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Remembering ‘the greatest hockey announcer that ever lived’

By: Warren Mayes

Hearing the distinctive call, “He shoots … he scores!” conjures an image for any longtime St. Louis Blues fan.

Dan Kelly immortalized the phrase as the broadcaster of St. Louis Blues games for 21 years.

It’s been 30 years since lung cancer stilled Kelly’s memorable voice. He died Feb. 10, 1989, at his home in Chesterfield. He was just 52 years old.

“He was a heavy smoker. We all know it’s bad,” said his son John, who has followed his father’s career path. He has called St. Louis Blues games for the past 12 seasons. “A lot of people get away with it. He didn’t and he paid the price. It’s luck of the draw.

“Unfortunately, he never got to meet his grandkids and things like that. Life is cruel that way.”

John Kelly
John Kelly with a photo of him and his dad in the broadcast booth back on the day.

His father’s memory never is far away from John.

“I’m reminded about him every day because of my job,” John said. “I’m around hockey fans and Blues fans and friends of the family. It honestly feels like it’s been about 10 years … quite honestly, he’s in my thoughts all the time especially when I come to Enterprise Center and get ready to broadcast a game.

“If I look directly across the arena during the anthem, I see his banner. His memory and my thoughts about him are constant. It’s not just because it’s the 30th anniversary.”

The Kelly Family [Family photo]
The Kelly Familyin 1968 [Family photo]

Kelly was born in Ottawa, Ontario, as were five of his six children. Cathy, John, Ann, Susan and Karen were born in Canada to Kelly and his wife, Fran, who still lives in St. Louis. Youngest son Danny was born in St. Louis.

“We moved here a little over 50 years ago, when he was 31 or 32,” said Cathy, who is the communications coordinator for the Parkway School District. “He did the Blues’ broadcasts beginning in their second season in 1968-69.”

Kelly left an indelible imprint. Widely regarded as one of the best hockey announcers in the world, hockey fans across the United States and Canada learned the game through Kelly’s vivid and exciting play-by-play calls. His booming voice thrilled and educated hockey fans for more than two decades.

A profile in Sports Illustrated many years ago said Kelly dominated his sport like no other announcer.

“There’s the stout Irishman, and then there’s the rest of the hockey announcing universe,” said the article, written by Sports Illustrated media critic William Taaffe. “Kelly is the purest, most knowledgeable, most accurate voice around.”

Few would argue.

Susie Mathieu worked for many years with the Blues. When she left the organization, she was vice president of marketing and media relations.

“Dan was a masterful teacher,” Mathieu said. “He came into this market that was not completely familiar with hockey and taught the whole market about the game.

“When we lost Dan so early, it really was a blow to the franchise. He was the constant. He should have been considered part of the franchise because he was the franchise. There were some pretty weak teams in the ’70s. He painted such a picture not in the negative sense because he called the game as it should be called but the words he chose were just impeccable.”

Dan Kelly during his CBS broadcasting days.
Dan Kelly during his CBS broadcasting days.

Besides Blues hockey, Kelly also served as the lead broadcaster for national NHL games in both the United States and Canada. He broadcast NHL games on national television in the United States and Canada for a number of years. He broadcast in 16 Stanley Cup Finals between 1969 and 1988, working for CBS, the NHL Network, the USA Network, CBC, CTV and Canwest-Global.

He also provided play-by-play coverage of the 1987 Canada Cup and was the lead play-by-play hockey announcer for CTV at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary alongside John Davidson.

Kelly also called NFL games, including the St. Louis Cardinals and Missouri Tigers football, and St. Louis Cardinals baseball.

“Sometimes, Dad would have a Mizzou game on a Saturday afternoon and a Blues game on Saturday night,” Cathy said. “He’d do the Mizzou game in Columbia, and then drive to St. Louis to do the Blues game at the Arena. Some of those weekends, there would be a Cardinals football home game on Sunday, and he’d do that.

“I was in high school and I didn’t think that it was a particularly big deal. Now as an adult, I realize it’s a huge deal. I’m impressed he could do that.”

Dan Kelly
Dan Kelly

But hockey was his game.

“My dad loved hockey. He always wanted to be a hockey announcer,” Cathy said. “He was a huge champion and fan of the Blues. I think he loved hockey so much that he loved teaching others about hockey.”

Both of his sons are broadcasters.

John called American Hockey League games on the radio with the St. Catharines Saints and Adirondack Red Wings. He started his NHL career as the radio voice of the New York Rangers during the 1988-89 campaign. From 1989-90 through 1991-92, John worked the Blues’ radio and television simulcasts. He moved on to the expansion Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992-93 where he spent three seasons as the play-by-play voice on the radio and television simulcasts. Then, he headed west to Colorado for the Avalanche’s first season in 1995-96. He left the Avalanche after the 2003–04 season to rejoin the Blues on their telecasts.

