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Jack Kelley, retired Penguins' exec, recalls when hockey was son David's passion

Sunday, September 19, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Everyone expresses amazement at David E. Kelley's productivity except his father. For Jack Kelley, former president of the Pittsburgh Penguins, his son's ability to write more than 30 scripts every TV season comes as no surprise.

"He never wasted time," Jack Kelley said. "When he went to study, he studied. He is great at organizing himself and giving all his attention to what he was doing at the time. When he goes behind closed doors to do scripts, he can give it all his energy and all his attention. He's not easily diverted from [his] task."

Evidently not. Last Sunday, Kelley became the first TV-show producer to win Emmy awards for best comedy ("Ally McBeal") and best drama series ("The Practice") in the same year. If his dad were doing the picking, he'd single out "The Practice" as his favorite of his son's shows.

"It never ceases to amaze me how he can bring it to a conclusion that can make you say, 'Wow, I wasn't prepared for that,' " Kelley said by telephone from his family's summer home near Augusta, Maine. On a lake. Sometimes the lake is placid, just like in David Kelley's movie "Lake Placid." But his dad has never seen a crocodile in the lake like the one in the film.

"We've been coming up here since David was a young boy," Kelley said. "He's been coming here every summer for the last 30-odd years. I don't know what inspired the story for that movie. David reaches into many different areas for his ideas."

Including the past. Kelley said he was amazed to hear a character on one of his son's shows use an expression popular with his father, David's grandfather.

"My dad has been dead for 20 years, and all of a sudden David pulled it out," Kelley said, declining to reveal the line. "We also see a lot of serial killers who are members of the family. He'll use their names. I think a lot of his friends have enjoyed the fact they've shown up at different points."

What Kelley and others can't understand is how David created Ally McBeal, a character both hailed and assailed as the epitome of the modern-day woman.

"I'm amazed at how he can reach out into an area where few men dare trod and do it week after week," Kelley said.

Jack Kelley and his wife, Ginny, lived in Mt. Lebanon from 1993 until June 1998, before Jack retired from the Penguins and the couple moved to Nokomis, Fla.

Kelley spent his entire career involved in ice hockey, including 10 years with the now-defunct Hartford Whalers. For two of the years, he was a coach, and he also served as a general manager. That love of the sport trickled down to his son.

"He was into hockey," Kelley said.

He and his wife got few hints about their son's future as a TV writer, except maybe his skills as a poet. "The only thing he did that we picked up on was that he was great at sitting down and writing poems and putting verses together. Usually they were humorous ones. He had fun looking at different situations and coming up with poems, but I don't think we ever gave too much thought to it."

Kelley said his son was never involved in high school theater because he was too busy studying or playing sports. But during his senior year at Princeton, David got involved in the theater, his father said, followed by a year playing professional hockey in Arosa, Switzerland. Kelley said his son returned to the United States for an internship with a Hollywood studio, followed by law school.

David's interest in hockey takes center stage in his much-delayed film, "Mystery, Alaska," which opens in theaters Oct. 1. Set in a small Alaska town, the film pits the town's hockey team against the New York Rangers in a publicity stunt.

Kelley said he didn't consult with his son on the film, but they did discuss the movie when it was just an idea.

"In the beginning, it was probably a little too idealistic," Kelley said. "I haven't actually seen the finished product, but I was on the set and watched a lot of the takes. I think it will be a feel-good movie where you walk out and say, 'That was fun.' Not too deep but at the same time entertaining."

"Mystery, Alaska" was produced by David E. Kelley and Howard Baldwin, one of the Penguin's former owners and a good friend of Jack Kelley. Kelley said he thinks Baldwin may have a limited ownership in Mario Lemieux's reorganization of the team, but the names of many of the team's new investors remain a mystery.

"I'm extremely pleased Mario has been able to work out the different problems and resolve the tangled issues," Kelley said. "With a decent team, I think they'll be able to survive. But if the fans don't get out and support it, they'll be in trouble again."

Kelley was back in Pittsburgh this summer for a retirement party for his former secretary, Elaine Heufelder, but "they haven't let her retire."

"They want to keep her through the transition," Kelley said. "She's the one who runs the Penguins, and she's been running them for the past 35 years. The general public should be aware of that."

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