The phrase that sets off the loudest set of alarm bells in the sports world -- for me, at least -- is "he's an even better person than he is a player."
There is moral relativism in the construct that causes me break out in hives because I simply don't and can't know the truth. I can judge the player because I have seen him on the ice or the field, can quantify his achievements and measure him with the mind's eye. The person? I have to take it on faith, accept the word of someone who might, but then again, might not, know a coach or teammate who may simply be vouching for a teammate or who could have pulled the curtain back on the private person only a few inches.
My point: I'm guessing that somebody once said that Tiger Woods is an even better person than he is a golfer.
The trap is set. And now I will march straight into it. Knowing the public man thoroughly and the private man better than some, I'm going to chance it:
Jim Kelley was a better person than he was a hockey writer.
He was a superb hockey writer. This, I think, is a given. The Professional Hockey Writers Association honored him with the Elmer Ferguson Award in 2004 and if you enter the Great Hall of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto and look to your right, Kelley's name is there among the media honorees. He wrote eloquently and passionately, with fewer misses than the rest of us. He was principled, which is more than a polite word for stubborn in his case, although he could be stubborn, too. He held Commissioner Gary Bettman's feet to the fire more diligently than the rest of us. He never became inured to the inanities of the grand sport that he covered like the rest of us. Go ahead and Google this man, who died Tuesday of pancreatic cancer at age 61, a day after filing a web column.
Kelley grasped the inherent paradox of cyberspace -- words that are often tossed off in haste are now immortal -- better and earlier than my generation of dead-tree typists. He was the first person I know to leave newspapers -- for 32 years he wrote mostly about hockey for The Buffalo News -- to try a website, foxsports.com. At the time, I thought he was crazy. And while things didn't work out for him there, Kelley wasn't wrong, of course. Just early.
The other part ... well, I believe he was a world-class husband, father and grandfather. Unfortunately, you have to take this on faith, but that's my deal. No details. That's why the thing is called a private life. But glimpses into Kelley's life beyond the words inexorably drew me to that conclusion. Let it go at that.
Jim Kelley did not advertise his illness, which was first diagnosed about a year ago. When news of his cancer first appeared on a website, he was genuinely angry. Kelley did not think it was the world's damned business.
During the past months, we would talk maybe every six weeks. Once we got past cancer updates, we would talk about hockey or writing or children. He recommended John Irving's Last Night in Twisted River as my vacation book last summer. Of course, I read it even though Irving had lost me at The World According to Garp years ago. Kelley adored the sprawling intergenerational novel because much of it was about the process of writing a novel, a self-conscious twist on the Shakespearean play-within-a-play. The words mattered to Kelley, who was obliged to write an appreciation of Pat Burns barely a week before the rest of us are writing appreciations of Kelley.
I was in Buffalo when Burns died, shaken by the death of a coach whom I deeply admired. I had phoned Kelley and left a message a few days earlier, hoping to see him when I was in his city, maybe drag him to a favorite restaurant, Hutch's, that he had introduced me to a decade ago. He didn't call back, but this was hardly out of the ordinary. During treatments, he would often wait for days until he could husband his strength to return his calls. I didn't think much of it until yesterday.
Anyway, his work is readily available, including on Sports Illustrated's website. If you find another hockey writer of comparable style and substance in the coming decade, treasure him the way most of us around hockey regarded Kelley's words.