THE HISTORY OF THE CLINTON COMETS
Pat Kelly heard it good the first time he took the ice in a Clinton Comets jersey. “They booed me!” Kelly remembered.
Yes, they did. Kelly had been an enemy, invading the Clinton Arena with a couple of opposing Eastern League Hockey teams over the course of the previous half-dozen seasons, and he had arrived in a trade the team’s boisterous fans didn’t like much.
They didn’t boo for long.
The Comets already were an EHL power, but as a defenseman and player-coach, Kelly helped transform them into a revered small-town hockey legend. They eventually won three consecutive Walker Cup championships under his leadership, recorded one of the most dominating seasons in professional hockey history, and cemented their mythic position in Mohawk Valley sports history. For that, and an ongoing six decades as a player, coach, and administrator everywhere from the EHL to the National Hockey League, Kelly was inducted into the Greater Utica Sports Hall of Fame on June 6 2010.
Kelly has worn many hats in his 57 years in the game. He played for a quarter century and he’s coached in eight different leagues, including the NHL with the Colorado Rockies and the World Hockey Association with the Birmingham Bulls. He’ll be 75 in September, is in great shape, plays a lot of golf near his home in Charlotte, N.C., and still works as commissioner emeritus of the ECHL, which named its trophy for him. His teams won six playoff championships, and his record in 25 seasons behind the bench was 936-798-170. He had fun doing it all.
“I never had a real job,” he said. “Hockey’s not a job. Hockey’s something I love. If there is such a thing as reincarnation, I want to come back as a hockey player.” Maybe in Clinton, where he made many friends and left a imposing legacy that was
built with the help of a core group that included Jack Kane, Borden Smith, Ian Anderson – all Greater Utica Sports Hall of Famers - Dave Armstrong, Pete Prevost, Len Speck, Don Davidson, and Bill Bannerman. That group was bolstered regularly by first-year and replacement players like goalies Ed Babiuk, Ted Tucker and Lyle Carter.
It took a while, but Clinton fans soon were cheering Kelly, who was obtained from the Jersey Devils by general manager Wren Blair along with Smith and Ed Babiuk in exchange for popular coach Benny Woit, Orval Tessier, Hec LaLande, Norm Defelice, and Ted Szydlowski.
The Comets had won the Walker Cup as EHL champions in 1959 and 1964. After two strong seasons under Kelly, they grabbed the title again in 1968, 1969, and 1970. The 67-68 team went 57-5-10 during the regular season, believed to be the fewest losses in pro hockey history. That run is Kelly’s favorite memory. “Winning that third championship, that hasn’t been done often in any league,” he said. “That topped any thing.”
Kelly said the Comets were easy to coach. “They wanted to play!” he said. “The hardest part was trying to get them off the ice. ‘Come on,’ they’d holler from the bench, ‘You’re taking half my shift.’ They’d come to work. They got along great together. The wives and kids got along. It was a team that just got along on and off the ice. When I put Kane, Smith and Bannerman together, it seemed they’d known each other forever.”
Anderson, the Comets much-feared defenseman, said Kelly kept everybody happy and everybody working.
“He did a great job; the record speaks for itself,” he said. “He had a system that worked. It was basically simple. And we all (the veterans) came together to help him. He didn’t panic, ever. He got upset when he had good reason to, but he’d say, ‘Don’t push the panic button.’ He was pretty good at that.”
Kane was well-established as the Comet captain when Kelly arrived, but said their relationship was good.
“It’s not easy being a player coach; he handled it very well,” he said.
They might have had words once or twice, though.
“One time he decided to put Smith back on the point on the power play where Anderson normally played,” Kane said. “Smitty let one go and nearly took my head off. I skated to the bench and said, ‘Kelly, you get Anderson back there and get Smitty up front or I’m not going back out there.’”
Whatever. It worked, and Kelly did his job on the ice, too, as a hip-checking, puck moving 5-foot-9, 180-pound defenseman, having moved to the blue line as a teenager despite a great desire to be a lefthanded-shooting right wing.
“The coach said you either play defense or we let you go,” Kelly said. “My dad said, ‘Try it. You might like it.’ I’ve played defense ever since. I was a pretty good playmaker. I pride myself on being able to get the puck to people.”
