In a year that’s been hard to fathom for both Joe Kelly and his family, the former Eau Claire Memorial hockey star got a bit of good news. He’s been drafted into the North American Hockey League, and he won’t have to go far if he makes the cut. Kelly was selected in the fifth round, 124th overall, by the Chippewa Steel on Wednesday.

“It’s definitely been a tough year,” Kelly said. “It’s very nice to finally get rewarded for the hard work I’ve been putting in all these years, and then this year, a step in the right direction and some hope for the future, something to look forward to.”

Kelly’s younger sister, Brooke, died from her injuries in January following a one-vehicle crash on Eau Claire’s south side. She was 14 years old.

The Kelly family received an outpouring of support from the hockey community both in Eau Claire and state-wide in the ensuing months. The Phoenix Park Bridges downtown shined purple, to represent Memorial, and blue, in honor of Brooke’s favorite color. Local teams donned blue tape on their sticks and her initials on their helmets, while purple pins featuring Joe’s No. 19 adorned the shirts of coaches and parents.

“We’ve been getting texts from all these different teams around the state,” his Memorial teammate Sam Brennan said in February. “Just like, ‘What can we do to help? Can we do the tape? Can we do the stickers, the pins?’ … It says something about the hockey community in Wisconsin, just how close-knit it is.”

That was something Joe noticed, and greatly appreciated.

“People that I’ve played with, played against, even if I don’t know them that well, the hockey community in general has been very supportive,” Kelly said. “It’s all that I can ask for. It’s more than I can ask for.”

With this selection, he’ll have a chance to stay in that same community. That should help alleviate the tough transition from high school to the junior level, which usually means moving far from friends and family to pursue your hockey career.

“With everything that’s happened with my family, it will be nice to stay home, live at home and be with them as opposed to however many miles away playing on a different team,” Kelly said. “I’m very thankful for the opportunity to stay at home.”

Kelly, a captain with the Old Abes, shared Big Rivers player of the year honors with Chippewa Falls’ Isaac Frenette this winter after notching 40 points on 16 goals and 24 assists in 18 games. He was a productive member of the team ever since he moved to varsity as a sophomore, totaling 38 points that year and 51 as a junior.

He found out about his selection via text, alerted of the news in a groupchat featuring the Steel coaching staff.

“I had talked on the phone with them before the draft,” Kelly said. “They kinda just gave me a heads up that they’re considering taking me and just wanted to make sure that I’d be willing to play for them. It was kind of an easy decision to stay home and play for them.”

Kelly is one of 12 selections the Steel made Wednesday, a group that includes two first rounders. Chippewa opened its day by selecting Colorado native Evan Pahos eighth overall, then followed that up with Latvian Patriks Marcinkevics 25th overall.

Also taken by the Steel were Marc Fletemeyer (second round), Mike Harrel (third round), Andrew DellaDonna (fourth round), Joseph Sweeney (fourth round), Levi Gho (fifth round), Michael Breslin (sixth round), Scott McManus (eighth round), James Hong (ninth round) and Parker Dorn (10th round).

Kelly was the only local taken by any team in the draft. He’s joining a franchise entering a new era. Kelly Kasik and Geoff Stahl bought the Steel toward the end of last season, while Mike Janda is entering his first full season as head coach after being brought in by the new ownership group.

The Steel begin their season at Chippewa Area Ice Arena on Sept. 10 against the Kenai River Brown Bears. The team’s Main Camp starts on Monday.

“I think it’s a great opportunity,” Kelly said. “The NAHL is a great league and Chippewa is a good team. It could be nice to stay home and play for them. That’s what I want to do.”