"I don’t ask you to agree with what I write, 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." — JIM KELLEY.
Jim Kelley took great pride in the profession of sports writing, a craft he practised until the day he died. Kelley filed his last column, a piece on Brian Burke for Sportsnet.ca, Tuesday, the same day he lost a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was just 61.
Kelley, a recipient of the Elmer Ferguson Award in 2004, an honour that saw him inducted into the writing wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame, made his name with the Buffalo News and was one of the best hockey writers of his generation. At least I always thought so.
He was likely better known to younger fans as the silver-haired, bearded guy on Sportsnet.ca and radio station The Fan 590. First, though, Kelley was an old-school hockey scribe.
There are a lot of people, colleagues and peers, who knew Kelley a lot better than I did from the times we’d bump into each other at the rink in Buffalo, on the road here and there or at the NHL Entry Draft.
I’ll leave most of the accolades and kind words about Kelley, as a writer and a man, to them. I knew Kelley’s work better than I knew him, but he always made a point of saying hello, usually in the middle of pecking out a column or some notes, to visiting writers at HSBC Arena.
It’s that first paragraph, one Kelley wrote as part of his biography with Sportsnet.ca, that sticks with me today.
GET THE MESSAGE
Kelley was as learned about the game of hockey as anybody you’d ever meet. To use a cliche, he probably forgot as much about the game as I’ve ever known. He was connected. He was respected.
Kelley was equally as opinionated, as all good columnists are. The way he called out Dominik Hasek of the Sabres during the 1997 playoffs is still legend today. Given his credentials and perspective, I’m wondering if there’s something to be learned from what Kelley wrote in his bio. If there’s a refresher course in civility in there for those who share a passion for the game, be it specific to the Edmonton Oilers or otherwise.
When I read comments on websites like Oilersnation or from others around the internet — pick a day, any day in the comments sections of the best and most popular sites — I’m thinking there is. I know there is.
I’m not going to get into cutting and pasting examples of the way people on the internet get after each other. We know what gets said and how it gets said. Too often, in the name of debate or discourse, we go way over the line. I know I do.
If a writer like Kelley, or fellow Elmer Ferguson Award winner Jim Matheson right here in Edmonton, can get to the top of their professions by making their cases and taking a stand without shouting people down and demeaning those who disagree with them, maybe some of us should re-think how we approach debate.
I know I should.
HAVE YOUR SAY
The trend in sports writing today is to be brighter, tighter and punchier in delivering columns, opinions and game stories. Given the competition for readership and the demand for immediate information, it’s a must.
That said, sometimes, we go over-the-top with it. Likewise, the reactions to what’s written are a far cry from bad old days when disagreement was limited to the "Letters To The Editor" section of the newspaper.
The increased and immediate interaction between writers and those who read them at websites big and small is a good thing. How we go about that interaction often leaves something to be desired.
Robust debate is the lifeblood of sports fans, whether it’s between a few buddies watching the game at a corner bar or on a basement big screen or at sites like this. It can be about razzing somebody for a lame take or trotting out numbers to debunk a common misconception. It’s about fun. At least is should be. Decorum doesn’t mean we all have to agree.
I’ve never once heard Matheson take a mean-spirited personal shot at anybody, and there is nobody in the writing game I respect more. Matheson, who helped me break in on the Oilers beat many years ago, has always been an example of taking the high road, without even trying. I’ve followed his lead very poorly. Now, Kelley passes, and I can’t get that last paragraph from his bio out of my head.
— Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.