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Chris Kelleher’s Hockey Journey: Belmont, BU, Bruins and Beyond

By Jamie MacDonald, 05/30/24, 1:45PM EDT


“It has brought me so many incredible moments,” he says. “But mostly it’s the incredible people in my life. Teammates and best friends.

1-on-1 with Belmont native Chris Kelleher

Belmont's Chris Kelleher (left) with Wilbraham's Bill Guerin (right). Credit: Minnesota Wild

As far as offseason hockey transactions go, Belmont native Chris Kelleher has had himself a beauty of a spring. For someone who was once called up to the National Hockey League for a Saturday afternoon home game with the hometown Bruins on his father’s birthday (there will be more on that later), the past few months still holds up.

In May, the Minnesota Wild, with whom Kelleher started as a professional scout back in 2008 and most recently served as Director of Player Personnel, promoted the former Boston University standout defenseman to Assistant General Manager. 

In April, USA Hockey named Kelleher Director of Player Personnel for the NHL 4 Nations Face-Off and 2026 U.S. Olympic Men’s Hockey Team.

Back in 1995, Kelleher, who played for Team USA as a 16-year-old, played as a 19-year-old at the IIHF World Junior Championship on a team that included John Grahame, Mike Grier and Landon Wilson.

Representing the United States wouldn’t grow old for Kelleher, and hearing from his boss with the Wild, Bill Guerin, who was named General Manager for the 2025 NHL 4 Nations Face-Off and the 2026 U.S. Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Team, was certainly a treat.

“It was exciting,” says Kelleher of the call from Guerin, a native of Wilbraham. “It was emotional at the same time. When you can represent your country, it’s the ultimate thing you can to do as a player. When I played for the World Juniors and the Select 16 team to doing this now and being part of it is such a huge honor and opportunity. When Billy called me, I was thrilled and speechless.”

In addition to Kelleher, USA Hockey announced that Chris Drury, Tom Fitzgerald and Bill Zito would serve as assistant general managers.

“There are just so many good things about it,” Kelleher says. “To get to work with four other general managers I know – and one of them [Drury] was my roommate in college – and Billy is my boss, and I know Fitzy, and I know Billy Zito. Then to get to pick the best of the best from our country to go, hopefully, win a gold medal and have some of those expectations on us now is the most exciting thing.”

Chris Kelleher scored 24 goals and added 85 assists for 109 points in 148 games for Boston University. He was a freshman on the 1995 NCAA Championship team. Credit: BU Athletics

A banner commemorating Dan Kelleher's 40 years of service.

The Belmont Boys

Like so many others named here and eventually named to the Olympic team, and Olympic teams dating back as far as the games go, it didn’t start for Kelleher as hoping or dreaming for much of anything.

Kelleher, the third son of Dan and Maura Kelleher’s five sons, all of whom played college hockey, figures he was on skates around the age of 3. Dan, who passed away in 2018, had coached in Belmont Youth Hockey for 40 years, in 2001 receiving USA Hockey’s Wm. Thayer Tutt Award, and introducing each of his kids to the game. First Pat, who is currently the Executive Director of USA Hockey, then Brendan, Chris, Ryan and Tim.

“My dad coached the mites and we would be able to go to practice,” says Chris. “We all went through the mites and he stayed there. Never moved up with any of us. Looking back, I think it was a great way to have other coaches. So it was Pat, and then the four of us after that.”

Through Belmont Youth Hockey they all went, some progressing through the Junior Bruins or Junior Terriers. The Kelleher house would become, as one might imagine, a bit of a hockey hotbed. 

“In the basement, well, my father was a plumber, and he had all his tools, but the rest of it was all hockey equipment,” Chris says. “We used to have one room that was like a skate room. The basement was old and this closet had everybody’s old skates as we got older. You would just go in and look for something. ‘Oh, look at these gloves no one is using.’ It was pretty funny.”

Street hockey also became a way of life for the family.

“Everybody kind of knew that if it was nice out we would probably be playing street hockey,” says Kelleher. “And you might have five different age groups playing sometimes. My dad made these big iron red nets and they lasted forever.”

Chris continued to show promise on the ice, too, as one of the best athletes in the area. Still, the late-1980s and early ‘90s were a very different time for even the best local athletes.

“I remember being one of the better players on all the teams that I played on, I guess, whether it was baseball or hockey,” Kelleher says. “But at that age you don’t really think of things like professional hockey. You’re just excited to be the best player on your team and have good teammates and win games. I think that’s where I was at. When I was 16, I made the USA Select 16 team. And then I was kind of like, ‘Huh, I might be able to go and play this in college. That would be great.’ And that’s for me where it kind of started. Did I think I was going to play pro or in the NHL? No.”

But play in the NHL he did – that one game for the Bruins on March 16, 2002

A Cup of Coffee

Kelleher’s resume to that point included more than 100 points and an NCAA title while playing for some of Jack Parker’s best teams, being drafted No. 130 overall in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft, and more than 100 points in the American Hockey League between seasons with Syracuse, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Providence.

