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Recalling Jim Kelley’s fire

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Jim Kelley was a proud blue collar guy who never shied from the truth and had no tolerance for injustice. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

Some people write from the head, others from the heart, and far too many write from the spleen. But when Jim Kelley wrote, he opened up a vein and bled through his fingers into his keyboard and onto the page. The head and heart (and sometimes the spleen) came along for the ride. That was how important Jim’s work was to him. It was his life force, his art, his chosen mode of expression. Only his family meant more.

Jim died on Tuesday, after staring down the most deadly form of cancer and not letting it silence him even in his final days. Hockey lost a great writer and a big booster. I lost a dear friend.

Those of you who are regular SI.com readers have read Jim’s work for a long time. I go back to when he covered the Sabres for The Buffalo News not too many years after he got that beat on a sport he had loved passionately since he was a kid sneaking into the old Aud to watch the AHL Bisons with the Pepsi bottle cap crest on their sweaters. And when I began working for the NHL a few years afterward, it was obvious that among the large and colorful press corps that followed the league back then, Kelley had quickly become a very respected member.

Not only did his colleagues recognize that he wrote with sincere passion, he was also a very diligent reporter. He worked his sources, his words were grounded in the facts, and above all, he was fair. He had an abiding concern for journalistic ethics (and later would become involved in a professional organization dedicated to ethical issues), and those ethics were the backbone of the strong positions he took in print, and later on the air as a radio commentator in Buffalo and Toronto.

Jim felt a responsibility to bring fans the news and his views in a principled manner. There was an honesty to him and his work that made readers and listeners trust him.

Jim and I had a passing acquaintance for a couple of years, and then, before the start of the 1987 Stanley Cup Final between the Oilers and Flyers, we found ourselves seated next to each other on a flight west out of Toronto. He was covering the series for his paper. I was the league’s director of broadcasting. We got to talking and I could see why he was so well-liked. He was a warm guy with a warm voice who smiled easily and often. He liked to laugh, but he was also very bright and genuinely curious. And he looked for all the world like the singer Kenny Rogers.

We spent a good amount of time on that flight talking about the NHL’s U.S. broadcast policies, which were then, as now, an important and often contentious component to the league’s business. He had written about them, but they were not often articulated to the media (not on purpose, just because the league was not particularly sophisticated in its communications practices) and Jim really wanted to understand them. He asked all the right questions. I answered them as best I could and that struck a chord with him. “No one’s ever explained that to me,” he said. We began talking about other things, finding out that we had lots in common (good music, wine and food, especially). By the time we landed in Edmonton, we were friends.

Over the years, our friendship grew — in person, on long phone conversations and later via long, long e-mail exchanges. More often than not, we chewed over the league’s regular controversies — and there were plenty back then, as there are now. Some in the press corps had wild opinions, but Kelley’s thinking was always grounded in facts and solid reasoning. He considered all the sides in any dispute (and always encouraged others to do the same). And he was always open to hear new thoughts. But when he formed an opinion, you could bet that it was well thought-out. When he’d write it or verbalize it, he’d put his entire being into it. For Jim Kelley, any position was a position worth defending and he did it as well as anyone.

What Jim despised most was any perceived injustice or actions rooted in feelings of unearned entitlement. He bristled at anyone taking advantage of their position in life — be it financial, professional, cultural, whatever — to coerce or suppress others. His father, Jim Sr., of whom he spoke often, was a working class guy and Jim was proud of his heritage and he approached his job that way. He took few days off and worked right up until the end. In fact, Jim was planning to file a column with SI.com today.

Jim was also big believer in democracy and equality in all areas of life. If you wanted to incur his wrath — and it was considerable — just be a big shot who stomped on a little guy. Kelley would be in print or on the air and in your face pretty quickly.

And he would be relentless.

Jim never forgot the NHL’s screw-up on Brett Hull’s Stanley Cup-winning goal in 1999 for Dallas over Buffalo, and how the goal should have been waved off for a crease violation but never went to review because NHL functionaries rushed onto the ice to hand out hats and T-shirts and start the Cup presentation ceremony. If I recall, Jim chased league officials through the hallways of the HSBC Arena for some explanation and they didn’t provide one. It was a cowardice he never forgot.

And if you think his anger was generated because the Sabres were the victims, you didn’t know Jim Kelley. It was the injustice of the situation that grabbed his gut.

But Jim also knew not to take himself seriously. Let’s back up to that ’87 Oilers-Flyers Final. It ran seven games and the day-long travel between Edmonton and Philly was hellacious. The few flights connecting the distant cites were jammed with members of the traveling hockey community and Air Canada had but one film showing on the route: The Three Amigos. It’s a truly mediocre comedy with Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short that would be unmemorable had we not all been forced to endure it multiple times. Like hockey fans have memorized the lines from Slap Shot, we learned the lame dialogue from The Three Amigos  – quite unwillingly — especially the signature repartee, the Amigos’ sorry oath which goes, “Wherever there is injustice, you will find us. Wherever there is suffering, we’ll be there. Wherever liberty is threatened, you will find…The Three Amigos!”

Now, I recount that story to tell you this: When Kelley and I would ruminate on some NHL inequity, inevitably one of us would start to recite in mock seriousness, “Wherever there is injustice…” and instantly we’d both laugh out loud. His laugh was an especially hearty one and I’m going to miss it.

Jim’s stature expanded among his fellow hockey writers and he was elected vice president and then president of the NHL Professional Hockey Writers Association. In 2004, he received the Elmer Ferguson Award and was inducted into the media wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame. But he never let any honor change or spoil him. When I was fired from the NHL in 1993, Kelley was one of the first to call and console me. And he never stopped checking in.

Jim was also pioneer. In 1999, he was one of the first mainstream media columnists to jump to the internet, taking a job as the hockey columnist for FoxSports.com. I didn’t know that when I applied and was hired to be that site’s lead hockey producer. Suddenly we were co-workers. I was, essentially, his editor. We spoke every day for about a year and it was a terrific experience for us both, learning a new industry and talking about hockey with a good friend. I got to work with his words regularly and that helped me feel the fires inside him.

I don’t mind telling you that Kelley was pretty scared making the leap from newspapers. He had started at The Buffalo News as a copy boy. It was the only profession he knew and to be unable to hold a web page in his hand, as he could hold a newspaper, was disorienting to him. He worried that the new media was too unstable and he had made the wrong decision for his family. We talked about that all the time, and my losing that job when I declined to relocate with the operation to Los Angeles, only increased Jim’s worries. I told him he was too talented, that he’d be fine even if they let him go. Despite all his honors, he never seemed to fully grasp how good he was at what he did.

Jim certainly didn’t have any doubts about how much he loved his family. He and his wife Susan had been together many years, and he adored his two daughters. He had a big hand in raising his three grandchildren. As an older guy, he’d become a surrogate father to his young grandson and took a lot of joy and pride in that, as he did in his work.

After our time at FoxSports, Jim and I always talked about working together again, and how much we had enjoyed it. Years later, we finally got the chance at SI.com, and now it’s gone too soon. I’ll miss our talks, his laugh, the long e-mails, and Jim’s passion for hockey.

  • Published On Dec 01, 2010
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