A year ago tomorrow my phone rang and I knew exactly what had happened. It was my producer at Rogers TV on the other end. I knew that the hockey world had lost friend. David “DK” Kelly’s courageous and inspirational battle had come to an end.
Forward is forward, but on that day those that knew him were all stuck in neutral.
We were planning on coming home that day from our amazing March Break with family and friends.
I had made a promise to my family that my trips to Saint John to broadcast and scout hockey games were going to be cut way down.
I wasn’t supposed to be going to the Port City the rest of the season.
That all changed when I got the call.
The phone call on that beautiful sunny March day stopped me in my tracks.
We knew the end was near, but we didn’t want to accept it.
David “DK” Kelly was gone.
Life without DK was about to begin.
The producer called me that morning asking if I go on the broadcast that night.
“Yes” I answered without hesitation.
My second thought in that moment was with Bruce Smith, DK’s lifelong friend.
After I hung up the phone my mind started racing how was I going to keep it together how am I going to keep it together on air.
I just had to do it for DK.
A short time later my phone rang again was the producer asking me if I could reach out to a few of DK’s close friends for video messages and tributes no one ever said no to DK, because he never said no to anyone.
When I got off the phone that day, I remember my mother-in-law walking past me in the living room she asked what was wrong she didn’t realize just how young DK was and the battle he had endured.
She was half way up the stairs when she asked his age.
I looked up and began to cry, 40 I said.
In that moment memories of our friendship, a very short, but very impactful friendship came flooding back to me.
DK had a way with connecting with everyone.
Call it innate or a true calling; David Kelly created a deep meaningful connection with everyone he had ever met, he just had a way about him.
DK made everyone feel accepted, every feel part of the team.
Our friendship grew quickly. It all started with a simple hello and handshake. I had heard about the legend of DK, but all the buzz about him was true, it wasn’t an exaggeration. David DK Kelly was truly one of kind. We didn’t exchange cell numbers. He didn’t follow me on Twitter. DK and I corresponded through Facebook Messenger.
Obviously, DK’s online footprint was extraordinarily inspirational.
There came to a point where the next time I was going to see him in person at the rink I just had to ask him. We had a very particular greeting in those days. When we met at the rink over the years since I started covering the QMJHL on Rogers we never shook hands.
That’s right, it was weird, we shook hands the once, but never again.
It was just our thing.
It just seemed like every time I saw him I was either battling a cold, or the rest of my young family were battling something.
Fist bump it was!
I didn’t want DK picking up a cold or flu from the color analyst, that’s the last thing he needed.
One night I remember asking him, about my messages.
“Hey DK, you are probably getting a hundred of these kind of messages a day. If you want me to stop just say.”
The three-dot dialogue cloud at the bottom of my message just started dancing.
His reply was pure DK.
“Actually no, I don’t get a lot of messages.
The conversations continued. Those small subtle discussions meant so much to me and they still do.
Even When You’re Expecting It, It Still Hurts
A teaching colleague of mine that shared an office with me was talking about losing someone very close to them when they were in their early teens. It was the first time they had seen their father visibly upset and crying.
‘Dad why are you so upset, everyone knew it was coming,’ they said.
‘Come over here he replied. ‘I’m going to punch you in the shoulder.’ He gave them a quick jab in the right shoulder. ‘Ouch, ‘that hurt Dad,’ they said.
‘Even if you know it’s coming, its still going to hurt,’ their father said. Nearing the end we all knew, we just didn’t want to believe it.
I still remember covering back to back weekend games in the Port City when news broke that DK was rushed to hospital and potentially only had hours to live.
My producer reached out to me asking to write something for the opening of the show.
How was I going to get through it without breaking down?
I rehearsed those words for a day and half and the entire drive to Saint John. Take after take in front of DK’s wall mural. I just couldn’t get through my own words correctly. I just had to get this right. I had to suck it up and deliver.
As the frustration mounted and time was starting to run out, I made a decision to read the text.
