It is one of the most exciting moments in any young hockey player’s life, that day he hears his name called during a National Hockey League draft.
Chris Kelly still calls it “a high point” in his career. But the diligent Senators forward can speak with experience now about how long and hard the road to an NHL career can be.
“A lot of people think when you get drafted, you’ve made it, but I think that’s just the beginning,” said Kelly, a 27-year-old Toronto native.
Kelly still remembers the four games he spent with the Muskegon Fury of the United Hockey League during his injury-riddled first year of professional hockey back in 2001-02. The NHL never seemed so far away.
“That was probably the toughest (time) for me,” he said. “It just seemed like such a large mountain to climb.”
But soon enough, he was back in the American Hockey League for what would be four full seasons of riding the buses – first in Grand Rapids, Mich., then Binghamton, N.Y. , wondering when his time would come. Kelly thought it had arrived in 2003-04, when the Senators called him up to the NHL. But a knee injury cut his time with the big club to just four games.
“I thought maybe I’d blown my chance of playing in the NHL,” said Kelly. “Then the (2004-05) lockout happened, and that was another year of playing in the minors and not getting an opportunity.”
After the lockout ended, Kelly arrived at Senators training camp in 2005 with a golden opportunity to secure a spot on the club’s fourth line. He didn’t squander it and has become a valuable contributor to the team ever since, especially on the penalty kill with Antoine Vermette.
You won’t see Kelly’s name on the scoresheet most nights, but Senators head coach John Paddock – one of Kelly’s biggest supporters going back to the years together in the AHL – surely can’t imagine going into the NHL wars without him.
“I think people recognize what I do isn’t extremely flashy,” said Kelly. “I’m not going to light up the scoreboard each and every night, but I’m going to try to have an impact on the game in a defensive role or offensive role. I just want to help the team when I can.”
Safe to say, given the path he’s taken to get here, Kelly savours every second of his time with the Senators.
“I don’t take coming to the rink every day for granted,” he said. “Once you’ve played in the minors and you’ve bused everywhere and you’ve played three games in a weekend, you just appreciate this a little more.”