During his days with Guelph, Mike Kelly helped mold the Storm into the perennial Ontario Hockey League powerhouse that they remain today. Kelly left his post as the Director of Scouting with the National Hockey League’s Calgary Flames this past spring to join the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires as their President and General Manager.
Two days before the start of his team’s 1999-2000 OHL season, Kelly sat down for a talk over breakfast
JH Why leave the sanctity and the prestige of the National Hockey League to return to junior hockey – and a floundering junior hockey franchise at that?
MK (Spitfire owner) Steve Riolo was very persistent in talking to me. He had contacted me shortly after Christmas last year when I was at the World Junior Hockey Championships in Winnipeg. I really did not have a strong interest at that time, mainly because I had only been in the NHL for only a season and a half. Steve called me again in February and we met, and again I basically indicated to him that I was content to remain with the Calgary Flames. But he kept calling and calling and just before I was about to leave for the World Under-18 championships in Germany in April, I had a pretty good idea of how badly he wants to build a winner in Windsor.
To be honest, from an outside perspective, I have always looked at this franchise and thought that it had a lot of potential.
Finally, after talking so much with Steve I could see that, with a little bit of nurturing, it could be an exciting opportunity. Windsor is a vibrant city- an area where there is a fine university where you can attract players and a market that has been untapped for too long.
Ultimately, it was just too good of an opportunity to pass up.
JH Having Tom Webster as your head coach cannot help but push the Windsor Spitfires in the right direction ….
MK Having the opportunity to bring Tom Webster aboard was actually the clincher in my decision to come to Windsor. This is a man who is well-respected in the hockey world and who has been a winner wherever he has been.
JH Why did you agree to a four-year contract with the Spitfires?
MK I was actually offered a longer contract than that, but we agreed on four years. I think that with the new building coming into place and all the work we have to do to make the Windsor Spitfires a flagship junior hockey franchise, that time frame is just about right.
JH The two new marketing catch-phrases of the Spitfires – ‘Try us again for the first time’ and ‘Building to be the best’ seem to be more than just marketing tools …
MK (Director of Marketing) Steve Horne and I spent a lot of time over the summer talking about the marketing and the while image of the hockey club. I think that I had certain perspectives looking at it from an outside standpoint.
Frankly, I think that perhaps we were only tapping about 20 % of the potential market. I really felt that with a a base of about 1500 hard-core fans, there were a lot of familles and minor hockey teams who had not been out to see us for years.
In addition to the renovations at the Windsor Arena – and they are extensive – we have made a decision to play a different style of game. While we are going to play tough, hard-nosed hockey, we would like to play our games in 2 hours and 45 minutes, and not in 3 hours and 15 minutes.
We want people to give us a try. We have taken some initiatives and we want the people to come out and see that we really do have a different environment now.
JH What are some of your memories of coming into Windsor, either as a member of the opposition at the junior hockey level or as scout at the professional level?
MK From a professional scouting perspective, the sight lines at the Windsor Arena are just terrific. Both as a scout in the NHL and as a general manager in the OHL, I could always tell if a player could play in traffic whenever they played in Windsor. This is because the ice surface is so small, of course.
I think that there have been a number of good players come through Windsor over the years, but I also think that in recent seasons, they have been undisciplined and took themselves out of the games too many times.
I think that too many players in Windsor have tried to live up to the persona of the Spitfires being the toughest team in the OHL. Now what we want to do is play tough between the whistles. The stuff that goes on before and after the whistles, there is no need for.
JH Being named the Spitfires’ President and General Manager barely a month before the OHL Priority Selection must have been a hectic time for you …
MK It was a very hectic time. I still had my responsibilities to fulfill as Director of Scouting for the Flames until July 1, and I had to steal away a little time to have some influence on the draft for the Spitfires. There were a lot of 20-hour days and nights of 30-4 hours of sleep.
But ultimately, we got through it. I think we had a pretty good draft with the Spitfires and Calgary had an outstanding draft as well.
JH How did the Flames react to your departure?
MK Initially, to be honest, they were not too happy du to the fact that I still had a year left on my contract. However, once (Flames’ general manager) and (Director of Player Personnel) Nick Polano and (President) Ron Bremner understood my reasons for leaving and where I wanted to go, they were very accommodating.
We left as friends and I will do everything I can to make sure the Calgary Flames’ scouting remains strong.
JH How did Mike Kelly benefit from his time spent with the Calgary Flames?
MK I think that I am now a better hockey person certainly. I now have a better idea of what it is going to take to make it back to the NHL one day. I am a better general manager today then I was two years ago when I left the Guelph Storm.
JH You did not shy away from controversy at your first OHL draft at the helm of the Spitfires. When did you decide that Tim Gleason was the guy you were going to take in the first round?
MK About ten seconds before I called out his name. We were really not certain if Tim Gleason was going to come to us, due to the strong statements that had been made by his family and his agents before the draft regarding his desire to play only in Plymouth.
I looked at Tom Webster and Tom Webster looked at me and we decided ‘let’s do it’ and we went after the best player available at that time.
JH Why did you hesitate when you were on the podium and had already announced that your first-round selection was from the Leamington Flyers?
MK (laughs) I had a player named Todd Gleason play for me in Guelph, and I was scared o death of announcing the wrong name. I just stopped for a moment to pen up the piece of paper in my hand to make sure that I was calling the right guy! (laughs)
JH Before joining the Spitfires in May, were you aware of the historical significance of this season for the organization?
MK When I came aboard, I was not aware that this season is the Spitfires’ 25 season in the OHL, but I am just thrilled and happy to be a part of it now.
I attended the various functions during our alumni weekend in July, and it was just wonderful to see how people like Adam Graves, Paul Maurice and Peter Deboer still bond together years after playing with the Windsor Spitfires. There were some special teams and a great environment here years ago. What we want to do is recreate that environment – one of being a family – and make Windsor a place where kids want to play junior hockey