Sean Kelley was a Midget club player in high school, hoping to eventually find a chance to play hockey on a higher level. He did not have to look far.
When his hometown Gillette Wild program added a junior team to play in the American West Hockey League during his senior year in high school, Kelley saw an opportunity. Two years later, Kelley is one of the AWHL’s top goalies while trying to help the Wild move up through the league’s ranks.
“Growing up, I always wanted to go to a higher level and push myself,” Kelley said. “With the junior team coming in, it was a dream come true. I was able to stay home and still play at a higher level.”
First, Kelley had to make it on to the team.
“I tried out for the team the first year and I didn’t make it,” he said. “I was just like, ‘Wow.’ The speed was so much faster, the guys were so much bigger. I was pretty much in awe the whole time.”
Kelley acknowledges that he essentially idolized the players on the first Wild junior team. He went to as many of their home games as he could. Kelley also became friends with many of the players, who encouraged him to keep working on his game to keep pursuing his goal.
“I made really good friends,” he said. “I got taken under their wings. They told me what to expect.”
Much has changed in the past two years.
Kelley made the team in 2012-13. He started out as the third goalie but thrived in his playing opportunities while clearly proving he belonged in the AWHL. Kelley went 11-2 with a 2.70 goals-against average and .922 save percentage.
“He had two veterans ahead of him last year, but by the end of the season we had some tough decisions,” Wild coach and general manager Tom Winkler said.
This season, Kelley is not just the AWHL’s busiest goalie but he is also one of its best.
Injuries forced Kelley’s role to change from being in pursuit of No. 1 goalie status to taking on almost all of the playing time for nearly three months.
Following Sunday’s 6-0 win over the Billings Bulls in which he posted his second 41-save shutout in less than three weeks, Kelley leads the AWHL in games, minutes played and shutouts (six), while ranking second in save percentage (.933), tied for third in wins (14) and fourth in GAA (2.33).
“He’s pretty technical,” Winkler said. “He definitely comes out and challenges shooters, and he’s confident in his abilities.
“I think the biggest thing he’s done in the past few weeks is that his rebound control has been really solid. He limits the rebounds in front and takes away the second and third opportunities.”
Winkler also praised how well Kelley gets from post to post. Kelley, who is taking classes at Gillette Community College, is hoping his play will open up a new chance to play at another level, as an NCAA Division III goalie.
Kelley’s progress can perhaps be measured by the fact that he is now working on subtle adjustments in his game rather than simply trying to prove he can compete at this level. He was able to describe in great detail the process of working on improving the use of his hands, including catching pucks more cleanly with his glove and altering the usual position of his glove and blocker by inches.
“I guess that shows how far I’ve come,” he said, “but I’m still where I have things to work on.”
Kelley’s game has come a long way, but one of the best parts for him is that he did not have to go far to make that happen.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.