Hockey Hall of Fame writer Jay Greenberg passed away yesterday at age 71. He took ill a few months after celebrating his birthday last year and was in increasingly poor health until his death. While those close to Jay were kept informed of his situation, he and his family did not want people to feel sorry for him. We respected their wishes for privacy.
People periodically asked why Jay discontinued the weekly blogs he did for HockeyBuzz for a couple of years. Now you know why.
Jay spent much of this year in home hospice, being kept as comfortable as possible. When it became clear that the end was nearing, we were told it was OK to reach out to the wide circle of friends he had both within and beyond sports. He received an outpouring of love and support: emails, texts, phone calls, videos, which his wife, Mona, would show him. Jay was physically unable to write or move independently anymore and his voice was weak but his mind and sense of humor stayed sharp as a tack until the very end. He'd dictate replies and Mona wrote them out to send.
Twice in recent months, I had the opportunity to visit Jay at his home. I went back in May, on the same day that Chuck Fletcher and Alain Vigneault did their end-of-season Exit Day media availability. Jay asked for a synopsis as I sat with him. I visited him again in the latter part of July.
There was nothing maudlin about the visits. Jay was still Jay, at least mentally: witty, wise, inquisitive and plugged in on what was going on with his beloved Pittsburgh Pirates as well as the hockey world. He was also very realistic and open about his own situation, and was fully at peace with it. The last time I saw him, he said that he had no regrets in life: he had a fulfilling career, a family he loved deeply, many dear friendships and had accomplished the goals that were most important to him.
I'd grown up reading and admiring Jay's work: it's the rare person who is both an excellent journalist and a riveting writer, but he was blessed with both talents. He understood nuance and context, and conveyed a deeper picture of both historical and current events. I don't really want to turn this blog, however, into a retrospective on Jay's work and accolades he collected for it.
I'll only say in this regard that the greatly acclaimed "Full Spectrum" and the extremely underrated and underpromoted "Flyers at 50" are THE definitive works on the history of the Philadelphia Flyers organization. It was the greatest honor of my professional life to be asked by Jay to assist him on sections of Flyers at 50 and to do transcriptions of a couple dozen of the hundreds of hours of interviews he did for the latter book.
One of Jay's greatest talents as a writer was his unorthodox but highly effective style of interviewing. He had a way of getting people to open up to him. He was a great listener, for one thing, and never minded when a subject would repeat an already-relayed story because doing so often brought out new details. Secondly, he asked very perceptive questions that were probing but never in a threatening or aggressive way. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, his word was as good as gold. If someone asked for a statement to be kept off the record, he respected their wishes but stored the info into his memory bank to where the unwritten background knowledge enhanced the narrative in subtle but important ways.
What I learned over the years was that Jay enjoyed such widespread respect because it was a two-way street with him. He gave respect, and he got respect in return. He used to get frustrated at times by writers who lacked the ability to follow the journalistic breadcrumbs or read between the lines. He would ask for clarification when more clarity was necessary but he didn't waste his or other people's times by rehashing the obvious.
Although I grew up reading Jay's work in the Philadelphia Bulletin and the Daily News, Sports illustrated, the Hockey News and his books, I only first spoke to him in 2007 when I was working on the English edition of the Pelle Lindbergh biography. Jay was, of course, very generous with his time and offered valuable insight and recollections.
Thereafter, Jay and I were on first-name-basis terms but never worked closely together until he accepted an offer from Ed Snider to work on the Flyers 50-Year history book project and spent the remainder of his hockey writing career writing out of the Philly area market again after years in Toronto and New York. That was when our friendship grew, and he became someone I cherished and confided in.
Jay as I mentioned, was always a great listener with an analytical mind. Once he got to know you, he was also a great talker, with a seemingly endless well of stories about himself and others. His sense of humor was such that his wit could be dry, goofy or catch you totally off-guard with something where the joke itself lay in the absurdity of Jay being the one who said it. I wish Jay had written a book about his time as the beat writer for the short-lived Kansas City Scouts.
Jay loved dogs, popcorn (which he inevitably got all over the place in the pressbox), spicy foods, the occasional beer and, according to Mona, straight-up martinis. I traveled with Jay to cover the 2016 playoff series betwen the Flyers and the Capitals, and every day was a learning experience in the most positive sense of the term. Once, by sheer happenstance, we ended up sitting in the same row at a Trenton Thunder vs. Altoona Curve AA baseball game (Jay was there by himself to watch Pirates prospects, and I was there with my son and nephew) and enjoyed Jay's running commentary.
Jay and Mona were married for 44 years. He was the proud father of daughters named Elizabeth and Stephanie. He's also survived by his sister, Gail Cohen.
His family has asked that this be included in any obituaries or tributes: The National Institute of Health and Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, to which Jay has donated his brain for study, are not going to find any deterioration of his mind, only his motor abilities.
In lieu of flowers, Jay and his family ask that you consider making memorial contributions to charitable organizations that support animals (e.g., ASPCA or a local no-kill shelter), the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), the American Heart Association, American Red Cross, or other personally-meaningful nonprofits. And please...always support blood and organ donation so that others may benefit.
Although I have known for awhile that we were going to lose Jay and had to be prepared for the news all of us dreaded, it's always upsetting when it happens. We're all going to miss Jay greatly. I've gone back and forth on whether it was more positive or negative that Jay's mind stayed as lucid as it did while his body was increasingly betraying him but at least he was fully cognizant of just how many people cared for and deeply respected him not just professionally and personally.
Lastly, I want to express a heartfelt thank you to Mona for permitting my two visits to the house to see Jay in the last few months of his life. It gave me peace of mind to see Jay so content and at peace with his life, and that's all we can wish anyone we admire. I got the chance to thank him for his friendship and guidance and to share a few more stories. In fact, the final text I sent to Jay was on Tuesday. I told him about the formation of a new Flyers Hall of Fame nominating committee, something that I know he supported and that his late friend, Ed Snider, would have wanted.