The producer and cameraman panned across the entire mural, and then cut to me at the very end. It clearly wasn’t my best, but we ran it for both games.
As we walked back downstairs to the truck, all the memories of our interactions, discussions and interviews came flooding back.
It was overwhelming, but I had to keep it together.
From the interview on Sports Inclusive to the “bat story” which Aaron Kennedy told on air during DK’s absence in 2017, to supper at St James Gate and the final time I saw and spoke to DK in person in November of 2018, while Rogers Hometown Hockey was in Dieppe.
The quiet private color analyst almost broke down that night during the opening, but nothing could have prepared me for that phone call I received standing in my in-laws living room.
‘Can you do the game tonight, the producer said.’
I couldn’t think, my punch to the shoulder had just landed.
“Yes, I’ll do it, of course.
From Burnt Church to Moncton two and half hours, to Moncton to Saint John, an hour and half. Every minute of that drive I searched for words. What am I going to do? What am I going to say?
I called Aaron Kennedy on the way.
‘You are going to have to carry me Voice,” I said.
Voice just said, I’ve got you, don’t worry about it. What if I break down on live television? I was going to tell the bat story, but I had promised DK, I didn’t want people to know.
Now I do, because it speaks volumes about who DK was.
I’m still searching for words to describe our friendship. I miss our conversations. I miss our Facebook messages. I miss the fist bumps. I miss our friendship.
My biggest regret is not getting a picture with him the last time I saw him.
You see I was planning to travel to Saint John in December and I was going to try to connect with him then.
That never happened.
I don’t have a picture from that night, but I have the memories.
Those memories will live on. David DK Kelly never had to let me into his life, but I’m forever grateful he did.
Forward is Forward.
Bruce Smith and David DK Kelly were allies. They were friends that shared faith and a vision. Smith and Kelly’s relationship transcends the QMJHL era, it goes way back and in many ways it transcends the game.
Everyone needs an ally. Everyone needs a friend like Bruce Smith. Everyone needs a friend like David Kelly.
“DK was a very private individual in one sense, but very transparent and open in another sense,” explained Smith.
“He had such a great heart for compassion and that made him such an effective equipment manager, because he loved his players and the players loved him.”
“DK also saw a role he could play in broader community and he saw he could do some good in the lives of people, whether if that was giving a kid a puck or a broken stick or getting an autograph from a player, he was always doing things for people.”
“When he was diagnosed with cancer, he chose and recognized that he could actually do some good to the broader world with social media and he decided to be very open and transparent about what he was going through,” explained Smith.
Smith was there throughout the highs and lows. Always by his friend’s side.
“DK was focused on helping and wanting to do something for other people.”
What did it mean to Smith to have such deep connection with his long-time friend and see such an outpouring of support over the years for DK and especially on the day of funeral?
“It certainly didn’t surprise me because I had seen the support he had developed over the years as he shared his journey and story.”
“During the visitation and the funeral the hockey community came together,” explained Smith.
“It was difficult for many to get there because their seasons were still going on, but it was so evident that DK had touched the lives of so many people.”
“Those people wanted to rally around DK’s family and Dominique and show their support and appreciation for what DK meant to them.”
Kelly had asked his long-time friend and ally to speak at his funeral.
“It was honour for me to be asked to speak.”
“DK didn’t tell me what he wanted me to say, he trusted that I would say what was appropriate.”
Kelly had heard Smith speak at Sea Dogs chapel for many years.
“DK never missed a chapel.”
Smith remembers the squeaky wheels of DK’s “office” chair that he wheeled down to the media room where chapel was always being held.
“He loved those times together, he loved seeing the players there,” Smith said.
“You would always hear his chair on the concrete floor coming toward the media room, signifying the final players arrival and let the chapel begin.”
“It was very hard for me,” confessed Smith referring to speaking at DK’s funeral.
“When the day did come, there was a lot weight and burden that I carried.”
Smith needed allies of his own during that incredible difficult time.
