For almost three decades, the East Coast Hockey League has provided professional players with the opportunity to chase their dream of one day playing in the National Hockey League, nestling franchises in smaller towns scattered throughout the United States and Canada. The mid-level league, a tier below the American Hockey League, has long battled financial woes, however nothing like what’s currently transpiring between the ECHL and one of its former franchises.
It took the Colorado Eagles six seasons – after coming from the Central Hockey League – to hoist the Patrick J. Kelly Cup, the championship trophy named after the ECHL’s first commissioner, before winning it back-to-back following the 2017-18 campaign. To the victor go the spoils and one of those spoils is, per league tradition, the Kelly Cup winning team gets to keep the trophy the following season to celebrate, returning it in time for the start of the postseason. There was only one problem, the reigning champions were promoted to the AHL as an affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche early last summer, thanks to continued interest from ownership and management.
So, the 2019 Kelly Cup Playoffs started and the trophy was nowhere to be found. The first round goes by, the second round goes by – still no Kelly Cup. As the Kelly Cup Finals were set to get underway between the Toledo Walleye and the Newfoundland Growlers, rumblings about its whereabouts, and if the Eagles would return it, began to make national headlines. According to ESPN the trophy’s namesake appeared on a Toledo sportstalk station and admitted that “Colorado kept the trophy, they still have it.”
With mounting pressure from fans via social media, Eagles owner Martin Lind issued a statement late last week about the Kelly Cup: “The management of the ECHL has full knowledge of the situation with the Kelly Cup. We have made numerous attempts to return it. They have chosen to ignore our requests, therefore the Kelly Cup remains in Colorado. This is all that will be released regarding this matter.”
Returning the trophy has never been an issue in the ECHL, so what’s the problem here?
It has little to do with the Eagles being promoted to the AHL and, perhaps, everything to do with the fact that the Eagles and Lind might still be bitter over paying exit fees for leaving the ECHL last year. Of course, the situation has turned into a he-said-she-said, with the ECHL claiming no effort to return the trophy, which is etched with the names of previous winners, was ever made – though league insiders apparently saw this coming for months. The show must go on however and with the Growlers currently holding a 3-2 series lead in the Finals, the league acted swiftly to ensure the tradition remains intact. This year’s champion will lift a new Kelly Cup, the fourth in league history, a replica of the previous trophy which dons notable names like Bruce Boudreau and Dan Ellis.
Clearly one of the more bizarre stories in sports, nothing like this has ever happened, at least to our knowledge, on the professional level but any publicity is good publicity for the league. As for the old trophy, the ECHL has made it clear that the league would welcome the return of the hostage cup, as evident by a recent statement: “If the Colorado Eagles do intend to return the Kelly Cup, the ECHL welcomes its return so that it too may be a part of hockey history. The ECHL looks forward to awarding the Kelly Cup and all that it represents for hockey to the champion of the 2019 Kelly Cup Finals.”