Comets Tales: The 2014 Clinton Comets Inductees
by Don LaibleDec 13, 2014 Pat Kelly-
More than four decades have passed since legendary Clinton coach Pat Kelly has slipped on a Comets’ jersey. Returning to the area where he and his teams are synonymous with unparalleled greatness during an eight- year stretch, this is no ordinary homecoming.
Human emotion knows no boundaries, even if you’re 79 years-old and have given every ounce of wisdom and physical might to a game as demanding as hockey. Pat Kelly, revered during his playing days beginning in 1954 for the St. Catherines Teepees as a defenseman, became a bona fide coaching guru long before the term would become part of hockey’s vernacular.
62 years of molding and innovating on how the game works best, the eight seasons Kelly ran the Comets’ bench are credentials legends are made of. Returning to The AUD, where during Kelly’s tenure the Clinton Comets would play their Saturday night home games, has the coach excited.
“I’ll be flying up (from Charlotte) by myself to Syracuse. It’s wonderful to have Bill (Bannerman) and Howie (Dietrich) being honored with me,” Kelly tells. “Without those guys, I definitely wouldn’t have had the same success.”
At an age where most are slowing down and unable to pursue their passions, Kelly is an exception. Hockey is what has consumed his life since his teens growing up in Sioux Lookout, Ontario. The plan for Clinton Comets Appreciation Night, for the coach, is something he has carefully constructed. For Kelly, this is no different from returning for a school or family reunion.
“Jack Kane is picking me up at the airport. I’ll be staying with him. Oh boy, just being honored brings back great memories of the 1967-68 team,” says Kelly, who remains a supervisor of on-ice officials for select Charlotte Checkers (AHL) home contests. “I’ve heard so much about changes to the Auditorium. I’m anxious to see it.”
Getting to bunk with his former Comets’ captain (Kane), and see some of his players of years back, Kelly’s voice equals that of a college athlete preparing to meet teammates on the road, after a lengthy separation. Speaking as if he has a vintage Comets program before him, Kelly rattles off a line-up of names he guided between 1965-’73.
“Timmy Hook, Dave Armstrong, Jack (Kane), Borden Smith,”Kelly announces. “I wish Ian (Anderson) would be there, but I know he’ll be watching from above.”
Hockey, like all sport, defines one’s contributions, one’s memories, by the numbers generated. For the association of Pat Kelly and the Clinton Comets, the numbers manufactured are an A-plus , by any means graded. From 1967-’70, Kelly’s boys generated an astonishing 151-39-28 record. Three straight regular season and postseason titles were collected.
Three consecutive Eastern League Walker Cup championships captured are highlighted by the 1967-’68 season. The Comets turned in a 57-5-10 campaign, and remain the only professional team in history to lose only five games or less in a season. That incredible accomplishment is even more dizzying in that there were three Comets (Bannerman,Dietrich,and Smith) who found the back of the net 60 or more times.
As dominating as the Kelly led Comets were, the backing of their fans made the team’s success that much more fulfilling. Among the Comets’ base was a youngster from New Hartford who would one day follow in Kelly’s shadow. Ted Sator, who later would go onto coach in the NHL for the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres, isn’t shy to admit how much influence Kelly had on his career.
“Like all hockey playing boys in the Clinton area, we grew up idolizing these three men (Kelly,Bannerman,Dietrich). The Clinton Comets were our heroes. In fact, the likes of Archie Burton,Jack Kane,and Kenny Grabeldinger all had a large part in teaching me the game,”Sator said. “To me, he (Kelly) was the straw that stirred the drink inclusive of his three straight championship years and phenominal success he brought to Clinton.
Pat Kelly laid the groundwork for all of us who wanted to follow into professional coaching. Our paths crossed several times from the NHL to the ECHL. Pat has been a success eveywhere he has been,either as a coach or league president.”
When leaving the Mohawk Valley in the spring of ’73, his last associated with the Comets, Kelly racked up an eye-popping 315-208-64 record over eight seasons. Kelly, three times an all-star coach in the EHL, left his finger prints on the careers and lives of so many in the Valley.
When thinking back about Saturday night’s in The AUD, Kelly immediately remembers the “brown ice”. “Ed Stanley (Comets’ GM) didn’t want to put whitener in the ice. The ice was dark;brown. Chairs were set up anywhere they could put them in (The AUD),”Kelly fondly remembers.
