to the players and families that have been involved with the programs he oversaw,” said Branch. “Mike was one of our leaders in bringing forward thoughts and ideas, supporting any number of league initiatives to continue to provide positive change to the game and our player experience.
“I hope to see Mike return to the league in some capacity down the road so as to continue making valued contributions to our great game.”
Kelly served as an OHL representative during the 2006-07 season, standing in as Governor and head coach of the Mississauga IceDogs. It’s there, in the only full season he coached, that Kelly enjoyed a memorable career experience in contributing to the development of a young Luca Caputi who currently serves as an assistant coach with the Storm.
“Luca was an 18-year-old late birthday going into his draft year who hadn’t had much success in his first two seasons in the league,” Kelly recalled. “He really blossomed that season and I think that had a lot to do with his confidence level. I certainly found it satisfying telling a player like that, who maybe didn’t think it was ever going to happen for him, ‘hey, stick with it, you’ve got something pretty special here.'”
Caputi went on to score 37 goals that season and was selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the fourth round of the 2007 NHL Draft. He returned to score 51 goals and record 111 points in 2007-08 before embarking on a five year pro career that included 35 games in the NHL.
Another of Kelly’s favourites over the course of his 20-year career was former Guelph Storm captain Chris Hajt, a Buffalo native who recently accepted an assistant coaching position with the Buffalo Sabres. Kelly chose Hajt in the third round of the 1994 OHL Priority Selection and the big defender would contribute to three trips to the OHL Final, helping the Storm hoist the J. Ross Robertson Cup for the first time in 1998.
“That one’s certainly a feel good story,” said Kelly. “I don’t think many people knew of Chris when he was playing in Buffalo, but he turned out to be a very important part of the organization’s success, not to mention he is one of the most outstanding people in the world. It’s great kids like that who have kept me enthralled and loving junior hockey – it’s all about the kids.”
Kelly turns the Guelph Storm over to George Burnett, a 20-year OHL coaching veteran who served as general manager of the Flint Firebirds last season. It was Burnett who took over head coaching responsibilities with Guelph in 1997 when Kelly took a position as Director of Amateur Scouting with the Calgary Flames. Burnett and general manager Alan Millar (now of the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors) led the Storm to their first OHL title.
This time around Burnett will take over as both head coach and general manager, and Kelly says the organization is in good hands.
“I’ve had the privilege of working with George for a long time, and I’m thrilled that he’ll be overseeing operations with the Guelph Storm,” said Kelly. “I respect his values and I really like what he stands for. I think he’s a heck of a role model for young people and a very accomplished coach and general manager.”
Though Kelly’s days as a general manager are likely behind him, a love for the game and assisting in the development of junior hockey players on and off the ice will have him back in the rinks soon enough.
“Oh I’m sure I’ll be back at it in some way eventually,” he finished. “Give it a few months time and I’ll start reviewing to see if there’s something out there that makes sense.”
Over 20 days in August ontariohockeyleague.com will shine a summer spotlight on storylines from all 20 OHL clubs. See more from the OHL 20 in 20 series.