Kelly is a native of Sioux Lookout, an outpost in far Western Ontario that is a lot farther from Toronto – about 700 miles – than Clinton is. His father was a logger, but the family moved to Welland, not far across the Niagara River, in the early days of World War II. He played on a three-time Southern Ontario juvenile team in St. Catharines, then moved up to that city’s junior team. He began his professional career with the Trois Rivieres Lions in the Quebec Hockey League in 1957, starting the long journey to Clinton and beyond.
Along the way, he got to room with Don Cherry for a while in training camp with the Springfield Indians, owned by Eddie Shore, an all-time great player, a stern taskmaster, and, by most accounts, more of a pitiless skinflint than Ebenezer Scrooge ever thought of being. “Tell me about it,” Kelly said. “Eddie Shore was a nightmare.” Kelly and his wife June had three sons, one lost to cancer several years ago, with the other two living in Charlotte. The couple will celebrate their 57th wedding anniversary in October.
Former Clinton Comets hockey star Ian Anderson, a legendary EHL enforcer and a fan favorite, was never one to back down from a fight. The longtime Town of Kirkland resident passed away Wednesday at age 75.
Those Clinton Comets who were fortunate enough to play with legendary Eastern Hockey League tough-guy Ian Anderson don’t remember him starting any fights.
He sure knew how to finish them, though.
“Ian always had a saying: ‘If you get yourself into trouble, just try to hang in there and tread a little water until I get there,’” former Comets teammate Dave Armstrong said. “He was always telling us that.
“That was his role - he was an enforcer - and he handled it quite well.”
By all accounts, few, if anybody, handled himself as well as Anderson. That’s how he played the game, and that’s how he will be remembered.
A rugged, 6-foot-2, 212-pound defenseman in his prime, Anderson died Wednesday at the age of 75, leaving behind former teammates and Mohawk Valley hockey fans who idolized him.
“You couldn’t ask for a better player or a better person to be on your side,” Armstrong said from his home in Stittville. “He wasn’t just a fighter. He never went looking for it. His stats will show that. He knew how to play the game.
“Ian was a good, all-around player, and you need a prankster, too, somebody to keep everybody loose in the locker room. He was that guy. ... This is a tough one to swallow. He’s been a great friend.”
Anderson, a native of Kirkland Lake, Ontario, and a longtime resident of the Town of Kirkland, played 285 games over five seasons with the Comets. He had 33 goals and 212 assists in those five seasons, including 12 goals and 59 assists in 1967-68, when the Comets (57-5-10) lost only five times, believed to be the lowest number of losses in the history of modern professional hockey.
With Anderson watching their backs, leading scorers Jack Kane and Borden Smith led the Comets to three consecutive Walker Cups as champions of the EHL from 1968-70. And in 2002, Anderson joined Kane and Smith in the Greater Utica Sports Hall of Fame.
“You have to have someone who is tougher than their toughest guy,” Anderson said just days before his induction ceremony.
Anderson, no doubt, was that “someone” whose presence struck fear into opponents, and whose play won over former Comets season ticket holders like Tim Forbes of Mohawk.
“He was a big old defenseman, tough as hell,” Forbes said. “I remember when Syracuse brought in some guy who was supposed to be real tough, who had beaten up two or three guys the night before, and he wanted no part of Anderson.
“Fans loved him. He was the enforcer, and most guys wouldn’t drop the gloves. They didn’t want to monkey with him.”
Archie Burton of Clinton played for the Comets in the 1950s, before Anderson’s arrival, and they soon became close friends. Burton, who said Anderson remained very active in local youth hockey, also was a fan.
“He was a rough, tough guy who will be remembered as the protector on the ice,” Burton said. “If a visiting team wanted to get to Captain Kane, they had to go through Ian Anderson to get to him.
“If you wanted to drop the gloves, Ian was willing. He’d go with anybody. But he wasn’t a goon. He didn’t go around looking for trouble. But if trouble came, he wouldn’t back down.”
Jack Kane is a pretty good source on just how dominant the 1967-68 Clinton Comets were in the Eastern Hockey League.
Performance is often inversely proportional to fame. By today's standards, the 67-68 Clinton Comets, at the very least, would star in their own sports reality television program. Perhaps more appropriately, ESPN's 30 for 30 would come calling. Pat Kelly's squad was THAT good - off the charts head and shoulders above the other eleven teams in the EHL.
