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Missing One Of The Good Ones

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

About a year ago I climbed into a car driven by my friend Steve Dryden.

We drove to Buffalo to see Jim Kelley.

The man who met us was gaunt. He moved slowly. His voice faltered. His medical options were exhausted. At 61, he was dying.

We went to a restaurant he liked in Buffalo, a city he loved. We laughed.  We all kind of knew this was it.

Jim Kelley was a legendary sportswriter who spent most of his working life as the hockey guy for the Buffalo News. He filed a story for the day he died of a cancer that began in his pancreas. The disparate band that is the media agreed: once again the guy set an impossible standard.

I’ve never met a person driven by ethics more than Jim Kelley.

Sometimes, that made him a pain in the ass. His moral prism was so pronounced  it took his absolute mastery of  self-mockery to make it all palatable.

He was the son of a Buffalo firefighter and unabashedly blue collar.  Jim was immensely proud of his place in his hometown, proud of where he came from. He loved Canada. He considered hockey Canada’s gift to the world. He loved the game and cherished the old-school, small town values that reverberate through the marrow of the sport.

I think of him when reporters call a Mom to get information on their kid’s injury.  I think of him when reporters complain about a lack of access and information on injuries. 

I was with him in Montreal when he led a charge past a startled security guard the moment the league-sanctioned cooling off period had been reached. He was with me in Dallas when I disrupted a dressing room in the Stanley Cup final because Sylvain Cote, a player I needed for my story, was hiding behind a dressing room door.

I don’t know what he would say about the state of journalism today but I’m pretty sure he would have been right.

Every day people buy newspaper ads to commemorate the anniversary of a loved one’s death. I never really understood that. Dead people don’t subscribe.

It’s like a little kid who laughs when he sees a sign barring dogs. Even a child knows dogs can’t read.

The sign, of course, is for everyone but the dog. The notices are for those left behind.

I wasn’t among Jim’s closest friends. I was just one in an avalanche of people who thought they were.

But the e-mail bearing directions for that final meeting sits at the bottom of my inbox. I can’t excise his name from my address book.

And I don’t quite know what to do with that.

How can you miss some people who sat near the perimeter of your life more than you do family members who helped shape you?   What makes their memory so persistent and their loss so sharp?

“The evil that men do lives after them,” Shakespeare said through Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar. “The good is oft interred with their bones.”

If only it was so.  The good in a person’s life makes you miss them all the more.

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