“I was thankful for the support I received from many including the Sea Dogs and individual players that reached out to me, because they knew I was hurting.”
What does Smith believe Kelly’s legacy to be around the game of hockey and the community of Saint John and beyond?
“What DK taught us was to live a life focused on others.”
“His role in the game was a servant role, which he played that role very well, and in the transparency of telling his story his desire was to encourage others like dealing trials of many times not only cancer, but many other kinds where he wanted people to persevere and never give up and to make the best of the situation.”
Smith travels across Canada with Hockey Ministries International.
Smith made a stop in Shawinigan this year only to see a Monkey Band-Aid hanging on the wall of the equipment manager’s office.
“I was deeply touched by seeing that t-shirt hanging there in Shawinigan, Quebec.”
“It’s a reminder of just how broad and wide DK’s impact was.”
“It’s hard to believe it’s been one year,” Smith said.
Smith has travelled with the Dogs on a few occasions this season providing play by play.
“Tyler Jay and I were reflecting while we were on the bus and sort of being reminded and saying it’s hard to believe he’s gone.”
Smith was there for his friend the entire way with unwavering support and faith.
Everyone needs an ally.
Everyone needs a friend like Bruce Smith.
Everyone needs a friend like David DK Kelly.
DK was an ally to so many.
Tyler Jay was learning the ropes with his hometown team.
Jay was learning from some of the best in the business, when the unthinkable happened.
“DK and my friendship began when the Sea Dogs came to the Island when I was helping out Spider, Kevin. I always stopped to chat with DK, most conversations were about our shared love for Baseball,” the young equipment said.
“When DK was in the hospital in October, 2016 I reached out to wish him all the best and if he ever needed anything, to let me know,” explained Jay.
A few days later Jay heard from longtime coach Danny Flynn.
“Danny called me and asked me to fill in for a couple games, one of which being on PEI which was one of the coolest experiences of my life, filling in for such a big name in my hometown against a team I had been working with for two seasons at the time,” explained Jay.
Jay would hear from Flynn again a few days later.
“Danny asked me what I thought about moving to Saint John to fill in for DK while he was hospitalized.”
Within 48 hours Jay was a full time employee of the Saint John Sea Dogs.
Obviously, Jay wished it would have been under better circumstances that he got his first opportunity to be the go to guy.
“DK was a mentor of mine, I loved following his Twitter and seeing the way he did things In Saint John.”
“As time went on DK joined the team shortly before the playoffs in 2017,” Jay said.
“We ran the team together.”
“I learned so much from him in such a short time span,” admitted Jay.
“During the playoff run we also had AHL and current NHL Equipment Manager, Nathan Belliveau joined us. Between DK and Nate, I was surrounded with so much knowledge within the trade.”
We all know how the 2017 season ended, with the Saint John Sea Dogs hoisting the President Cup
“Raising that trophy with the staff, and the group of players we had is a memory I will never forget,” confessed Jay.
“I owe it all to DK.”
“Walking around TD Station, and “the Blue Mile” here in Saint John and seeing my name on the same walls as DK is something that motivates me everyday.”
“All the frustrating things that come with life don’t seem as frustrating when you look at those team photos.”
“Between Spider, Kevin Elliott, and DK I wouldn’t be close to where I am today.”
“I am so thankful for all the conversations about Baseball and life I shared with DK.”
“He had a tremendous impact on my life.”
“It’s all about making connections in the hockey world and in life,” confessed Jay.
Lights, Camera and Action
Rogers Hometown Hockey’s Tara Slone travels across the country every week connecting with hockey communities and the people that grow the game and inspire the next generation of the game we all love.
You could say the stars aligned when Slone and David DK Kelly first met.
Like so many of us, Slone was blown away by Kelly’s fascinating personality and character and zest for life.
“I just think he was a deeply soulful, authentic person,” Slone said of Kelly’s ability to form deep connections with people so instantaneously.
