A gold medal would cap a great career for Chris Kelly
BELLEVILLE _ Chris Kelly couldn’t script a better finish to a great career.
The veteran centre is preparing to suit up for what could be his final game with the American Hockey League’s Belleville Senators Wednesday on the road against the Syracuse Crunch and then he’ll pack up to head for Latvia to join Team Canada training camp as they prepare for the 2018 Winter Olympics next month.
While Kelly was ready to skate into the sunset when he left the Edmonton Oilers’ camp in mid-November, a phone call from Senators’ assistant general manager Randy Lee to accept a pro tryout with the club’s AHL affiliate in Belleville changed all that and now the 37-year-old has a chance to close out his career on his own terms.
If Canada makes the gold medal final in Pyeonchang, South Korea Kelly understands that may be the last game of his hockey career and he’s thrilled to get the chance.
“I’d be more than okay with that (being the end),” Kelly told Postmedia in an interview last week at the Yardmen Arena. “I’ve had this talk with a lot of guys and a lot of the talks I’ve had are with older guys because I guess I’m an older guy now.
“We talk about retirement, and when things are done, and I’ve only really experienced one guy going out the way he wanted to go out and that was Mark Recchi lifting the (Stanley) Cup (in 2011 in Boston) after winning Game 7. He just said, ‘Okay, I’m done and I’ve had a great career’.
“Whenever it ends, it ends. I’ve got no regrets. I’ve been so lucky to play this game for as long as I have and to get to experience the things I’ve got to experience. I can’t even put into words what this is …”
The words are hard to find for Kelly, a father of three who makes his home in Barrhaven, because even though he’s had a 17-year career it’s gone by in a flash.
He was member of the Senators’ organization when the club moved its affiliation to Binghamton to 2002 and 15 years later his career has come full circle as he wraps it up in Ottawa’s new home in Belleville. Kelly spent 12 years in the Ottawa organization after being drafted by the club in the third round in 1999.
He was dealt to the Bruins in the spring of 2011 when the Senators decided to undergo a rebuild. He signed with Ottawa as a free agent last season and suited up for all 82 regular season games.
The fact he’s back in the AHL to write the final chapter isn’t lost on him or anybody around Kelly.
“This is kind of neat if you think about it,” said Belleville coach Kurt Kleinendorst. “It’s not just full circle because he started in the AHL, it’s full circle because he started with the Senators and he’s back here. I’ve been able to share that with some of the younger kids who’ve come down here.
“They aren’t going to be here forever. When they first get here they don’t really want to be here so when they come all they can do is think about leaving. What I’m trying to get the guys to understand is they have to embrace this because at the end of the day it’s not going to be here forever. Kelly will tell you that. He’s enjoyed it.”
After scratching Kelly through most of the playoffs last spring, the Senators didn’t offer him a contract. He was welcome to return on a pro tryout but the reality is even if he signed he wasn’t going to get playing time under coach Guy Boucher and there wasn’t any point in bringing him back.
Edmonton general manager Peter Chiarelli, who won a Cup with Kelly in 2011 in Boston, has a lot of respect for what he brings to the table but didn’t have enough room to sign him either.
He was skating with the Carleton Ravens when he accepted the PTO in Belleville.
“I trained this summer like I had something,” Kelly said. “A lot of guys at my age don’t do that. They aren’t sure they’re going to play. My wife (Krissy) told me it would be easy for me not to go to Belleville and to stop playing. That made my mind up for me, ‘I don’t want to end on easy’.”
Getting to Belleville gave him exposure to Canadian general manager Sean Burke and coach Willie Desjardins. They invited Kelly to participate at the Spengler Cup in Davos, Switzerland during the Christmas holidays.
He owes a debut of gratitude to Lee for the offer to play.
“If I was just practising with Carleton and just skating there’s no chance anyone would have even thought of me,” Kelly said. “For Randy to reach out to me and ask me to play that’s a huge reason why I’m still playing and getting these opportunities.
“I made the NHL because of Randy. I know Randy was always in my corner and pushing for me. I’m extremely grateful for that. I have the life I have and a big reason for that is because of Randy.”
Now, he’ll get the chance to march into the Opening Ceremonies as a member of the Canadian team.
“It’s huge honour. It’s not something I ever dreamed of. It’s always been the good players that get invited,” Kelly said. “To be selected, not only to represent your country but to represent them at the Olympics, I don’t think it’s even sunk in yet. It’s pretty cool. The attention I’ve gotten from this is far greater than any I’ve got.
“It’s a dream come true.”
It’s no coincidence Kelly is one of the first players at the rink in Belleville. He loves being around the room, exchanging barbs with his teammates and trying to pass along the experience he’s gained to young players.
Father time is ticking and he knows these days are coming to a close.
“I still love coming to the rink. It’s going to be over soon. I know that. It ends for us all but I want to enjoy as much as I can. I always make jokes that I don’t want to grow up and get a real job,” Kelly said. “This is enjoyable. I’ve been so lucky to be around so many good people in the game.
“I’ve enjoyed every part of it.”
Winning a gold medal and having his name on a Stanley Cup would be the perfect way to wrap up his career. If that happens, one of his first phone calls might be to former Boston teammate Patrice Bergeron, who won gold with Canada in 2010 and helped lead the Bruins to the Cup in 2011.
“Now, I (would) know Bergeron doesn’t have something over me … well maybe a few things,” Kellly said with a smile. “It would be pretty great to do that. Growing up I was never the best player in the league or on the team but a lot of people would be like, ‘I was a better player than him, how did he get to do this?’ I’m extremely fortunate.”
Getting the chance to dig for gold is the perfect final chapter for Kelly.
Future coaching career?
Belleville Senators’ coach Kurt Kleinendorst has seen the influence he has on the club’s young players and feels Kelly could pass that knowledge along when his playing career is over.
“That’s where I see this going if he ever wanted to, I can see him being a great coach one day,” said Kleinendorst. “The perfect segue for being a great coach is to come in and be an assistant for awhile and then someday come sit (behind the desk as a head coach).
“That would be an absolute home run for me.”
Kelly said he’d consider the possibility of coaching.
“I know I want to stay in the game and that’s the one thing I do know,” Kelly said. “It’s how do I stay in the game? I love the game, I love being around the guys and I know it’s different from when you’re playing to when you transition over to whatever it’s that you decide to do.
“The guys will look at you different. I would hope that when I do come back in whatever capacity it may be the players know that I have their best interests at heart.”