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Certain Memories Stick With Me

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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It was one of those early fall days where the sun seems to warm with a little less conviction and every living thing begins to brace for the cold that is still weeks away.

I was speaking with Ted Kennedy in his office at the Fort Erie race track. He was the Head of Security there and even into his mid 60s, he projected the Spartan air of a Conn Smythe captain.

Flies are not uncommon at racetracks and Kennedy was in mid-sentence when his right hand snapped from his armrest, closed in on a luckless fly, crushed it and then tossed it to the floor.

The movement was as fast as a flinch and more startling than any conventional display of strength. There lay, under the layers of age, an athlete. While Ted Kennedy’s was a life of spectacular and often tragic events, the power of that single movement stays with me still.

I was in Rochester, NY, for a neutral site game between the Capitals and Buffalo Sabres.  My friend Dave Fay was a writer for the Washington Times and he was reveling in the ornate skills of a Caps rookie named Alexander Ovechkin. Dave was an ex-marine and his voice had the requisite combination of timber and bluster.

He had survived mouth cancer, but since a large part of his tongue was missing, he had to be careful about what he ate. When I noticed him, he was by himself in an empty arena, choking on a dry roast beef sandwich. I pounded on his back and while they say that doesn’t help a choking person, this time it did.

He turned for the first time to face me. “Jesus,” he said, feigning horror. “Of all the people to save my life, it had to be you.”

I remember him for that moment.

I interviewed Maurice Richard in his lawyer’s office. I was given an audience because I was writing a book on the Canadiens’ captains.

About midway through the interview, the Rocket stopped his reminiscences. “Turn off your tape recorder,” he ordered.

“You know,” he said, “English people, they never gave me much trouble. French people…”

Those words would have made a banner headline in the Gazette. I would however have been hung by any branch in the city. His fate as a longstanding symbol for the nationalist cause galled the Rocket. That’s how I remember him.

I dealt with Pat Burns often and while I would never claim to be a friend, I remember a cartoon of a man who scared the hell out of his players and yet dealt with me with ease and even certain gentleness. He talked passionately about the adjustment Russian players had to make when they were integrated into the NHL. Burns posed for the cover of The Hockey News sitting behind little Nik Borschevsky. I remember his conviction in helping this undersized Russian who would soon reward him with one of the biggest playoff goals in Maple Leaf playoff  history.

Jim Kelley was my friend of 15 years. He was an old school guy who started in the business delivering the Buffalo newspaper he would one day dominate. He died Tuesday, a few hours after filing his last story for Pancreatic cancer ended his life.

Another friend and I were arranging to visit him two weeks ago.  Jim had just spent four days in a hospice, bringing the pain of his disease under some vestige of control.

“Are you both coming just to see me or do you have plans in the region,” he asked via e-mail. “Depending on how I feel I could meet you downtown and shorten the trip.”

Dying of cancer, he wondered if we were coming on other business and wanted to meet us where our ride home would be shorter.

Of the hundreds of thousands of words he wrote and the many conversations we shared, that e-mail is what I will remember.

You miss the little stuff, whether it comes from the truest of friends or people you met along the way. The gestures and the stories and even the crushed flies can bring moments of memory, even shards of grief.

But the greater the hurt, the luckier you were.
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