“I only knew him as a person living with an illness. I don’t know if there’s something that happened to him in terms of a commitment to living in the moment or if he was always that way,” said a reflective Slone.
“I think when you are able to shed the fear of being vulnerable and are able to access your heart you are able to make connections very quickly and I for sure think that’s what happened even when he passed, we only knew him for a few years, but honestly it felt like decade.”
“It was surprising for me because it was only such a short time.”
“The connection was so immediate, so heart felt and so unconditional,” Slone said.
The bright lights, cameras and attention never changed DK. The long time broadcaster and Kelly definitely shared that elusive trait.
Authentic and inspirational epitomized Slone and her new found close friend.
We are all aware of how private and closed off the hockey world can be.
Nevertheless, David Kelly broke a lot of those barriers during his time in the game.
DK’s incredible openness and willingness to help so many within the game and outside of the game was truly remarkable.
“I just have to think that’s who he was,” Slone said.
“It comes back to unconditional nature and not being afraid with in a perceived culture of toughness and not being afraid to actually look at what people need,” explained Slone
“Once you reach out to people with an open heart they feel also empowered to respond accordingly.”
Slone and her co-host Ron MacLean shared a profoundly deep bond with DK and Dominique Leger, DK’s longtime girlfriend.
That bond will never fade.
“I just really miss him,” Slone said.
“We all do.”
“It’s just a hard thing when you think about wanting to share something with someone that’s no longer there.”
“There are so few degrees of separation between my world and his world now and all of our worlds.”
“I’m incredibly grateful to have been in his sphere for such a short time that I was and to have him in my life.”
“I’m deeply grateful for Dominique and the connection with her which is also very deep and profound which I think it be that way forever.”
“It’s really comforting to be able talk about him in the same way with so many people who loved him.”
“That’s nice and comforting I think for me and probably most of us that new him and all of us loved him.”
“I find solace in that for sure,” confessed Slone.
Love is Love
Dominique Leger is a pillar of strength and a source of inspiration for many of those in #TeamDK.
Leger has felt that love live on over the past year throughout the grieving process.
“I think the biggest help I’ve received has come by way of people reaching out and simply saying hello or telling me a story or sending a photo of their puppies just to remind me that they’re there if I need to lean on them,” Leger said.
“Grief is uncomfortable and it feels differently for everyone as we process the loss of a loved one. As humans we are beyond awkward when we’re trying to figure out the “right” thing to say when we know someone is going through a hard time so for me it’s been the simple things.”
“The non-awkward moments where people are their normal selves that have helped the most,” Leger said.
Leger has continued to be transparent on social media throughout the grieving process.
“By nature I’m an extremely private person so being vocal, especially about something so serious and so close to my heart has definitely taken me out of my element, but what I’ve received back has given me so much to feel joyful and hopeful about.”
Near the end Leger was updating the masses.
It seemed like the entire hockey world, #TeamDK and beyond turned to her.
“The thing about social media is that it allows you a platform to reach thousands upon thousands of people you wouldn’t otherwise come in contact with.”
“David used his voice to communicate a message of hope, tenacity and perseverance. His messages resonated with the world and often, particularly during times we were admitted to the hospital,” confessed Leger.
“We would read through some of the messages he had received from strangers letting him know how his words had impacted them and they, in turn, helped us immensely.”
“During the last couple of weeks before David passed, he was unable to pick up his phone and send the messages and provide the status updates everyone was waiting for. I felt I should pick up where he left off, in a way. In my own way, I guess, because no one else could ever do it in his very special way.”
“I felt compelled to share at least a handful of things that might resonate and be helpful to others from stories of our own personal relationship to our travel adventures to some celebrity run-ins, always with an underlying message that “forward is forward” and a reminder to live in the moment because forward IS forward and there’s no turning back,” Leger said.
The power of connection and the power to elicit change.
That was David DK Kelly.
“I think by talking about things like this in a public forum, it reminds us we’re not alone. I’m not the only one grieving, I’m not the only one who has lost someone so close, I’m not the only one feeling sad, I’m not the only one feeling confused about what to do next,” Leger said.