It was on a mid-March Saturday morning in Providence when Kelleher learned he’d been called up to the big club for a game that afternoon. He zipped up to Boston, still hours early for the game, asking Dennis Bonvie to meet him at the rink so there might be someone there as early. 

“It was the morning – Bill Armstrong was my coach of the time – and I had a couple missed calls,” says Kelleher. “So I got out of the shower and was like, ‘Oh boy, I don’t know what this is.’ He said you have to get to Boston as soon as you can. So I jumped in my truck and got there as soon as I could – about four hours early. I called [Bonvie] on the way and said, ‘You have to come to the rink because I’m going to be super early.’ We were there like 3 1/2 or four hours before the game.”

Has Kelleher had to tell the story of his one game in the NHL a million times?

“Yes,” he says. “And you know what? I love telling it every time. The one game, it was in Boston where I grew up, on my dad’s birthday, against the Red Wings, on a Saturday afternoon. You couldn’t script it any better.”

The Red Wings at the time were the loaded Scotty Bowman, Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Fedorov, Brett Hull, Nicklas Lidstrom, Luc Robitaille, Igor Larionov, Chris Chelios, Pavel Datsyuk Red Wings, and the Bruins won, 2-1.

Bruins fans with long memories might remember that Guerin was on that team. As was Bonvie, with whom Kelleher remains close. 

Boston that season had playoff aspirations (the Bruins would go on to lose as the Eastern Conference No. 1 seed to the No. 8 seeded Canadiens, while those Red Wings went on to win the Stanley Cup), and Kelleher’s callup would become less likely after making moves to add defensemen on the March 19 deadline.

And that was his NHL career. Back to Providence he went, playing 72 games there the following season, followed by a season in Germany, back to Wilkes-Barre for parts of two seasons, then wrapping up the playing career in Sweden in 2007.

“Believe me, I wish and I thought I’d play more games than that,” says Kelleher. “But, looking back, I still made it to the National Hockey League. Not a lot who have. It’s still a great accomplishment.”

In the history of the league, fewer than 9,000 people have played in an NHL game. How small a lot is that? For context, there were 58,820 registered 6 & Under players with USA Hockey in 2022-23 alone. The number of people who have played in an NHL game is more in line with the number of 6 & Under players in Massachusetts this past season.

Chris Kelleher has been promoted to Assistant General Manager of the Minnesota Wild.

Identity and Opportunity

Kelleher’s story makes for a great anecdote, but it now serves as a kind of reminder.

“It’s such a fine line,” he says. “And I think it’s opportunity. Was I good enough to maybe play more games? I like to think so. But it’s such a fine line. I got called up that day and I played fine against the Red Wings. But it was right near the deadline and you knew Boston was probably going to add. A lot is on the player, too. When you get called up, you have to take advantage of it. You can’t just try to get through the game and not make a mistake. You have to do something to try to get their attention. I was a good puck-mover and could play on the power play, but was I elite at it? Not enough to be that type of player in the NHL. It’s the best league in the world for a reason. If you get an opportunity you have to take advantage of it.”

For Kelleher, being on the other side of the equation has offered that perspective.

“It’s hard because there are guys who are the elite of the elite and then there are guys who are fourth line or bottom-pair D, where you have to have some kind of element – whether you’re tough or a great skater or you’re big or you block shots. You have to have something that separates you,” he says.

There is also a takeaway message for just about anyone looking ahead or trying out for “the next level,” in whatever pursuit or passion interests them at the time.

“I think it’s to take advantage of it,” says Kelleher. “Find your role or identity and play to it. There are so many guys I see who were high scorers in college, but are you going to be that at the next level? You’d like to be. But, if you’re not, you have to figure something else out. Jay Pandolfo, for instance, he was one of the best college hockey players I’ve ever played with or saw. And he was one of the best penalty killers and checkers for a Stanley Cup winner with the Devils. He found a role because he was an extremely intelligent hockey player. Mike Grier, the same thing. Griersie became a great penalty killer. Not everybody is going to be Auston Matthews. But there are roles for you and then you can carve out a career.”

Going for Gold

These days, Kelleher’s career still involves a whole lot of hockey. In his day job, he’s trying to help the Wild, and now he will help guide USA Hockey into the NHL 4 Nations and 2026 Winter Olympics.

“The United States now has expectations of winning a gold medal or being a contender, for sure,” Kelleher says. “I think it’s just going to be so exciting and so fun, to be able to do that and be around the best of the best. The best coaches we have in America. The best management. The best players. The best training staff. Everything.”

Hockey sure has been good to Kelleher.

“It has brought me so many incredible moments,” he says. “But mostly it’s the incredible people in my life. Teammates and best friends. People I’ve met through hockey, whether as a teammate or coaching my son. Chris [Drury] is still one of my best friends in the world. Bill Guerin, I knew him way back and now I’m working for him. The guys that I’ve met through USA Hockey and [older brother] Pat. Every day is hockey. I just played golf with [Bonvie]. I’ve been blessed and lucky to have good opportunities and meet a lot of good people. And my parents gave me all those opportunities, and they’re at the very core of it all for me and my brothers. Hockey has always been a huge part of my life, but I owe so much of it to the game and the people that I’ve met.”