Jim Kelley had a passion for hockey and a gift for language and storytelling. And when he passed away at the age of 61 Tuesday after a lengthy battle with pancreatic cancer, the hockey writing business lost a giant.
Kelley served as the president (and vice-president) of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and was honored in 2004 by the Hockey Hall of Fame with the Elmer Ferguson Award, given “in recognition of distinguished members of the newspaper profession whose words have brought honor to journalism and to hockey.”
Jim was the Buffalo News’ columnist and main hockey man and worked for that paper for 32 years. And he wrote for us at The Hockey News since the early 1980s – something he said was a signal he had arrived in the hockey community.
Jim was as comfortable behind a word processor as he was in front of a microphone, providing insight on radio shows across the continent when he wasn’t filing stories for respected websites such as ESPN.com and Sportsnet.ca. His stature within the industry was such that we had no second thoughts about naming him one of our 2002-03 Top 100 People of Power And Influence In Hockey.
However, to start and stop with a list of his many professional accomplishments is to miss the essence of what really defined the man.
In his work, Jim was what a hockey columnist ought to be – opinionated, colorful and unafraid to rattle a cage or two along the way. Many will remember his infamous run-in with goalie Dominik Hasek, the Sabres goalie who attacked him in the 1997 playoffs (and was suspended for three post-season games) after Jim wrote he wasn’t being mentally tough.
But Jim shouldn’t be remembered for one athlete’s thin skin. He should be remembered for covering 26 Stanley Cup finals, for representing his community through his writings and for loving and respecting the game as much as any fan. (As he noted on his Sportsnet.ca bio, he is the only writer in the history of the News assigned to report on the NFL’s Buffalo Bills only to beg to go back to the NHL beat.) And he should be remembered as one of the hockey writing fraternity’s most respected and beloved members.
Ask virtually anyone he worked with and they’ll tell you Jim always extended a hand in friendship. He was there with an encouraging word from the first time I met him to the last time he sent me a wonderful email this past summer. That’s why the outpouring of grief from colleagues who heard of his passing was so genuine – Jim was as genuine as they came.
“I don’t ask you to agree with what I write,” he wrote on his bio, “but I would hope you read it with an open mind, think about what’s being said and, hopefully, realize that there is always more than one way to see the game.”
Thanks to the words, stories and heart of Jim Kelley, we’ve realized much more than that.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Wednesdays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
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