Jack Kelley was in his second year as the Boston University hockey coach in the fall of 1963 when sophomore Howard Baldwin, ex-Marine and hopeful Terriers forward, realized only a couple of weeks into training camp that he wasn’t going to make the cut.
“Later he claimed he would have kept me on the team as one of the last guys,” said Baldwin, who ultimately filled a number of front office positions with WHA and NHL teams. “But I remember going up to him and saying, ‘You know, gosh, I’ve been through Parris Island, and I can’t do all the things you want.’ It was too tough.”
The legendary Jack Parker, who captained Kelley’s 1967-68 BU team and later assumed the Terriers bench in the early ’70s, recalled his playing days under Kelley’s whistle. Practices began with intense 15-minute skating drills, not a single puck on the ice, and ended with seemingly endless wind sprints.
“You’d be doubled over, gasping,” said Parker, “and thinking, ‘When the hell is that Zamboni driver coming out?!’ ”
Kelley, whose career as college coach and various roles in the pro game spanned a half-century, died Tuesday night, surrounded by three generations of family members at his waterside home in Oakland, Maine. A standout at Belmont High (Class of 1945) and a record-holding defenseman for BU ('52), he was 93 years old.
Kelley’s BU teams, which logged an astounding .720 winning percentage across 10 seasons, won back-to-back NCAA titles in 1971 and ’72. He abruptly left the job following the second title and signed on as coach and general manager of the Boston-based New England Whalers in the newly founded World Hockey Association.
It was Baldwin, who dropped out of BU shortly after trying out for Kelley’s team, who, as president and CEO, hired him for the Whalers job. The WHA franchise entry fee was $25,000, noted Baldwin, and club owner Robert Schmertz agreed to bring Kelley aboard for $35,000 a year, nearly triple what college coaches of the day earned.
“Best hire we made, no question about it,” mused Baldwin, now 78 and a film producer living in Studio City, Calif. “Great person. Great coach. Jack was truly a pioneer. It was unheard of in those days for the pros to hire a US college coach. But Jack made the transition and thrived.”
The first-year Whalers team that Kelley built, which included four ex-Boston College players (Tim Sheehy, Kevin Ahearn, Paul Hurley, and John Cunniff), defeated Bobby Hull’s Winnipeg Jets for the Avco Cup. The captain was Ted Green, the former Bruins defenseman, and it was Terrible Ted who waltzed the trophy around Boston Garden after the 9-6 win in the title game
“Only it wasn’t the real trophy,” recalled Baldwin. “Somebody at the league level didn’t do their homework and we got to that final weekend and, lo and behold, there’s no Cup! Bill Barnes, our marketing guy, ran out to a sporting goods store in Braintree and bought a cup. So all these pictures you see, guys drinking champagne out of the cup, Bill bought it for $19.99.”
Some of those pictures, noted Baldwin, show Kelley hoisting the Cup, with the Whalers' 16-year-old stickboy in the background. The stickboy was the eldest of four Kelley children, David E., who is among the TV industry’s most successful writers and producers, with such hits as "L.A. Law,” “Chicago Hope,” and “The Practice.”
The senior Kelley remained with the Whalers until December 1975, resigning in his third season to return to coach Colby College, where he had coached for seven seasons prior to taking the BU job in 1962.
“Colby was his first love,” said Mark Kelley, the youngest of the four Kelley kids, who played for his dad in that 1976-77 season in Waterville. “But after the year, he called me in his office, and the way he explained it to me, he was just bored. The season ended in March and he had nothing to do. And he had the bug to get back to the pros.”
Aiding that urge, noted Mark, was an offer his dad had to run the Maine Mariners, then AHL affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers. But the Whalers, he said, insisted his father return to their front office as GM. In his days back with the Whale, he oversaw the franchise shift to Hartford and helped orchestrate the signing of the three Howes — Gordie, Mark, and Marty.
Kelley also was the Whalers' GM when Hartford was among the four WHA teams, along with Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Quebec, that merged with the NHL for the start of the 1979-80 season.
Kelley remained the Whalers' GM until the spring of 1981, and a year later began an 11-year run in Glens Falls, N.Y., as director of player personnel for the AHL Adirondack Red Wings. During his tenure, Adirondack won three Calder Cups. Later, Baldwin hired him again, for an eight-year tour as president of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Kelley retired in 2001 and spent most of the last two decades pursuing his other love, training and breeding harness horses.
Parker, who now lives in Gloucester, said he heard all week from scores of ex-BU players eager to share fond memories of Kelley.
Above all, said Parker, Kelley will be remembered for the deep, lasting impact he had on his players — a point underscored to Parker a few years ago when he reached out to former players to bankroll the bronze bust of Kelley that now resides in Agganis Arena.
“I was asking guys to give whatever they could, but the target for each guy was $300,” said Parker, recalling his surprise when one player submitted a check for $3,000. “So I called him and said, ‘Listen, first of all, thanks for the generous gift. But secondly, I’m flabbergasted, I thought you had such a hard time with Jack!’
“And the guy tells me, ‘Yeah, I did have a hard time with him, but he made me who I am today, no question in my mind.' And I think 99 percent of the people who played for him would give you that exact same answer . . . he made me who I am today. True for me. What player did he do more for than me? I can guarantee you that answer: nobody.”
Ginny Kelley, Jack’s wife of 67 years, died in April after a long illness. Jack, hospitalized briefly over last weekend, succumbed shortly after returning to the family camp on East Pond, some 10 minutes from the Colby campus, where the family has summered since 1969.
A memorial service for Jack and Ginny was still being planned as the weekend approached.