Mike Kelly of the Saint John Sea Dogs holds up the trophy for general manager of the year at the 2011 QMJHL awards ceremony. (CP)
If the Saint John Sea Dogs had made it to the Memorial Cup two years ago in Brandon, there’s a chance they might not be competing for their second straight Canadian Hockey League title right now.
Former Brandon Wheat Kings head coach Mike Kelly, now the Sea Dogs’ director of hockey operations and associate coach, hopes that come Sunday in Shawinigan, Que., he’ll be hoisting the Memorial Cup, duplicating the feat accomplished last year when Saint John claimed its first title in Mississauga, Ont.
The Sea Dogs very nearly made it to the 2010 Memorial Cup as well, losing to the Moncton Wildcats in six games in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League final, but Kelly points to the team’s refusal to tinker with their talented, young core that season as a key to their success in the ensuing campaigns.
"I think the temptation would have been (during the 2009-10 season) to trade some of our young guys to maybe take a run at going into Brandon, but we knew what we had, we knew that the ownership wanted to bid on the Memorial Cup for this year (eventually losing to Shawinigan’s bid) and we knew we had an exceptional group of young players," said Kelly, whose team is 1-1 at the Memorial Cup, with a key game tonight against the host Cataractes. "We weren’t sure how exceptional at the beginning, but as our season went along and we saw how they grew, it became more apparent for us."
While QMJHL clubs have a long-running reputation of loading up through blockbuster trades, Kelly believes building from within is the key to long-term success. Of the club’s top 13 scorers this season, 11 of them have only been Sea Dogs in their major junior careers.
Kelly hasn’t been averse to looking farther afield to shore up a weakness, however, bringing in Jacob DeSerres, who was released by the Wheat Kings early last season and went on to backstop the Sea Dogs to the title. Kelly also went the trade route to bring in Mathieu Corbeil, who is this season’s starting goalie.
Kelly said his outlook is no different from many other organizations and while the Sea Dogs’ success right now is a great recruiting tool, he said the only way it will stay that way is by maintaining their focus on scouting and player development.
"Right now we’re being inundated with kids who wanna come but that said, let’s not kid ourselves. We’ve had three years of huge success," he said. "We play our young players. We’ve played them every year we’ve been here. We don’t believe in having people around that don’t play, so we don’t keep a lot of extra players around and we treat our kids with respect. Not saying that other people don’t, but that’s just the way we’ve chosen to go about the business. I think the kids appreciate that and their parents appreciate it. And you know the world of hockey; word gets out."
The Sea Dogs have also found a way to make a somewhat unorthodox style of leadership work. Kelly and former NHLer Gerard Gallant, both Prince Edward Islanders, got to know each other well when both were looking for work in 2009 — Kelly after being fired after three seasons in the Vancouver Canucks’ organization, and Gallant after being dropped from the New York Islanders’ staff.
Both went for the same job in Saint John and as fate would have it, both were hired to share in the management and coaching duties.
"(Gallant) basically said ‘as long as I have a lot of input on player movement’ and I said ‘that’s fine with me, but I want a lot of opinion in what goes on, on the ice.’ Kelly said. "… Everything we do, we do it together. When you have that much experience, I think you’d be foolish from my standpoint not to seek an opinion and run things by. It’s just my personality. I like to talk things out, I like discussion, I like, for lack of a better term, debate; just to explore all ends of an issue. … It’s worked out real well and I think it stems from the fact that there’s a lot of respect both ways."
AROUND THE WHL: Tri-City associate coach Scott Beattie has left the team to become head coach of EHC Olten in Switzerland …Kamloops D Austin Madaisky, 20, has signed an entry-level deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who chose him in the fifth round of the 2010 NHL draft … Seattle D Dave Sutter, 20, has signed with Swiss club Genève-Servette.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition May 23, 2012