Come next week, four men who helped make the ECHL what it is today will be rightfully recognized as the first inductees of the brand new ECHL Hall of Fame.
A ceremony will take place during All-Star festivities in Stockton, Calif. Here’s a closer look at the foursome to be enshrined next week:
Henry Brabham -- Virginia businessman who founded the East Coast Hockey League in 1988, and the owner of three of the league’s first five teams, including the Johnstown Chiefs.
On being inducted -- “I’m really excited. I’m looking forward to going out there next week.”
On starting the East Coast Hockey League -- “I was walking on pins and needles the whole time, because I had to finance it personally. I hired (Pat Kelly) as the commissioner, and we didn’t have enough money from the teams to pay him a salary. We gave him $15,000 if I remember right. I gave him a job helping run my arena as a second job. The commissioner was working for me on the side, and the son of a (bleep) fined me $1,000 one night for going out there and raising hell on the ice. So he wasn’t in my pocket. Pat would have quit as commissioner if I didn’t pay the $1,000.”
On the growth of the ECHL and his hockey background -- “I’m really proud if it. I’ve had some real good experiences. (Tampa Bay Lightning coach) John Tortorella coached for me here. Mike Keenan played for me years ago in the old Southern League. I owned part of the (Roanoke Valley) Rebels back then.”
On whether he’ll get emotional at the induction ceremony -- “At my age, I probably will. I get pretty emotional. I’m lucky to be here. I had a brain tumor four years ago, and I’m one of the few that walked out of the operating room and I’m still here.”
Patrick Kelly -- First commissioner of the East Coast Hockey League (1988-96), and the current Commissioner Emeritus of the ECHL. The league grew from five to 21 teams during his tenure, as Kelly played a major role in establishing NHL affiliations. The championship trophy is named after the former Colorado Rockies coach.
On being inducted -- “It’s one of those things you don’t have the right words for. It’s thrilling. I always wanted to be a player, and I wanted to be a coach. I knew I could play, but I never knew I could do all the rest of this stuff. I’m looking forward to it.”
On becoming commissioner -- “By 1988, I had 24 years behind the bench. I thought maybe it was my time to get out of the coaching ranks. I was going to go back to Charlotte and get involved in business with a friend of mine. Next thing I know, Mr. Brabham called me. He was talking about forming a league. He offered me the job as commissioner.
”The first year, I was the arena manager and the commissioner of the ECHL. If the Zamboni driver didn’t show up some nights, I’d have to be out there in my shirt and tie. If we had over 2,000 people, the toilets overflowed. It was interesting. Never did I ever think this league would grow like it did.”
On the unprecedented growth of the ECHL -- “It’s mind-boggling. This is the 20th season. (Current Commissioner) Brian McKenna’s done a super job. We’ve got good people at the top of the league running it for us. It’s a league that is very stable and could be around for many years.”
On having the championship trophy named after him -- “I won some championships in my days. I thought coaching in the National Hockey League would be my biggest thrill, but to run this league – and then when they named the trophy after me – I don’t know many people today that have a Cup named after them. It’s a great honor.”
Chris Valicevic -- Defenseman played nine years in the ECHL with the Greensboro Monarchs and the Louisiana Ice Gators. Selected to a record-high seven ECHL All-Star Games and named the league’s Most Valuable Player for the 1998-99 season. Played in a record-high 102 postseason games and is the career regular season and postseason leader among defensemen in assists and points.
On being inducted -- “I’m kind of shocked, to be honest with you. You play, and I guess you don’t ever put what you did or how you did it in that kind of class, so to speak. It’s kind of a big shock, but I’m very pleased and very happy.”
Favorite all-time ECHL moment -- “I can honestly say there’s been so many, it’s hard to pick out one. We had 11,000 people a night, and it was a great environment. A lot of the games seemed to end in such dramatic fashion.”
Thoughts on missing the game -- “Actually, I don’t miss the playing. My body hurts now. I miss the locker room, and I also miss the special moments in a game – the power plays, the penalty kills, the last two minutes being either up or down. That was a lot of fun. I miss the competition, as far as trying to get something done against everybody else’s best players. That was kind of half the fun of the game.”
On the growth of the ECHL -- “The skill level of the league has come a long way from when I started –- not only because of the influence of the NHL, but also the recognition the league has developed over the years.”
On whether he’ll get emotional at the ceremony -- “Could be. I’m hoping to see some faces … most of the guys I played against are now coaches. I think once I get there, you’re just going to remember some of the things you did. Most of all, I’ll remember a lot of the guys who helped me get to this position right now, because I was very fortunate to play on a lot of very skilled and talented teams.”
Nick Vitucci -- Former goaltender/coach who won a record five ECHL championships (four as a player, one as an assistant coach). Two-time all-star was named the postseason MVP twice and is the career leader among goaltenders in games, minutes and wins for both the regular season and the postseason. Currently a scout for the Carolina Hurricanes.
On being inducted: “I’m very excited, but more humbled than anything. I spent a long time at this level, and enjoyed every bit of it. It certainly didn’t seem like a job. It’s humbling, it really is.”
Favorite ECHL moment -- “I was fortunate to be part of five championship teams. One of them, I was an assistant coach, and two of them I really didn’t have that big of a role in them. The other two, I was selected playoff MVP. The one with the Charlotte Checkers (1996) was a real special one, just because of the closeness of the team. We were just one big family. Many of those friendships I still have today. Those bonds come few and far between.”
On the growth of the ECHL -- “It is incredible. Two other people who are being inducted – Pat Kelly and Henry Brabham – you have to look at them and only them as far as where this league is right now. Those owners were taking a big chance at starting a team, not knowing if they’d see any kind of return. Pat Kelly made this work. He made this league go from the brawling Slap Shot type days to a league that NHL teams felt comfortable having affiliations with. If it wasn’t for the early ownership and Pat Kelly, I don’t know if we would be here, 20 years later, having All-Star Games in Stockton, Calif., and having a Hall of Fame induction.”
On whether he’ll get emotional at the ceremony -- “I’m sure I will. I’ve kind of had practice. I was fortunate enough to have my jersey retired several years ago in Greenville, and that was kind of an emotional one. I’m sure I will. My wife, son and mother are going to make the trip. I’ve been fortunate enough to have some individual accolades over the years, but it’s nice now that my son is old enough where I can share them with him. He’s a 7-year-old travel goaltender, and he loves playing hockey. Maybe now he’ll listen to me more when his dad’s trying to teach him how to be a goalie.”
Contact Brian Compton at: email@example.com.