New Brunswick

Sea Dogs equipment manager David (DK) Kelly retires to focus on fundraising, #TeamDK

Longtime Saint John Sea Dogs equipment manager David (DK) Kelly is stepping down to focus on his fundraising work and the #TeamDK kindness movement.

39-year-old, who continues to battle cancer, says he wants to make a difference in the world

David (DK) Kelly sporting some of his fundraising monkey Band-Aid apparel. (Elke Semerad/CBC)

Longtime Saint John Sea Dogs equipment manager David (DK) Kelly is stepping down to focus on his fundraising work and the #TeamDK kindness movement.

Kelly has been with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team since its inception 13 years ago, logging 800 games behind the bench — even while battling cancer.

Now the 39-year-old, who has a tracheotomy and wears a neck brace because his tumour is "eating" his C4 vertebrae, says he wants to dedicate his life to giving back and make a difference in the world.

"The opportunities are endless."

Sea Dogs president and general manager Trevor Georgie says Kelly's optimism in the face of adversity is "incredible.

"DK says it all the time – he is not dying with cancer, he is living with it," Georgie said in a statement.

"We are proud of his commitment to his #TeamDK movement," which already has thousands of followers around the world and continues to grow.

Kelly's nephew Jacob inspired the monkey Band-Aid campaign after he brought him a Band-Aid for his 'boo boo' in hospital in October 2016. (Submitted)

Kelly, who started the movement a few years ago after he was diagnosed with medullary thyroid cancer, says he never imagined it would catch on like it has.

"It's kind of gone crazy."

His monkey Band-Aid apparel campaign to raise money for the Saint John Regional Hospital oncology department's education fund, in particular, has "taken off incredibly," Kelly said.

People have sent him photographs of themselves wearing the monkey Band-Aid T-shirts in 18 countries. It's even been to the Olympics.

Kelly credits his nephew Jacob with inspiring the campaign. Kelly was in the hospital in October 2016 when Jacob, then aged three, visited him on Halloween weekend, wearing a doctor costume.

"He had a Band-Aid for my boo-boo."

Kelly was spitting up blood and had been told by a doctor he could "die any minute." After Jacob put the Band-Aid adorned with cartoon monkeys on his wrist, his condition improved, he said.

Two days later, the Band-Aid was falling off, so Kelly took it off. A couple of hours later, he woke up spitting up blood again.

"I was so frustrated. I said, 'What changed?' I didn't know if I had eaten something different, or slept differently, or what I did.

"And I think it's a hockey thing, a superstition thing, but the only thing that had changed was I took the Band-Aid off. So I quickly said, 'Give me that Band-Aid back, we've got to tape it back on.'"

Once he did, he didn't bleed again.

Kelly believes the monkey Band-Aid Jacob put on his wrist, like the one pictured here on the left, helped him survive. He now has a permanent tattoo of it (right). (Submitted)

Kelly vowed if he was ever able to get another tattoo, he would get one of the monkey-adorned Band-Aid on his left wrist, exactly where Jacob had placed it, below his hospital bracelet.

"I'm just glad it wasn't princesses or Minions or something crazy like that," he chuckled. "I still would've got it tattooed probably, but it would have limited what I could do with a fundraiser … so the monkeys have been pretty special."

Everybody goes through storms in life and you know I feel lucky and blessed to be in a position to be able to help people.- David (DK) Kelly

All proceeds from the campaign go to the oncology fund to help nurses cover the costs of their specialized training, which is often out-of-province.

"Hopefully, it will help a lot of people for a lot of years," he said.

It's his new passion, he said, but he will miss the Sea Dogs team he has dedicated a third of his life to, first as head equipment manager and most recently as senior adviser to hockey operations.

Kelly says lifting the 2017 President Cup over his head after doctors told him he'd never work again was a special moment for him. (Saint John Sea Dogs)

"The team means so much to the city that to see the difference that the guys make in the community and to be part of that for so long, it's been really special."

Seeing the team win three President Cups, including the one in May 2017, which he managed to lift over his head after being told by doctors he would never work again, and then the Memorial Cup "was a nice cherry on the top."

But most gratifying, he said, has been working with the teenage players.

"They come in as 15-year-old,16-year-old kids and leave as 20-year-old men. … To be part of these guys' growing up and maturing and to see them move on — not only the NHL guys, but to see guys move on and be great fathers and great husbands and great community leaders is the rewarding part of the game."

Kelly, whose retirement announcement Wednesday prompted a flurry of well wishes on social media, says he'll continue to cheer the team on but from the stands now as he focuses on his philanthropic efforts.

"There's a lot of people in the world that need help," he said.

"Everybody goes through storms in life and, you know, I feel lucky and blessed to be in a position to be able to help people, so we're looking forward to whatever's next."

With files from Information Morning Saint John