One of the reasons for the Comet’s eye-popping 57-5-10 (124 points) season was their star line, featuring Borden Smith at left wing, Billy Bannerman on the right, and captain Jack Kane down the middle at center. Although a grand team effort produced the ultimate team reward in the spring of 1968 with another EHL championship, Kane was the Comet’s maestro. With one dozen seasons wearing the Comets jersey (60-72), Kane cruised to three 100-plus point seasons, while celebrating four EHL championships. In all, along with Kane's 137 points collected en route to the Comets winning the Finals (4-0) over the Charlotte Checkers, five of his teammates also topped the 100-point mark in 67-68.
"I had 12 pretty good years," says Kane, of his days dazzling opponents at the Clinton Arena and beyond. "We [Comets] had three lines. It didn't matter who we played. We had the confidence to win." Being successful and believing in themselves went a long way to producing one of hockey's greatest team efforts of all-time – all leagues included. In listening to the captain recall the 67-68 season, one word stands above all others when describing the team – comradery.
Traveling by bus around the east to cities such as New Haven (Blades), and Long Island (Ducks), then for a 10-day road trip hitting arenas in Greensboro, Knoxville, and Nashville, bonding was expected. But, as Kane describes the closeness of that special Comets team, it was away from the arenas where the Comets excelled too. "We were close. All of us got along. It was just a great time. All of us and our wives would get together at The Village Tavern. Warren Evans ran the place, and he treated us well."
Memories of going out after home Saturday night games at the Clinton Arena, and heading over to The Village Tavern on College Street ,remain detailed and important to the captain. With the Comets so dominant on the ice, Kane looks back to that time where fans followed them to arenas and night spots. "You pretty much knew everyone. Fans came from all around the Mohawk Valley, not just in Clinton. They [fans] made all of us feel so good," Kane recalls.
To assemble a group of players that would produce five Comets tallying 50 or more goals in 67-68, (Don Davidson led Clinton with a dizzying 152 point tally) took an experienced architect. Kane isn't the only Comet of the team's "Golden Era" to credit their general manager Blair Wren for much of the success. "He [Wren] played a big role. Getting the right personnel was key," states Kane, who remains a resident of Clinton more than 40 years since retiring as a Comet. "Wren didn't have to be here for every game. Every guy who came here (Clinton) knew where they belonged."
Kane's voice goes up an octave when going down memory lane to reliving chasing the puck with Bannerman and Smith joining the charge. "That is unheard of," explains the captain of being adjoined with Bannerman and Smith for seven seasons. Telling of "just clicking" as to the why they remained a unit for so long, Kane simply chalks it up to reaching the point where they could successfully anticipate where each would be at any given time on the ice.
Just how committed was the region to supporting their Comets, before and after, the 67-68 championship season? Kane offers a humorous anecdote to the public support for he and his teammates. "Everybody was at the games. Businesses would close. I used to say, that was the perfect time if anyone was going to commit a robbery. Even the police were there.”
That same community support bestowed upon Kane and the 67-68 Comets team remains constant today at The AUD. Section 108 is where Kane and his Clinton Comet teammates Smith, Dave Armstrong and Pierre Prevost can be seen taking in Utica Comets games. Even after decades out of the public eye, Kane is amazed at the attention shown to him from the latest generation of Comets fans. "It's like old home week," said Kane of his attending Comets games in Utica. "People come up to us every single game, shaking our hands and talking about the "old days." We Comets have our pictures up on the walls. Rob (Comets president Robert Esche) has taken good care of us."
According to Kane, a major reason for the astonishing numbers tallied by the 67-68 Comets was the presence of defenseman Ian Anderson. That season, as the high-flying Comets shooters found the back of the net in record numbers, Anderson ran up a penalty minutes tab of 172 . "The "Big Guy" [Anderson] made life pleasant for us to play. The word was out in the league. Mess with us, and you would have to answer to him. Because of Ian, they let us play hockey," states Kane.
Written by Don Laible
Ian "Andy" Anderson
Clinton Comets 1963-64 vintage hockey jersey.
Clinton Comets 1966
vintage hockey jersey
pictured at left.
