May 16, 2014 (ISN) – Mike Kelly vividly remembers planting the seeds for a championship.
It was early January of 2011 and Kelly had taken over as general manager of the Guelph Storm just two months prior. The culture within the dressing room was not what it needed to be, and Kelly was in the process of redefining the franchise when he pulled his three youngest players into a meeting. He was calling on 16-year-olds Matt Finn, Scott Kosmachuk and Brock McGinn to lead the culture change and embody the new direction of the Storm.
“He told Scott, Brock and myself we were the future of the organization and he [wanted] to build a team around us,” Finn recalled recently, “and we were the next wave of leaders and players that were going to hopefully bring a championship to Guelph.”
The transformation didn’t happen overnight. Kelly recognized the message was similar to the one he’d instilled in 1991, when the franchise relocated from Hamilton and he was named the first GM in Storm history. Many of the values were the same in 2011, when his second term as the team’s GM began, but somewhere along the way individual success had begun taking priority over team success.
“It wasn’t a case of being broken,” Kelly said, “we just had to refine a little bit.”
Sensing the players may have been tuning out the message delivered by head coach Jason Brooks, Kelly made the difficult decision to fire him in December 2010. Shortly before Christmas, Kelly replaced Brooks behind the bench while beginning a search for his replacement.
Scott Walker had arrived in Guelph earlier that year. At first, after 15 seasons playing in the NHL (Vancouver, Nashville, Carolina and Washington), Walker was contemplating his opportunities to continue as a player. His interest was in staying in shape for the new season and staying immersed in the hockey lifestyle in hopes of earning another contract.
Although more interested in becoming a part owner of the team at first, Walker went from skating with the team, to putting on track pants and helping the coaches with drills, to assuming the role of assistant coach. After Brooks was fired, he figured he would stay on to help the team make the transition to its new coach.
“Before you know it, I was the coach,” he said. “It was kind of a whirlwind.”
Kelly liked what he saw during that week they spent together on the bench.
“I just became more convinced that . . . he had the ingredients we were looking for and I think a lot of that was the accountability,” Kelly said. “It wasn’t going to be good enough just to do things the right way 95% of the time — 100% is what we were looking for. I knew he had the bar [set] high, that he would be demanding.”
The Storm improved each year following the change, and in 2012, Walker finally bought a part of the team he was coaching. His coaching style evolved, but the main reason for his success was what Kelly had seen in him in the first place.
“He’s an intense coach that demands the best out of you and that’s what you have to bring every night,” Finn said.
“You have your systems, but everybody has systems,” Walker explained. “Whatever system you go with, I think it’s more about trying to get your team to believe in what you’re selling and believe in each other and to be the best . . . their abilities allow.”
Kelly and Walker knew they had a difficult challenge in Guelph. The OHL’s Midwest Division is consistently one of the best in the Canadian Hockey League. The division is home to major junior hockey giants London and Kitchener, two of the CHL’s premier franchises.
Competing directly against the best of the best only further reinforced the core belief system.
“I really thought we were going to have to work harder as an organization,” Kelly said. “We were just going to have to be a little bit better at the draft table. We were going to have to be a little bit better in . . . developing the players that we did draft. We had to try to make our culture equal to or better than theirs. Both of those organizations cast huge shadows so to try to outwork [London GM] Mark Hunter or the Kitchener people, it’s a daunting task.”
Even though the Knights are hosting this year’s MasterCard Memorial Cup, the Storm recognized this was their time. The 2010 draft, headed up by Brooks, was a home run. The core 1994 birthdates drafted in 2010 featured the team’s captain in Finn (Toronto), a 49-goal scorer in Kosmachuk (Winnipeg), a speedy offensive playmaker in McGinn (Carolina), along with Zac Leslie (Los Angeles) and Justin Auger (Los Angeles).
All five were drafted by NHL teams.
“The story that’s unwritten — Jason Brooks should get a lot more credit,” Walker said. “Six of our top nine forwards and two of our top four defencemen are Jason Brooks’ draft picks. Five of the players drafted in 2010 were drafted to the National Hockey League. That’s an unbelievable, unheard-of draft.”
“We were quick to identify that our ’94 birthdates were an above-average draft year,” Kelly said, “so it just made sense for us to try to add to that and try to peak with this year.”
The Storm landed Kerby Rychel and Nick Ebert in a mega transaction with Windsor in December. It was a sensitive trade in that Rychel’s rights were being negotiated by his father Warren, part owner and GM of the Spitfires.
“Being my last year in junior, I knew it was a chance I’d get traded,” Rychel said. “It was a little bit different, obviously, being traded by my dad. We kind of had a relationship where at the rink it was GM and hockey player and away from the rink it was dad and son.”
Rychel added a physical dimension alongside his offensive attributes. His penchant for playing with grit and establishing a net presence are two reasons the Storm knew he would make an impact.
“He’s a little crazy around the net sometimes,” Finn said. “He’s one of those guys you don’t like playing against, [but] you like having him on your team.”
The biggest question mark before the season began was in goal. Former starter Garret Sparks graduated to pro hockey, leaving the Storm with two inexperienced options. Although Justin Nichols had been largely untested as a backup in Sault Ste. Marie the previous year, the Storm liked what they saw and acquired him for a third-round pick in September.
They didn’t know exactly what they had in Nichols at the time, but Kelly liked his scouts’ conviction in thier reports. As the trade deadline neared, they had to make the decision whether to continue with Nichols or to acquire a more experienced goaltender for the playoffs.
Asked what he thought, Walker responded, “I’m happy to go into the playoffs with this guy [as our] number one. He’s a quality person, [brings a] heck of a work ethic, great character kid and somebody you can get behind.”
After finishing first overall in the regular season, the Storm’s depth from top to bottom helped them dispatch the Knights and the Erie Otters, who respectively finished third and second in points, in the playoffs. Much of that depth was acquired in the 2010 draft.
“I can remember that meeting like it was yesterday,” Kelly said of pulling Finn, Kosmachuk and McGinn aside to appoint them the future of the Storm. “Here we are, three and a half years later and those kids are leading the charge.”
“I think the three of us took that pretty seriously,” Finn said. “We all wanted to win.”
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