Jim Kelley wondered how some South Buffalo kid with unpretentious dreams of covering hockey for his hometown paper could ever have anything in common with such legends as Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey and Larry Murphy.
Kelley never won a Stanley Cup, never scored a power-play goal, never had his picture on a bubblegum card. Merely writing for The Buffalo News was enough gratification for him, but on Monday he was granted his profession's ultimate reward when he slipped into his Hockey Hall of Fame jacket.
Gordie Howe, wearing the same black jacket with the Hall of Fame logo over his heart, smiled and applauded. Bourque, Coffey and Murphy cheered in their jackets as well; the prolific defensemen were inducted into the Hall of Fame later that night along with venerable executive Cliff Fletcher.
Kelley was honored by the Hall of Fame as this year's recipient of the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award, annually awarded to hockey's top print journalist. He was feted at an afternoon luncheon with Hartford Whalers and Carolina Hurricanes voice Chuck Kaiton, who received the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award for broadcasting.
"As much as it's an individual honor," Kelley said after speaking to an audience that included NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and legendary coach Scotty Bowman, "I wouldn't be here if it weren't for the people of Buffalo and Western New York.
"For a kid from Buffalo to write for his hometown newspaper and have an audience in his hometown believe and trust in his words, that's every bit as important to me as getting this award."
Ferguson and Hewitt Award nominees aren't considered members of the Hall of Fame alongside the players, coaches and executives. But Kelley's name and biography -- etched in stained glass -- will forever reside under the Grand Hall's magnificent cathedral dome a few feet from the Stanley Cup.
"A lot of people don't understand the importance that writers place on this award," said Kelley's presenter, Pro Hockey Writers' Association president Kevin Allen of USA Today. "Writers, by and large, are very competitive people. . . . The Elmer Ferguson Award is the closest thing we get to a Stanley Cup or to a Hart Trophy."
Kelley spent 32 years at The News before accepting high-profile national positions with FoxSports.com and then ESPN.com. His predecessor at The News, Dick Johnston, received the Ferguson Award in 1986.
Dozens of family members and friends were on hand for Kelley's speech, although nobody from the Sabres organization attended. His career was marked by many battles with the Sabres and he occasionally locked horns with the NHL.
Upon the completion of Kelley's speech, Bettman, NHL director of hockey operations Colin Campbell and NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly were the only ones at the primary table not to give Kelley a standing ovation.
"One thing, as a player, that you like in a reporter is somebody that wants to write the way it is and not have an agenda," said Murphy, who won four Stanley Cups. "That's what I always liked about Jim.
"As a player, if I make a mistake that costs the team the game, I don't mind reading it in print as long as it's done with honesty and integrity. That's the way he did it, and I always thought the most of him because of that."
Bourque is the star of this year's class. The Boston Bruins icon won five Norris Trophies and was a 19-time All-Star who totaled 1,579 points. He won a Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche in 2001 before retiring after 22 seasons.
"To come in as a rookie, you just want to play in the NHL," Bourque said. "The next thing you know, 22 years later, to be here as part of a special brotherhood is an honor and a privilege."
Coffey played with 10 teams over 21 seasons, winning three Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s and one more with the Pittsburgh Penguins in '91. He tallied 1,531 points, won three Norris Trophies and was named an All-Star eight times.
Coffey said his notification call from Hall of Fame chairman Jim Gregory "was surreal. I just thanked him the best I could, hung up the phone and cried like a baby. It's a great feeling. It's an honor times 10."
Murphy was Coffey's teammate on the 1991 Stanley Cup team. The 1,216-point scorer won another Cup with the Penguins in '92 and had his name etched on hockey's holy grail twice more with the Detroit Red Wings in '97 and '98.
Fletcher has been in the NHL for 48 years, building the expansion Atlanta Flames from scratch into a Stanley Cup team for Calgary in 1989. He spent six seasons as chief operating officer, general manager and president of the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1991-97. He has been with the Phoenix Coyotes since 2001.