Kelly has almost two decades of coaching experience under his belt, and prior to his year as an assistant coach with Alain Vigneault for the Manitoba Moose, he won a gold medal as Head Coach for the Under-18 Canadian team at the 2003 World Championships.
However, Kelly also knows just how tough trying out for a team can be from his days playing for the University of New Brunswick and the Toronto Marlboros.
“Trying-out in University hockey every year was nerve-racking – regardless if you were a returning player or not,” Kelly recounts. “You were a little nervous because you didn’t know the type of player that was coming, and if your spot was secure. So you had to go out and be a little bit better than you were before.”
As a player, Kelly remembers just how taxing the tryout experience can be.
“There’s always butterflies,” Kelly says, “And there’s always a nervous type of energy going into a camp.”
Regardless of how well a player has performed in the past, Kelly knows firsthand how difficult it can be to shake-off pre-tryout worries.
“One year I led the team in scoring and came back the following year having the exact same nervous-type energy, and the uncertainty of what the tryout would bring,” Kelly remembers. “I think the single biggest issue for any player is the uncertainty that the upcoming season is going to have.” COACH KELLY
The experiences that Kelly went through as a player ultimately shaped just what type of coach he has become today. When asked about his first time as a Head Coach, and holding his own tryouts for the Windsor Spitfires in the OHL, Kelly notices the parallels from his days as a player.
“I think the bigger issue for coaches is making sure they understand where the players are coming from,” Kelly says. “Trying to get a player to relax and play to their strengths is not always an easy thing. That was something I learned as I got a little bit older, specifically with the World Juniors, because there were a lot of guys who would come into those tryouts being very nervous. They wanted to do so well, that they often tried too hard.”
According to Kelly, the key was to try to find that tenuous balance between playing your game, yet playing at as high a level as you can. WINDSOR DAYS
In his early days coaching in Windsor, Kelly would evaluate players during tryouts and training camp to decide if they would make the team. A myriad of factors went into his decisions, but one pick in particular struck his memory when asked if he ever picked a player who hadn’t yet reached his potential, but whom he felt would ultimately excel.
“Well one who really sticks out to me, funnily enough, is Matt Cooke,” Kelly says with a laugh. “We had Matt in Windsor as a 17-year-old, [and he] has always been the type of player who had to work hard to prove himself – and he has always done that and earned his way along.”
While Cooke has gone on to become a fan favourite with the Canucks for his high-energy, in-your-face style of hockey, he wasn’t always so sure about a hockey career.
“I remember having a short chat with Matt and telling him that you have to do what you feel is right, and something that you are comfortable with,” Kelly relays. “[Matt] was having a terrific camp, and I really liked him as a player, but it was hard for me to say that to him because you want the player to make his decision for himself.”
Cooke, of course, ultimately chose to continue on, and Kelly knew that he had made the right decision.
“Having in my mind a vision of how much this young player was going to play, the type of impact he could have on our team, and how he would likely grow as a Junior player was exciting,” Kelly says.
Having coached Cooke in his early days, and now with the Canucks, Kelly has had the opportunity to get to know Matt in and out of the rink. When asked about what he originally saw in Cooke as a teenager, Kelly has no difficulty answering.
“I saw the same types of things he’s bringing right now,” Kelly says. “Matt always brought an honest work ethic. He always brought a level of intensity. He could impact a game through his energy. We played in a small building in Windsor, and our fans appreciated a physical brand of hockey. And Matt right from the get-go was a good skater, could get in on the fore-check, and had good enough skill to make a play when the opportunity presented itself. So his game really hasn’t changed a whole lot.” SWEDE IMPRESSIONS
In 2006, Kelly went from being an Assistant Coach with the Manitoba Moose, to an Assistant Coach with the Canucks. At his first training camp with the veterans, there were two players who stuck out immediately for him.
“The twins surprised me the most,” Kelly admits. “I knew by the time I came here that the pace, size, and execution level was going to be higher. I knew to expect that. But just how good of players the twins actually are is amazing. I was on the East Coast, so we didn’t get a lot of opportunities to see the Canucks as a team on a regular basis like you would out West. So when you’re able to see [Daniel and Henrik] up close, and what they can do in a small area, sometimes you just have to stand there and giggle. Because they’re so good, so talented, and they just feed off of each other.” WORDS OF WISDOM
With his experience coaching players of all ages, and three kids who play hockey and have all tried out for rep teams, Kelly’s advice for anyone trying out for camp this year transcends age and skill level.
In the end, it’s all about enjoying the game.
“If you can say that you’ve given your best effort, you’ve competed as hard as you could, and you enjoyed yourself, then you can’t ask for anything more as a player. And nine times out of ten it will work out.”