In his home, Kelly tells of having mementos of his time as a citizen in the Clinton area scattered about. There are pictures hanging on the walls, which his four grandchildren and two sons (Kelly lost a son 14 years ago) continue to familiarize themselves to. In a closet, Kelly reveals stands a stick from the 1967-68 season, signed by his players, when they defeated Charlotte for the Walker Cup.
There have been short stints of revisiting his hockey royalty in recent years. In June 2012, Kelly made the nearly 800 mile round-trip drive from his home,alone, back to Utica and Clinton. He and his fellow Comets received championship rings, finally, from the 1967-’68 season at that time. Last March, Kelly entertained Jack Kane at his home for a few days, playing golf and losing themselves in memories of their successful youth as Comets.
Ever so mindful of his years contributed to hockey, Kelly confronts the obvious. “As I get older, my career goes through my mind, and I wonder where they (Comets) have all gone?” Four from the ’67-’68 team have passed. Then I think about being a 13-year old playing in Welland. In 1948-’49 I was on a team that won the bantam B (Ontario) championship, and we all got to ride on a fire truck to celebrate,”Kelly reminisces.
As one of the founders of the ECHL, and subsequently having the league’s championship trophy, the Kelly Cup, named in his honor, Pat still clamors to be part of a hockey locker room. He happily tells of being invited to drink out of the Cup by the winning clubs. Married to his wife June for 61 years, Kelly has no shortage of wonderful memories to dwell from.
“I tell the kids (ECHL champions), when they get older, and they’re sitting on their porch, they’ll never forget this moment. I haven’t.”
And just as the coach is looking forward to revisiting a region where he was part of envied success, scores of Comets fans, old and new, are equally anticipating seeing their legend again. No speech is drafted by Kelly. A late night talk with Kane at his home in Clinton may serve as inspiration, should a few words be required by Kelly.
With the coach returning to a place where Comets are once again skating, for Kelly and all fans, going back to the future together has been long in the making.
Bill Bannerman, and Howie Dietrich
Bill Bannerman and Howie Dietrich were teammates for three seasons. Tonight, in The AUD, both former high-scorers are remembered for being contributors to some of the greatest Clinton Comets teams ever assembled.
Arriving in Clinton after skating his final season in the OHA (Ontario Hockey Association) with the Oshawa Generals in 1965, Bannerman would go on to log seven seasons with Clinton. From 1965-72, Bannerman proved to be a workhorse for coach Pat Kelly’s crew. 490 games were played, and 279 goals were scored by Bannerman.
During the 1967-68 season, the first of three consecutive Walker Cup championships captured in Eastern League play for the Comets, Bannerman’s 65 goals, were topped only by teammate Borden Smith who lit the lamp 69 times. Six players from that team surpassed the 100 point plateau.
En route to the the Comets collecting their first Cup, Bannerman’s contribution of 142 points during the 1967-’68 season was fourth best in the league.
During his first season skating with Clinton (1965-’66), Bannerman put up impressive numbers. With the club going 41-28-3, in 66 games played, Bannerman tallied 86 points (26 goals 60 assists).
It was while playing for the Niagara Falls Flyers, then a Boston Bruins affiliate, that Bannerman first caught the attention of scouts and coaches outside of Ontario. Among his noteworthy teammates were future NHL stars Derek Sanderson,Bill Goldsworthy,Gilles
Marotte,Bernie Parent, and future Clinton Comet Dave Armstrong.
Howie Dietrich made his way to Clinton as a 21-year old from Kitchener,Ontario. Like Bannerman, Howie’s road to Comet greatness came through Niagara Falls. While a Flyer, Dietrich called J.P. Parise,Gary Dornhoefer, and Terry Crisp,all future Stanley Cup winners, teammates.
As the Eastern League came to a close in the spring of ’68, Dietrich registered his personal best numbers (118 points 60 goals 58 assists) as a Comet, while suiting up in 72 games. The 1967-’68 championship season would be Dietrich’s final with Clinton.
Dietrich had two two different coaches during his tenure with Clinton. In his first three seasons, Benny Woit ran the Comets’ bench. Pat Kelly, who replaced Woit, then guided Dietrich’s high-scoring ways . During the Cup season of 1967-’68, Dietrich was one of three Comets (Smith & Bannerman being the other two) to put the puck into the net 60 or more times.