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Scots-Canadian forward Jimmy Kelly was one of the most memorable characters to ice in British and European rinks in the years just before World War Two.
Born on 10 July 1906 in Glasgow, he and his family emigrated to Canada when Jimmy was only four. His father John was a printer in Glasgow but he became an insurance underwriter when the Kellys settled in the St Vital district of Winnipeg, and four of his five sons took up ice hockey. Jimmy wasn't quite the most famous of them. This honour went to a younger brother, Pete Kelly, who won the Stanley Cup twice in the 1930s with Detroit Red Wings and has a trophy named after him at St Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The diminutive Jimmy - his official measurements of 5ft, 7in and 155 lbs may have been over-egging it - was a speedy and fearless centreman. He was inclined, however, to be accident-prone: he had suffered two concussions as well as losing the tip of a finger on his right hand before he joined top English club Brighton Tigers, aged 30, for the 1936-37 term. His coach at Montreal Royals, Don Penniston, had persuaded Kelly to join him at Brighton's Sports Stadium on the south coast when he was appointed to mentor the Tigers.
Jimmy was an exceptionally fine skater and an elegant player, though not a big scorer. But his blue eyes, blond hair and infectious grin made him a crowd-pleaser, and he was also valued in the dressing room for his witty sayings and general cheerfulness. To complete his special character - and perhaps to make up for his lack of size - he always wore a black jockey cap, with the peak upturned, which he regarded as 'lucky'.
This rebounded on him when he lost the cap at Earls Court (in central London) after a win over the Rangers in December 1937. Brighton offered a £10 reward for its return but in the next game Tigers beat Wembley Lions 5-4 so maybe Jimmy didn’t need his cap after all. In any case after a few weeks he bought himself a new one but as he’d been playing well bare-headed, his teammates had other ideas. Before a game against Wembley Monarchs, one of them stole the new cap. As we know, hockey players love practical jokes but Kelly played well again, scored a goal, and the Tigers prevailed 3-2.
Penniston's successor as Brighton coach, ex-Montreal Canadien Billy Boucher, was reported to dislike Jimmy's cap-wearing and told him to remove it while on the ice. The dampened his enthusiasm and in September 1938 he moved to London and the Wembley Monarchs. Despite being able to don his lucky cap again, his injury jinx returned and within a week he found himself in hospital with another concussion and a fractured collar-bone which kept him off the ice for six weeks. But he recovered to play with the Monarchs and then the Lions until the end of the 1939-40 season.
Jimmy's performances also lit up the Great Britain team in their three World Championships before the outbreak of war. After he and the national team finished as runners-up in London in 1937, Kelly came into his own in Prague a year later when the team repeated as silver medallists. He carried the Union flag in the opening ceremony in the outdoor Zimni Stadion, scored the only goal of the first game, against Germany, and won the hearts of the capacity 10,000 crowd with his clowning on the ice.
Against Norway in game two, he beat the entire opposition sextet for GB's third goal, his stick-handling wizardry earning him roars of approval. When he was body-checked clean over the boards he re-appeared a minute later in another part of the arena with a broad grin on his face. The fans wouldn't let him go. As he rested on the bench, they chanted "We want Jimmy!" His performances on the ice equalled the strength of his personality: he was regarded by many to be the best player of that championships.
Jimmy Chappell, his team-mate on the British squad, explained his appeal: "He's only a small fellow, about 5ft, 3ins and weighing about 133 lbs, but he's dynamite. He's a powerful skater and can keep it up all day. And he's a born comedian."
Kelly's antics were still newsworthy when the 1939 Championships in Switzerland rolled round. London-based Canadian journalist Stewart MacPherson, who was a popular personality on BBC radio (and later a war correspondent), wrote in the Daily Sketch newspaper: "Kelly gave an impressive performance in the British team's practice sessions and already he is the centre of attention wherever he goes."
It was a banged-up British team that took to the ice against Canada, the reigning world champs, for their third game of the tournament. Kelly surprised the Canadians and the 4,000 crowd in Zurich's open-air Dolder Eisbahn with a goal after only seven minutes, only for it to be ruled off-side by Belgian referee Popliment. Britain put up a brave fight before being shut out 4-0 with Kelly being singled out as one of their best players.
The lucky cap failed to work its magic in the next outing, however, when he gave away the puck for the only goal of the game against Germany. With GB short-handed, Jimmy tried to relieve the pressure by firing the puck up ice only for it to find the stick of a German defenceman, standing a few feet inside the blueline. Maybe the pressure of 10,000 fans, most of them cheering for Britain, got to him as well. Regardless, the defeat knocked Britain out of contention for the medals in their last important game before war was declared.
Kelly served in the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps during World War Two when some reports say he was killed in action during the last stages of the conflict as the RCASC Second Corps advanced into northern Germany. The official records, however, give his date of death as 7 July 1945 (only three days short of his 39th birthday) in Holten, Netherlands while he was still serving with the RCASC but which was two months after the war in Europe ended.
What actually happened to Jimmy and when we've not been able to find out. Nor could we discover whether or not he was wearing his lucky black cap.
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