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Jack Kelley, who led BU to back-to-back national hockey titles, dies at 93

Jack Kelley, one-time head men's hockey coach at Boston University, during a game in 1972.
Jack Kelley, one-time head men's hockey coach at Boston University, during a game in 1972.

Fully clothed and dripping wet, Jack Kelley emerged in March 1972 from the locker room showers. Boston University’s hockey team had tossed him in, but he didn’t mind.

“First time this ever happened to me,” he said with a grin.

Being dressed and drenched may have been a first, but the occasion wasn’t. His players had just won their second consecutive national championship — a milestone in his storied career as a hockey player, coach, general manager, and team president.

Mr. Kelley, who also coached BU to six Beanpot titles before becoming general manager and coach of the New England Whalers, died Wednesday. He was 93 and in retirement had divided his time between homes in the Sarasota, Fla., area and Oakland, Maine.

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“BU hockey is what it is today because of Jack Kelley,” Drew Marrochello, the university’s director of athletics, said in a statement.

Mr. Kelley got a hug from BU's then-head coach, Jack Parker, after Mike Eruzione, left, introduced the members of the 1971-1972 hockey team during a ceremony in 2005.
Mr. Kelley got a hug from BU's then-head coach, Jack Parker, after Mike Eruzione, left, introduced the members of the 1971-1972 hockey team during a ceremony in 2005.Globe staff Justine Hunt

Switching to coaching a professional team after back-to-back national collegiate titles, Mr. Kelley led the Whalers to the World Hockey Association’s first Avco World Trophy.

“People already are asking what we can do for an encore,” he told the Globe in May 1973. “I had the answer for that after we won the NCAA at BU. We won it again, and it was as much fun the second time.”

In a life filled with encores, Mr. Kelley scored six goals in a single game as a high school player, played on the US National Team, competed in the NCAA championship game as a BU player, and ended his professional hockey career as president of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

That gave him a unique perspective.

“Hockey players are fundamentally the same at either level,” he told the Globe in December 1972. “The difference mostly would be in the attitude toward the game. Once a man starts playing professionally, the game becomes his whole life. For a college player, hockey or any other sport ideally should be part of the total education experience.”

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Mr. Kelley and Steve Stirling were joyful after the Terriers defeated Minnesota to win the 1971 NCAA championship, the school's first national championship in men's hockey.
Mr. Kelley and Steve Stirling were joyful after the Terriers defeated Minnesota to win the 1971 NCAA championship, the school's first national championship in men's hockey.

Among the generations of players and coaches he mentored was Steve Stirling, who played for Mr. Kelley’s BU teams and is a former New York Islanders head coach.

“If you bought into what Jack was selling, you undoubtedly became a better person, a better player, and, for several of us, a better coach,” Stirling said for a Boston University tribute.

Mr. Kelley was inducted into halls of fame at every level of his career, among them for Belmont High School, Boston University, US Hockey, Maine Sports, Glens Falls Sports, and the Hartford Whalers.

“Jack Kelley was always the heart and soul of the Whalers,” Howard L. Baldwin, a team cofounder, said in a statement.

Integral to creating the team, which was the New England Whalers before its move to Hartford, Mr. Kelley was an inaugural inductee into its Hall of Fame.

At the ceremony, he recalled that when he was approached to help launch a World Hockey Association franchise, “this would-be team didn’t even have a name until my wife, Ginny, came up with ‘Whalers’ one night over dinner. The franchise picked that name and they picked me to be the general manager and coach.”

He later quipped: “My wife says you can keep the name.”

Mr. Kelley coached the Whalers to the Avco World Trophy in the team’s first season and was named World Hockey Association coach of the year in 1973.

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“We knew that Jack was a winner,” the late William Barnes, a Whalers cofounder, said in a YouTube video tribute that was put together years ago for the hall of fame induction.

Born in Medford on July 10, 1927, John Henry Kelley was a son of Lorimer and Mildred Kelley.

Mr. Kelley’s father worked in sales for Monsanto and his mother was a homemaker.

At Belmont High School, Mr. Kelley was a football and hockey star. At the annual Thanksgiving game with Watertown in 1944, he led the football team to a 6-0 victory — Belmont’s first win over its rival since 1938.

“In the closing minutes of the first half, Belmont’s Jack Kelley skirted right end and, behind beautiful blocking, went 55 yards for the only touchdown,” the Globe reported.

Mr. Kelley was a defensive ace for the Terriers when he played there in the 1950s.
Mr. Kelley was a defensive ace for the Terriers when he played there in the 1950s.

In February 1945, he was named the outstanding high school hockey center in Boston. A few weeks earlier, he had excelled even in a losing outing by his team, scoring all six of Belmont’s goals in a 9-6 defeat at the hands of Stoneham. Four of his goals were unassisted and three were in the final period.

“The Belmont captain set some sort of a modern record for total goals in one game,” the Globe noted.

Mr. Kelley served in the Coast Guard at the end of World War II, which delayed his entry into college.

He was part of the 1948-49 US National Team and, as a Boston University student, he was a defenseman for the Terriers from 1949 to 1952 on teams that went 50-13-1 and twice played in the NCAA final four under coach Harry Cleverly, according to BU.

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Mr. Kelley was the team’s most valuable player at the end of his college years, finished with the most career points as a defenseman, and had been named first team All-New England and All-East.

His younger brother, Paul, was BU’s goalie during Mr. Kelley’s senior year. Paul died in 1987.

Mr. Kelley married Virginia Weedon, who was known as Ginny, and whom he had known since they were growing up in Belmont. They had been married for 67 years when she died April 12, according to her death notice, which said she had been “an equestrian, prolific storyteller, accomplished card player of bridge, cribbage, hearts, spades, and spit.”

BU captain Bill Hinch and Mr. Kelley, then the team's head coach, posed for a photo in 1968.
BU captain Bill Hinch and Mr. Kelley, then the team's head coach, posed for a photo in 1968.

After graduating from BU, Mr. Kelley coached and taught on Martha’s Vineyard, where he initiated the all-island high school football team at a time when there was more than one high school.

Mr. Kelley then coached at Weston High School before coaching men’s hockey at Colby College in Maine from 1955 to 1962, posting an 89-51-5 record.

“He was a brilliant hockey coach, but his lessons went well beyond the ice,” David A. Greene, Colby’s president, said in a statement. “He had a rare combination of toughness and caring that brought out the best in everyone.”

Returning to BU, Mr. Kelley coached from 1962 to 1972, compiling a 206-80-8 record. After a few years with the Whalers, he went back to coach the 1976-77 season at Colby.

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Mr. Kelley watched the action from the BU bench at the Boston Garden during the 1970 Beanpot.
Mr. Kelley watched the action from the BU bench at the Boston Garden during the 1970 Beanpot.

Mr. Kelley subsequently became general manager of the Whalers. He then was in administration for the Adirondack Red Wings, which is part of the Detroit Red Wings organization, and served as president of the Pittsburgh Penguins from 1993 until he retired.

A service will be announced for Mr. Kelley, who leaves three sons, Paul of Lake Worth, Fla., David of Los Angeles, and Mark of Canton, Mich.; a daughter, Nancy Saucier of Waterville, Maine; nine grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

In March 1971, when the Terriers defeated Minnesota for the NCAA hockey title — BU’s first — Mr. Kelley jumped onto the ice to celebrate.

“This is my biggest thrill in sports as a coach or a player,” he called out, adding: “How sweet it is.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.