One of the things I've learned about journalism -- and I guess this applies to practically anything else -- is that few people have strong opinions about the issues of the day, and are still well-liked. Doing both at the same time can be a difficult juggling act.
Jim Kelley pulled that combination off beautifully.
Jim, who died on Tuesday after a year-long illness, certainly let you know where he stood on matters. You found out those positions if you were reading his work in the newspaper or on line, or if you were shooting the breeze in a bar after a game. But I'm not sure I knew anyone who had more friends in all walks of life, either. NHL executives along with team owners and general managers knew Jim, but so did the ushers and beer salesmen at Sabres games and a ton of other people around Western New York. He greeted them all equally, with genuine enthusiasm. I think there's a lesson there.
As a writer, Jim might have been my favorite on the local scene over the years. If you wanted indignant, he could do that. If you wanted informative, no one was better. If you wanted funny, he could do that too. It's very difficult to be funny about sports in print, and Jim would often make me laugh. What more could a reader ask for?
Jim and I were relatively close in the professional sense for 15 or 20 years. When I was covering the Sabres for a radio station, Jim was just taking over for Dick Johnston as the beat writer for the Sabres for the Buffalo News. He always seemed to have time to talk to a young pipsqueak like me at the time, as he did others. I could always count on him for interesting conversation and an honest opinion -- plus a funny story or two on what bizarre stunt Scotty Bowman had pulled while he was with the Sabres. Tellingly, although Jim complained a lot about Bowman, he said after the GM/Coach was fired, "I kind of miss the games that Scotty and I used to play."
Then I moved on to work in the Sabres' public relations department for six years, and that relationship changed. I usually had to go to Jim to find out what was going with the organization, because he had better information than I did. The relationship between writer and team official is supposed to be an adversarial one, but it was rarely that for us. One time at the NHL Entry Draft in Minneapolis, Jim announced that he had set a league record for the largest number of a particular cocktail consumed in one night. As the Sabres' statistician, I supplied the official count.
Jim played a key role in one of the single funniest moments I've ever had on a golf course. We were playing together in the Sabres' annual outing at Crag Burn; I always made sure my media friends were on the guest list. Jim's writing was much better than his golfing, and on a par 5 he took a tremendous swing off the tee. It was such a bad swing, though, that he hit the ball with the bottom of the driver. The action caused the ball to hit the ground and then spin backwards, resting behind where he had started. Playing partner John Gurtler pulled a yardstick out of his golf bag -- I still have no idea why he carried one -- and measured it: the ball had gone backwards 27 inches.
After leaving the hockey team, I moved over to cover the Sabres for the News, and Jim was the hockey columnist. I was sort of thrown in the water without knowing how to swim in some ways in that position, and Jim was usually there to throw me a life supporter when necessary. After all, he'd been there. He knew of the constant travel demands that job creates, including missed birthdays and anniversaries. Jim told me one time that he knew he was traveling too much when he walked into a Montreal bar and the bartender said, "Hey, Jimmy, my boy, the usual?"
Jim often talked in those times about overstaying his welcome at the News, and was one of the first print reporters to make the jump to the Internet. He took a job as a columnist for Foxsports.com in 1999; I can't imagine what Jim thought about taking a paycheck from the reactionary Rupert Murdoch. I know he was well compensated for the move, but I always thought this Western New York native was a better fit writing for a hometown audience.
Jim and I drifted apart in the last several years, mostly because of different professional and personal situations. He was driving to Toronto for radio work or tending to children/grandchildren, while I was working the night shift in the office. My loss.
My last communication with Jim was something of a gesture. Seymour Knox once gave me a tie with the Sabres' old/new logo on it when I worked for the team. I knew he was sick, and I sent it to Jim only a couple of weeks ago, with a note that explained where it came from and said, "I think a new Buffalo Sabres Hall of Famer deserves to have this. Congratulations." He didn't respond, and the other day I figured out why. It was the latest loss in a sad string of them for those who have worked in sports journalism in Western New York over the last few years.
The last time I talked to Jim was some months ago, at a Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame meeting. I made sure to sit next to him at a luncheon. On the way out, I wished him well in his cancer treatments, and he replied by saying, "I think I'm in a good place."
I'd like to think he's in a good place now as well. He'll be missed, a lot.