Twenty years ago Dan Kelly met Foster Hewitt, the patron saint of hockey broadcasting, who had been calling games in Canada almost since the invention of radio. Kelly was 28, a big voice with big dreams. "I want to be my own man," the fledgling play-by-play announcer told Hewitt, "and I've tried to come up with my own way of saying a goal is scored. But the truth is, there's no better way of saying it than yours." And Kelly has been faithful to that glorious and familiar refrain, heard thousands of times under millions of snowcapped roofs since the 1920s. Quickly now. So-and-so has the puck. He's in the slot. "He shoots!...He scorrrres!"
Those four little words aren't all the pupil borrowed from the master. Hewitt, now 82 and in declining health in a Toronto rest home, created the very idiom of hockey play-by-play. But Kelly has more than become his own man. He dominates his sport like no other announcer. There's the stout Irishman, and then there's the rest of the hockey-announcing universe. Kelly's is the purest, most knowledgeable, most accurate voice around. It's a voice of boundless energy and enthusiasm. By season's end Kelly will have worked some 145 games for five broadcast outlets: KMOX Radio (on which he has been the voice of the St. Louis Blues for 16 years); KDNL-Channel 30 and the Sports Time pay-cable system (the Blues' principal TV carriers); the national cable USA Network (five years); and CTV, the recently launched private Canadian network. He should probably hire a personal valet to tell him which blazer to wear when.
Kelly's deal with CTV, which last month began to send selected U.S. games into Canada, underscores his status as hockey's leading ambassador. CTV needed an expert commentator on its Friday night series to attract sophisticated Canadian viewers accustomed to the long-running Saturday evening extravaganza, Hockey Night in Canada. Who else but Kelly?
The quality that sets Kelly apart is his mechanics. Because of the speed of the game and the size of the puck and those perverse helmets that make all players look alike, hockey is the hardest sport to call. Most hockey announcers suffer from Lag Syndrome; they're forever trying to catch up to the action. Not Kelly. He's on the puck when the puck is there, and he can identify each player by his skating style. Instead of using verbal crutches—"up against the boards" and "in the corner" are hoary favorites—Kelly tells you who's forechecking whom. And, unlike too many announcers, he doesn't make every goal sound as if it had just won the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals in overtime.
Kelly has one peccadillo: He has a tendency sometimes to gab too much on TV. But he has 20/20 ice vision and an uncanny sense of anticipation, perhaps owing to his days as a Junior B center at St. Patrick's College High School in Ottawa. You didn't see who tipped in the puck? Kelly will tell you before you see the replay. He even has sharp ears. Once during a Blues game, Kelly mentioned in passing that the puck had hit a St. Louis player's skate. "You didn't see that puck hit that guy's skate," his KMOX colleague, Jack Buck, chided him later. "I not only saw it, I heard it," said Kelly.
While some announcers' voices would rise if your grandmother shot from the red line, Kelly's swells only in anticipation of a real scoring chance. "It's like watching a game of checkers," he says. "You can see the opening where the play is liable to be." And when there's a clear shot on goal ("Gretzky is shoot-ing!"), there's a note of alarm and even fear in his voice, all very fitting and proper when something as precious as a net is in danger of being violated.
Kelly broke into radio in 1955 by calling the pig prices and playing records for a tiny rural station in Ontario (Rich Little was one of his successors). Ten years later he started covering hockey for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and he has been at it ever since. In his 20-year career, he has had only one bad season. That was 1978-79, when the Blues went 18-50-12, including an 0-18-2 record when Kelly's radio calls were "simulcast" on TV. "I can remember having a pep talk with myself one game at the end of the second period, saying, 'You're awful, the team's awful, and you're going right down the drain with them,' " Kelly says. Fat chance of that ever happening. Happily for American and now Canadian fans, he's the smoothest skater in the booth.
Twenty-year veteran Kelly is No. 1 in the USA.