Danny did Blues radio broadcasts for three seasons. Then, spent four years doing Columbus Blues Jackets television broadcasts. He also did University of Denver hockey and two years of Chicago Blackhawks television broadcasts. Now, he does Chicago Fire play-by-play on television along with Big 10 Network hockey games.

“I think it’s remarkable that both of his sons followed in his footsteps,” Mathieu said. “He left such a legacy. That would have to be intimidating to them but they’ done remarkably well.”

When John decided to get into the family business, his father had another suggestion.

“He said, ‘Maybe you should think about being a doctor or a lawyer because it’s a more stable profession,'” John said. “I think he knew even as great as he was, as secure as he was – not only in St. Louis but with his national jobs – he knew how volatile the broadcast business can be. I think he tried to warn me.

“I think deep down he was happy, and I certainly know when I got the job doing the Rangers months before he was diagnosed, he was very proud. My second game in the NHL, working for the Rangers, was in St. Louis. My booth was next to his booth. I know it was a great thrill for me to do that.”

Since Danny was only 15 when his dad passed away, there were no talks about his future employment. But he believes his dad would be happy with his decision to pursue broadcasting.

“I think like any father, he’d want you to enjoy what you do,” Danny said. “I think he’d be proud of that fact. That’s why you get into it. I was privileged to watch and see how great his job was.

“It’s a fun business. I saw that early.”

One of John’s favorite memories is the one game he worked with his father.

“It was after he was diagnosed with his illness. I was doing Rangers games on the radio at the time,” John said. “As it happened, the Rangers played a game in Philadelphia and two nights later, the Blues played in Philadelphia. So my dad called me up and said why don’t you stay over and see me. I didn’t have a game. He found out he was sick in October and this was early November. We had dinner the night before.

“After the first period, he said why don’t you do the play-by-play the second period. I said, ‘Sure, great.’ And I did the play-by-play. He did the color. He went back and finished the game in the third period.

“What’s ironic about that game is the Blues won the game and it was their first win in Philadelphia in 34 games, going back to a brawl they had in the stands. That was the night the Plager brothers [Bob and Barclay] went in the crowd,” John said of the brawl. “It was the only game I broadcast with my father and it was the last road game he ever broadcast. I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.”

His dad had wanted John to come and work with him earlier.

“He had asked me a couple of years before when I was with the American League if I wanted to come and work in St. Louis with him and sort of with the idea of someday taking over,” John said. “I didn’t, not because I didn’t want to but because I wanted to blaze my own path.

“When I was ready for the NHL, it would happen or it wouldn’t happen. As it turns out, it did happen. For me, it was important to do it on my own. I have that one period I did with him and it was fantastic.”

Both John and Danny have avoided mimicking their father.

“He told me that early on, don’t use my favorite phrases. Like ‘he shoots, he scores,'” John said. “I use a variation of that. He said to be your own man and do your own thing as a broadcaster. A lot of people say I sound like him but that’s genetics and not a conscious decision on my part.”

Danny was with his father at his last Blues broadcast.

“I went to the final game he did,” Danny said. “It was a home game against Vancouver … in the old Arena.”

Kelly has been honored in numerous ways. After his death, he was posthumously inducted into the broadcasting wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. He’s also been inducted into the Missouri Broadcasters Hall of Fame, the St. Louis Amateur Hockey Hall of Fame and the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame.

“I wish it had all happened when he was alive,” Mathieu said. “He would have loved it.”

The month before he died, he also received the Lester Patrick Award, which is given annually by the NHL for outstanding service to hockey in the United States.

“In his era, he was … as popular as the most popular player on the team,” Mathieu said.

Back in December, Barclay, the yellow Labrador Retriever puppy that the Blues front office adopted in October from Duo, an organization that trains and places service dogs, in order to socialize them, joined the team.

Barclay, who has an Instagram account and is named after late Blues star Barclay Plager, was born in September, making him way too young for the NHL draft.

Everyone says Kelly would have loved the move.

“Barclay Plager was my dad’s best friend,” Cathy said. “He also loved dogs so I know he would be very happy about this.”

The Blues have honored Kelly in many ways. A DK banner hangs in the rafters of the Enterprise Center along with other retired numbers.

The press box is named after him, but his legacy is his family as much as his career.

“Credits on us go to my mom, too,” Danny said. “One year, Dad did 145 games. He was on the road a lot. He’d shut it down for two months in the summer with a cottage in Canada and catch up with his family. That was important to him.”

John knows that his dad would be proud of his dad’s impact on hockey in St. Louis, even 30 years later.

“His legacy is that he’s the greatest hockey announcer that ever lived,” John said. “Especially in St. Louis, Dad taught so many people about the game of hockey. Thousands fell in love with the Blues because of him, and I think that’s a great legacy.”

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