“I don’t want to dwell in sadness, I want to celebrate David’s life and the person he was and I want everyone else to be able to do that as well,” she said.
“I’m generally an open book and my profiles are all public allowing for easy access to anyone who wants to say hello or share a story or memory or see a photo of my dog. That definitely helps,” Leger said.
DK was so many things to so many different people, in the quiet moments what was he really like?
It just seemed like DK had so much time for so many other people rather than himself.
“I think helping other people was what gave him the will to continue to fight,” Leger said.
“He felt compelled to help others and to bring a smile to at least one person’s face in the run of the day.”
“He didn’t just turn into that kind of person after he got sick though, it was in his blood. He was a giver and a helper and the kind of person who would always cheer for the underdog.”
“Whether it was grabbing a batch of smile cookies for the Oncology Ward or getting sticks and pucks and hockey cards signed for fans, or making sure his boys had name bars on the backs of their practice jerseys, everything was of equal importance.”
“David was the kind of person who saw the good in everyone so much so it made you feel guilty if you didn’t see it too. He was loyal to a fault.”
“He was funny and sarcastic and he loved with his whole heart.”
He was often quite introspective. If you asked for help or a favor, you wouldn’t hear from him again until you were in a panic and getting upset because it was so close to deadline. He’d show up at the last minute, having gone above and beyond and say “what?” with a little glimmer in his eye, knowing you thought he wouldn’t come through.”
“DK loved country music, WWE, the Boston Red Sox and hockey, of course. He loved his Nan and after she passed and his Nephew Jacob came along, he loved him more than anyone. He loved to travel and especially loved impromptu road trips to here or there and everywhere, especially if there was a concert or a baseball game involved,” explained Leger.
Transparent, but fiercely private.
“Something many people may not know is David was a huge fan of things like Live PD and True Crime. We visited a lot of crime scene locations when we traveled,” confessed Leger.
“Some we did a quick drive by at, some we stopped to pray and remember victims, and some like Compton in particular gave him many stories to retell after the fact.”
The memories will never fade.
“One of my favorite memories was arriving in Phoenix, AZ for Equipment Managers meetings and him looking at me on our way to pick up our car rental and saying “we have some time to kill, want to go to LA?”
“It had been a dream of mine for so long to walk along the beaches in California and touch the Pacific Ocean and get burgers at In and Out and just like that it was about to come true.”
Spontaneous, loveable and charismatic, that was David DK Kelly.
“Driving along in the middle of the desert highway, dodging tumbleweeds and going nuts over every cactus we passed, Guns ‘n Roses “Paradise City” came on the Spanish radio station we got a signal for. We cranked the music as loud as it would go, opened all the windows and screamed the lyrics as loud as we could.”
“There was no cancer in that moment.”
“There was no work, no responsibilities, no phone calls, no doctors, no nothing.”
It was the most joyful and hopeful moment during the five years of his cancer journey that I can remember.”
Love is love.
We all learn and grow together especially when you have a deep, passionate and loving relationship.
What did Leger learn about herself and what was the most valuable do you think DK taught others?
“He taught me that there’s always time to do something nice for someone else.”
“He taught me that people won’t remember what you said to them but they will always remember how you made them feel.”
“He taught me that everyone deserves respect, no matter who they are or what uniform they wear to work. Whether it’s the garbage man, the bus driver, fellow support staff or the NHL Superstars, everyone and I mean everyone was given a genuine hello and however much time they needed with him even if it meant being late for family dinner, every single time.”
“I can’t speak for others, but I’d like to think he taught them courage. I’d like to think he taught them how to be brave in the face of adversity.”
“I’d like to think he taught them that the joy is in the moment and not necessarily in the future because the future is never guaranteed.”
“I’d like to think he taught them to always leave a person or a situation or dressing room better than you had found it and that loyalty, honesty and respect are non-negotiable.”
Forward is Forward.