Two weeks ago we lost Kelly Nobes.
A family lost a loving father, husband, brother and son.
A team lost their dedicated coach.
And a community lost a mentor, leader, and friend.
Like everyone, I am still overwhelmed with the news – it just doesn’t seem real and I keep moving in fear that when I do finally stand still, reality will strike me. Adjusting to the idea of life without Kelly has felt impossible and I thought that maybe sharing exactly how he impacted my life could be my small contribution to the legacy of Kelly Nobes, so here goes nothing.
The first time I met Kelly, I was terrified.
I had been told that he was the toughest coach, sometimes difficult to work with and generally a pain in the ass around the department. This was my first job in sports, and certainly the first time I was told that another employee wanted to meet me to size me up. So two weeks into being brought in to build the development and alumni relations program at McGill Athletics, there was Kelly Nobes in all his glory – ready to interview me.
“Where are you from? Where did you go to school? Why are you here? Where did your parents grow up? What sports did you play? What experience do you have to be here?” I panicked momentarily that maybe I hadn’t officially had the job and they were sending in reinforcements to really see if I was up for the task. Eventually, I could see what he was up to and I just simply said, “Kelly, don’t bullshit me and I won’t bullshit you.” He took one look at me, leaned back in his chair, and with that token grin said, “ok you’re gonna be alright.”
I wasn’t out of the clear yet. He sent me a few ridiculous test requests, which I responded to both quickly and competently, and that was the beginning of our great friendship. If you knew Kelly, then you knew he didn’t have time for incompetence, and I measured up, so now I was officially part of the Redmen Hockey family – for better or for worse.
The thing is, Kelly never gave me any special treatment and that’s exactly what I wanted. I wanted to learn and take in the environment, to really understand how I could use my talents to better support student-athletes, coaches and alumni. The sport world is far from equitable – but he treated me like I was an equal and that meant the good and the bad.
But most important, he taught me what life should look like as a woman working in sports and on the road with a team: safe, respected, valued, and comfortable.
About eight months into my job, I was out of town and he called me up to say “Kid, you better get home and pack your bags, I need you on the road with us.” Surely, there were not enough alumni to warrant me heading out to Saskatoon, so I asked why I was going. Kelly told me he needed me there to help so he asked for special permission to bring me along as team manager. Now this may not seem like a big deal, but it was to me – I was embarrassed to tell Kelly then how much that meant to me. As a female in the sport industry, newbie on staff – and to sport administration in general – I had worked tirelessly to demonstrate my value, and Kelly had recognized that. He was a tough guy to please, so him requesting that I join the team at National Championships, was the very first time that I felt valued working in sports.
Kelly not only saw my barriers as a female working in sports, he actively worked to remove them. He stood up for me, questioned why I was treated differently, and always made sure administration understood my value. He gave me opportunities, forced me to think critically and in a male -dominated working environment that was new to me, always asked if I was comfortable.
Kelly was one of the few coaches you could talk to on game day - cool as a cucumber, no matter what the circumstances. I remember being at the arena in Saskatoon, walking the corridors as the Redmen were in double overtime in the semi-finals, I was so nervous I could feel my stomach in my throat. Unfortunately, the boys lost, and I had to make my way down to the locker room to meet the devastated faces of the team I had come to care for so much. Admittedly, I was the most nervous to see Kelly, who ended up being the first to greet me. “Tough loss, but we’re a young team and we’ll do better next season,” and with that he patted his chest, just over his heart. He then pulled pictures of each of his four kids out from his shirt pocket and smiled.
I often wondered why Kelly didn’t let many see that side of him. I landed on the likelihood that he had to maintain his tough coach persona. But the truth is, Kelly cared so deeply for his family – both blood and hockey and he would do anything for them.
Kelly was a great mentor to me as I learned to navigate a career in sports. He taught me to ask for what I deserved, fight tirelessly for what I believed in, and the non-negotiables of life on the road – including seating etiquette on the team bus. I left McGill in 2017, with full support from Kelly. One of my biggest fears was that I would lose the people who I adored – student-athletes, coaches and alumni. Kelly assured me that he always knew my time there wouldn’t be long, but that I would always be a part of the Redmen family. He often checked in to see how my business was doing, shoot the shit, talk future career plans, make sure I was still attending McGill events with the team and twice calling me out of retirement to get back on the road with the team, landing me the new nickname Retiree.
When Kelly won USports Coach of the Year in March 2018, I shared the following on social media:
I want to take a moment to highlight Coach Nobes: your values, grit, dedication, passion and heart are why you are so deserving of the Coach of the Year award. But in a world where it’s tough to be a woman in sports, thank you for always treating me as an equal, respecting me, removing barriers, lifting me up and always having my back. We need more men like you and I am proud to have worked with you and even more proud to call you my friend.
Kelly thanked me, and his response still impacts me today. He told me he was grateful that I shared those sentiments, mostly because he hoped many of his athletes noticed. I asked him why, and he said it was important for him that the guys took note of how he treated me – that he had to model equity and respect for women in sport, so that they understood it was the only acceptable behaviour.
Today, I’m most grateful that I shared it with him and he knew exactly how big of an impact he had on me and how much of a significant person he was in my life because we often take people for granted, assuming they’ll always be around; a final life lesson from Coach.
To Michelle, Bodie, Darcy, Jetlyn and Wes: I want you to know how clear it was that Kelly loved you. Nothing made him light up and beam with pride more than when he spoke about any of you – you are his entire life’s purpose. He is someone to be so proud of, leaving behind a legacy that will follow you for the rest of your lives. It absolutely devastates me to think of all of your milestones he will miss, but please know there is an entire community of us who will make sure you heart is always full of Kelly memories.
To everyone else: we lost an incredible leader. Whether you knew him or not, Kelly left a void that no one else can fill. Kelly was one of the most authentic, kind, loyal, funny, smart, determined and passionate people I’ve ever met, and he channelled that into building an unshakable community. There were so many more kids he was meant to coach and mentor into the next generation of leaders, and for that, we have all suffered a tremendous loss.
To Kelly: thank you for being the champion I didn’t even know I needed. Thank you for believing in me when many others didn’t and for the countless lessons I learnt along the way. Thank you for some of the greatest memories of my career and a fabulous new hockey vocabulary.
You’re a real beauty, Coach.
If you’d like to make a financial contribution to support Kelly’s family, please visit their Go Fund Me page.
I will leave you with his closing remark from from his USports Coach of the Year Award speech which is pretty indicative of the man he was:
"For me it’s about opportunity, perspective and playing free. It’s a quote from the great rock n’ roll legend Bruce Springsteen: I feel like, to do my job right when I walk out on stage, I’ve got to feel like it’s the most important thing in the world. Also, I’ve got to feel like, well, it’s only rock n’ roll. Somehow you’ve got to believe in both those things."