League commissioner, coach and scout - Kevin Abrams has done it all

While volunteering as a coach and manager with the Kingston Voyageurs, Kevin Abrams would juggle that with his full-time job at a local car dealership. On his break, he would conduct television interviews to promote the next game from the store’s parking lot. It wasn’t easy.

Then one day legendary coach Gord Wood, who took the Cornwall Royals to three Memorial Cup championships, pulled him aside. “You need to decide if you are in hockey or not,” Wood told Abrams.

“I would love to do this full-time but I’ve got to earn a living too,” Abrams replied. “Then I thought he must really think I can do it or he wouldn’t be saying it.”

Anyone who has worked in junior hockey can attest to the challenges. The pay can be low, the hours are long and you are away from your family for huge stretches of time. And it can all disappear in an instant if your team goes on a losing streak or management just decides to make a change.

In the end, Abrams took the plunge and it worked out. The Kingston native has had a successful career in coaching and managing junior teams across Ontario and in Texas. He recently completed a 17-year stint as commissioner of the Central Canada Hockey League, which has junior teams in small communities across Eastern Ontario.

He had an opportunity to coach Team Ontario to a U17 world championship in 1992. The squad captured the gold medal, edging out Quebec and Czechoslovakia for the title. “Ontario had never won a medal of any kind until that year, so I was proud to be part of the team and later receive the Team of the Year Award for Ontario,” he says.

The Ontario team included stars such as Chris Gratton of the Kingston Frontenacs, who would go on to a lengthy NHL career with the Tampa Bay Lightning and other teams.

Abrams spent six years as coach and GM of the Kingston Voyageurs, making the playoffs in his first year. He took them to the league finals in 1989. Abrams is also proud of the fact that the first player drafted directly from the Voyageurs was Chris DeRuiter, selected 106th overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1992 draft (although he ultimately did not play in the NHL and ended up in the NCAA, skating for Clarkson University).

His success with the Voyageurs brought him an opportunity to work in hockey full-time – and drop the job as a car salesman. Legendary Belleville Bulls coach Larry Mavety invited him to serve as director of player personnel and assistant coach with the team. “Mav was a pretty important person for me and he became one of my closest friends.” Sadly, Mavety died in 2020. Abram’s wife Danna remains close to Mavety’s spouse Brenda to this day.  

Abrams stayed in Belleville for four years from 1990 to 1994. That was followed by stints in Sudbury and Smiths Falls.

Then he was invited to head south – far south – to Texas to coach with the Waco Wizards, a minor pro team in the Western Professional Hockey League. It was a dramatically difference experience from coaching in Canada. “While there were a lot of knowledgeable hockey fans in Texas, a number of others came out to the games for pure entertainment and to see some fights,” he recalls.

The Wizards didn’t last, folding in 2000, just eight months after Abrams had joined the franchise. He decided to return to Kingston, but before he could make it back he was offered the head coaching position with the Amarillo Rattlers, also of the Western league. He stayed with them for two seasons, with the Rattlers finishing out of the playoffs in both years.

However, it was taking its toll. His wife and children had stayed in Kingston and bridging the distance was challenging. “It was a great experience and the Rattlers offered to extend my contract, but ultimately I decided it was time to head home. Perhaps it would have been an option if I was in a different stage of life.”

Back in Kingston, Larry Mavety was now heading the Kingston Frontenacs. In 2001, he hired Abrams as director of player personnel, where he served for two years. That was followed by three years as GM and coach with the Pembroke Lumber Kings of the Junior A Central Canada Hockey League.

That resulted in his next opportunity – serving as league commissioner. He took the post in 2006, expecting to stay a few years. It would be 17 years before he finally hung up his hat, after guiding the league through an expansion from eight to 12 teams. Most challenging was keeping teams on the ice during the pandemic.

Running a league in small towns like Pembroke, Smiths Falls and Cornwall is tough. Teams are highly reliant on a core of volunteers to manage the equipment, conduct fundraisers and sell tickets at the gate. Every team has trouble attracting players given Hockey Canada’s restrictions on recruiting skaters from out of province. The commissioner faces the challenge of making sure that each team follows the rules and stays financially afloat.

He's proud of his record with the CCHL. “I like to think that during my 17 years the Junior A game continued to improve and flourish,” he says.

For the past year, he has worked with the US Premier Hockey League, the largest junior association in that country. He’s excited by the tremendous growth of hockey in the US.

“It’s incredible to think that a player like Auston Matthews, who is from Arizona and of Hispanic descent, is now one of the top players in the NHL. And former Kingston Frontenacs player Jason Robertson and his brother Nick are of Filipino descent and come from California. Twenty years ago, these young American athletes would have pursued baseball, football or basketball – but now they want to play hockey.”