Guard begins pro career in Charlotte

By Sean Keogh

Kelly Guard

While Kelly Guard’s
name is rarely mentioned with the likes of Marc-Andre
or other top goaltending prospects to have come out of the Canadian
Hockey League recently, no goalie can match his statistics from junior hockey.
He went into training camp with the Kelowna Rockets in 2002 simply hoping to
make some noise. The most he could have expected was to hang on as a backup


Guard got off to a strong start, and finished the 2002-03
season as the team’s starting goaltender. The Rockets were no cellar dweller
either, and Guard’s numbers prove it. Over the course of the regular season, he
put up 39 wins, with only 10 losses along the way. Not only that, but his goals
against average of 1.93 set a CHL record. These were amazing numbers coming from
anybody, especially a 19-year-old rookie.


Naturally, when a player comes out of the blue and has an
amazing and surprising season, the critics will ask for a repeat before being
sold on the player. Guard answered those critics in 2003-04, shattering his own
goals against average record from the previous year, as he allowed a miniscule
1.56 goals per game. Perhaps more important was that his save percentage rose
from .911 to .925, a sign that he could thrive even with a heavier workload and
more shots. Guard just missed out on winning not only the WHL Goaltender of the
Year Award, but the WHL Player of the Year Award, with Cam Ward taking both honors.


It was the Memorial Cup, though, where he really took center
stage. Kelowna lacked scoring, but played exceptionally well as the host team,
and of course, had Guard in goal to cover their collective back. The Rockets
and their star goalie won the tournament, with Guard capturing Most Valuable
Player honors, finally getting a trophy to go along with some spectacular
statistics. During the tournament, Guard signed his first professional
contract, with the Ottawa Senators as a free agent.


Guard attended Binghamton Senators camp this fall, but lost
out to incumbent netminders Ray Emery
and Billy Thompson. The Senators
found a place for him with new ECHL affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers, located
in North Carolina. In Charlotte, he is playing for a former pro goaltender in
Derek Wilkinson. The 30-year-old Wilkinson played in the NHL as recently as
1998-99 with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and enters his first full season as
Checkers Head Coach, after taking over in the middle of last year. He talked to Hockey’s Future about Guard on
opening night.


“Kelly has had an unbelievable junior career, incredible
numbers,” was the first thing that Wilkinson said about Guard. "He has all
the tools, he just needs to begin to learn how to play pro. I think when he
does, just that consistency level, he’s going to be a real good one.”


So far veteran Alex Westlund is getting most of the starts,
but Guard’s playing time will only increase as the season wears on.


Wilkinson describes Guard as “a real good kid, real poised”,
which of course is critical. Guard is a thick goalie who plays a strong
technical game, also taking up a large portion of the net. The question about
Guard, though, is his athleticism. That is where having Wilkinson as a coach
will come in handy. Wilkinson was by no means a big goaltender, being only
around 6’0 and a trim 160 lbs. Guard is not only an inch or two taller, but
over 40 pounds heavier. The hope is that Wilkinson could help Guard on his
quickness and movement.


Not only is his coach high on him, but so is the Ottawa
organization. He “has the potential to
be an impact goalie in the National Hockey League,” Wilkinson said. “They
really have high hopes for him.”


Wilkinson knows exactly how tough it is to make it. He was
never able to establish himself as a regular in the NHL, playing five years in
the Tampa bay system, but never played more than eight games in the NHL.
Wilkinson has hopes that his tutee will rise higher.


“He’s got a lot of work to do, a lot of developing, but from
what I’ve seen I think he really can be a kid who is a blue chipper, if you can
throw a term on him,” suggested Wilkinson. “He looks like the real deal."


Guard will most likely spend the majority of the season in
Charlotte, unless there are significant injuries in Binghamton.


Charlotte’s main affiliation with the New York Rangers, and
Wilkinson explains that “the deal with Kelly is that New York didn’t have a
goalie to send us this year with Montoya and Lundqvist not here yet. Our
primary affiliate is New York and that’s where our concentration lies.”


The Checkers have played five games thus far, and Guard
was strong in his only start, an overtime victory in which he stopped 27 of the
29 shots he faced.


Holly Gunning contributed to this article. Copyright 2004
Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate
without permission of the editorial staff.