First a confession. Jim Kelley and I were life-long friends. A man of great depth - fair, honest, opinionated, and a credit to our profession, he passed away Tuesday night after a long and brave fight with pancreatic cancer.
Jimmy and I spoke and e-mailed lots over the past few years, largely because we had so much shared history. He was there, in 1986, during the Stanley Cup finals, just before I got married, at a memorable stag, orchestrated by the Edmonton Sun's Terry Jones, an all-night event at a bar in Calgary, where Jonesy convinced the owner to leave him the keys and let him lock up afterward. I think it was roughly 5 a.m. when we vacated the premises. Scott Morrison debuted a dance step that night that was the talk of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association for the next decade. We were all younger then, more carefree, with our lives ahead of us, doing what we loved, and not thinking about mortality or the future or how the rest of our careers and our lives might unfold.
Jimmy would be the first to tell you that, short of that cancer diagnosis, everything went pretty well for him. Happy marriage; great joy in his children and then his grandchildren. A life well-lived. But mostly what comes with 20-plus years of shared history is a fierce loyalty to one another. Those of us who were at it three decades ago, when the reporting life was a lot simpler, shared in each others successes and were there to help a lending hand when adversity struck.
About 10 years ago, the two of us were at similar crossroads in our respective professional lives, and ultimately both determined that we would try to forge a new path, on the fledgling dot.com side of the business. I quit the Calgary Herald to join globesports.com; Jimmy left the comparative safety of the Buffalo News, where the larger body of his work earned him the 2004 Elmer Ferguson award, the top hockey-writing honour in the business, to venture into the untested Internet waters. Who, in the name of Bill Gates, knew it would catch on the way it did?
Weirdly, I was in the Globe's offices today, doing paperwork and deleting some old e-mails when I came across a message that Jim had sent, updating his condition and his state of mind. I made a mental note that it was time to check in again and see how he was doing. Jim was never one to wallow much, even as he tried to cope with one of the toughest cancer diagnoses out there. Typically, he faced it straight on, hoping for the best but knowing that life didn't always work out that way.
I was re-reading this today and thought: Nothing sums up the measure of the man than Jim, in his own words:
"I've met the best people I know through hockey and I will stand with those people for whatever comes their way. We are a small group, but we share a bond that most people could never understand. You are rooting for me and I for you because we've shared a lifetime together and, honestly, it doesn't get any better than that.
"When I get down, I think about that. All those people who were and are a part of my life forever. You were a bit early in the call, but you weren't wrong when you said "Dom Perignon for everyone." Look back to that day (in 1986), back to that room and all the faces in it. We were young then, but we also made lifelong friends and those friends brighten my days now. I have a picture of us all when we played a softball game during the 1984 finals in Edmonton. You are in it, Morrison, Al, Terry Jones, Gerry Helper and so many others. We hung tough, we've had the bitter and the sweet and we deserve that drink now, in fact, we've earned it."
Rest in peace old friend - and make sure the champagne, when you crack it open, is iced to perfection.