Ian MacKenzie Anderson
Born: May 29, 1938 (Kirkland Lake, Ontario)
Died: November 20, 2013 (Kirkland, New York)
Member: Greater Utica Sports Hall of Fame (2002)
Ian (Andy) Anderson’s five seasons with the Clinton Comets looked like deleted scenes from the movie “Slap Shot.” The fearsome 6-foot-1, 210-pound defenceman registered a long rap sheet as the Comets enforcer in the notoriously scofflaw Eastern Hockey League.
His penalty minute totals in those campaigns — as much wars as hockey seasons — read 212, 201, 172, 143 and 33. That’s more than 12 complete games watched from the vantage point of the penalty box. He was recovering from a knee injury in that last season of 1969-70 and only played 13 games, hence the low penalty total. He made up for it in the playoffs with a league-leading 73 penalty minutes in just 17 games.
“If you get yourself into trouble,” he would tell teammates, “just try to hang in there and tread a little water until I get there.”
[Image] Anderson was more than a goon, receiving EHL First All-Star team honours in 1967-68 and 1968-69. He also skated for three consecutive Walker Cup championship teams in Clinton in 1968, 1969 and 1970.
The fearless defenceman understood hockey’s brutal code of a slash for a slash, a punch for a punch. His motto: “You have to have someone who is tougher than their toughest guy.”
Anderson was born in Kirkland Lake, Ont., to Florence and Ernest Anderson. An older brother, Brian, played varsity hockey at the University of Toronto before skating in a handful of games for professional teams. At the same time, Ian Anderson, three years younger, left Northern Ontario to play junior hockey for the Toronto Marlboros. In 1958, the Marlies were Eastern finalists in the Memorial Cup, eliminated by the Hull-Ottawa Junior Canadiens. Anderson belonged to a Marlies defensive corps that featured future NHL blue-line stalwarts Bill White and Carl Brewer.
The NHL Toronto Maple Leafs, who owned Anderson’s rights, traded him and cash to the minor-league Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League for veteran defenceman Steve Kraftcheck in the summer of 1958. Anderson played only 13 games for the Barons in 1958-59, spending most of the season with the Quebec Aces.
The rugged rearguard spent the next season wearing the sweaters of three teams — Trois-Rivieres (Que.) Lions, Sudbury (Ont.) Wolves and the Providence Reds of the AHL. He was a regular with the Reds until the end of the 1961-62 seasons. Anderson’s four years in and out of the AHL included 97 games played with four goals, 11 assists and only 113 penalty minutes.
In 1962, he played senior hockey with the revived Ottawa Montagnards of the Ottawa-St. Lawrence Senior Hockey League, who played host to a visiting Soviet squad for four exhibition games. A few years later, the Montagnards embarked on a tour of Europe. In January, 1965, the Monties, guided by playing coach Johnny Wilson, a former NHL ironman, rampaged through Western Europe look like a liberating army, brawling in Innsbruck, Austria, against the Eislaufverein team one day, then with West Germany champions E.V. Fuessen two days later. Anderson got tossed from the latter game, which featured a bench-clearing brawl with pushing and shoving that ended only after police separated the combatants. Such shenanigans outraged European hockey officials, but sparked interest at the box office.
Though it had seemed his career had peaked years earlier, Anderson was lured back to the pro minor leagues by an offer from the Clinton Comets. He asked playing coach Pat Kelly to team him on the blue-line with Len Speck, another Kirkland Lake native with a more peaceable style. Speck was a six-time EHL First Team All-Star. The duo provided the Comets with an impenetrable and intimidating presence in their own end.
In five seasons with the Comets, Anderson scored 33 goals and 212 assists in the regular season. He had nine goals and 37 assists in 63 playoff games.
In 1967, he was twice punished by the league for attacking officials, being levied a $50 fine in a January incident and a $100 fine and a three-game suspension in a December incident.
His career ended after he skated over a coin on the ice, shattering his knee. Anderson stayed in Central New York’s Mohawk Valley, promoting hockey and coaching youth teams. Born in Kirkland Lake, he settled in Kirkland, N.Y.
He leaves Robin (née Owen), his wife of 33 years, and their son, Jordan. He also leaves two sons and two daughters from a previous marriage, as well as a brother, Bevan. Another brother, Brian, who was also a hockey player, died 11 days after Ian.