Not the biggest guy, by any means. But imbued with a Jimmy Cagney jauntiness, a spit-in-your-eye Dead End Kid indomitability that set him apart, propelled him to the top of his game.
And now, surely, into the National Lacrosse League Hall of Fame.
“I don’t,’’ a Calgary Roughnecks’ captain of later vintage, Andrew McBride, is saying of Friday’s Hall vote, “honestly know how you can keep him out.
“He should be in already.
“I mean, I understand with Halls of Fame in any sport – NFL, NHL, Major League Baseball, you name it – you always hear people say ‘He has to wait his turn …’
“Well, Trace was a guy who never waited his turn. Never sat back. He initiated. He was always out front, leading.
“I know I never wanted to have a bad game. I know I could never accept a half-assed effort from myself.
“Because if I did, I knew I’d have to look Tracey Kelusky in the eyes.
“And knowing that I knew – and worse, that he knew – I hadn’t done my best … that I couldn’t bear.”
Last year, Kelusky was a finalist for the first time in balloting for Hall of Fame induction but only the late Terry Sanderson received enough votes to join the 23 existing Hall members.
In the Class of 2016, Kelusky joins two other returning contenders, Kevin Finneran and Gavin Prout, along with top-drawer first-time nominees Josh Sanderson and John Tavares.
Statistically and hardware-wise, Kelusky more than merits inclusion: Fourteen seasons, 195 games. Those 470 goals and 890 points both rank as 11th most in NLL history. He hoisted the Champions Cups twice over his eight years in charge at the Scotiabank Saddledome. Was named the NLL Rookie of the Year Award in 2001, a three-time NLL First Team All Pro, the All Star Game MVP Award of 2005.
But bling is one thing.
Tracey Kelusky’s Hall-worthiness delves deeper than mere baubles; goes further than championships, even. It burrows into places that separate great from good, leader from follower.
“I remember the day he became captain,’’ recalls the Roughnecks’ inaugural owner, Brad Banister. “We flew him in (Kelusky was the No.1 pick in a 2002 dispersal draft) and entertained him because he wasn’t so sure he wanted to come to Calgary. We took him around to a few local establishments.
“We had a lot of misfits – missing links, so to speak — at the time and really needed a leader. I remember he walked up to me and said ‘This is my team, as of now. I’m going to be captain. I’m going to lead.’
“Kaleb (Toth) was captain at the time, he overheard the conversation, which was basically directed at both of us, and Kaleb just kind of bowed out, and said ‘Yeah, I think that’s the guy.’
“We had a couple players, Kaleb being one, who were already well respected around the league. But when we got Tracey, it put it into another whole ‘scare’ level, for lack of a better word. We had a natural leader, a threat. He gave us automatic respect; brought that completely different level none of us had ever seen before.”
And tough? Banister recalls a game in which the ‘Necks’ skipper took a wicked knee to the head, leaving him wobbly.
“We weren’t able to access the facilities at the Saddledome so we wound up taking him down to 11th Avenue, some skinny place, in his equipment, got him x-rayed, brought him back and put him right back in the lineup.”
While the two men played together here, Andrew McBride was busy taking crib notes.
“You look at these athletes today and everyone’s talking about you need size, speed, strength,’’ he says.
“The things that set Trace apart were determination, passion.
“Those are the kind of skill sets I’d take any day on my team. No, you can’t teach size. But another thing you can’t teach is heart. Is compete. Is drive.
“I learned so much just watching him.
“Many a time later in my career, when maybe I didn’t have to be the hardest-working guy at practice because now I was the veteran, I was the captain, I’d think of Trace.
“And I’d work twice as hard.”
Over his NLL career Kelusky also played in for the Columbus Landsharks and Montreal Express before moving to Calgary and the Buffalo Bandits and Philadelphia Wings afterwards. But in the imagination he remains now and forever a Roughneck; the competitive conscience, the beating heart, of an organization.
The prototype team man.
McBride vividly remembers a night Kelusky flirted with history. He had pocketed eight goals by the end of the third quarter and proven to be all but unstoppable.
“Everybody knew the record was 10 goals by Gary Gait. The way Trace was going, it seemed inevitable. But — and I know this sounds kinda strange — he almost felt bad about doing it. About drawing all the attention to himself. I remember he took a penalty and then kinda removed himself from the game.
“That to me shows it was never about Tracey Kelsey, in his mind. It was about the Calgary Roughnecks. About us. Nobody was bigger than the collective. Nobody was bigger than ‘us’.
“For some reason, if he’d beat Gait’s record he thought he’d be overshadowing the team. And that wasn’t in his DNA.
“He finished with eight. We won the game, and that’s all that mattered to him.
“With Trace, it was always about doing the right thing, about respecting the game, about not putting yourself first, or above anyone else.
“That’s what Tracey Kelusky was all about.”
Yes, although the man could play a bit, too.
“Trace,’’ reminds McBride, “played in a time — and I started out in that era, too — where a lot of what you did largely went unseen. With social media today, it allows for multiple platforms for fans, coaches, everyone, to see highlights. You’ve got Instagram, you’ve got Snapchat, you’ve got Twitter.
“All these immediate gratification tools at your fingertips.
“Well, if we had Instagram and Snapchat and Twitter back when Tracey Kelusky was doing his moves, the guy would be a Paul Rabil-like superstar.
“The things he did, from going in and getting that impossible-to-get loose ball to fighting the toughest guy on the other team, they’d be out there, instantly, for everyone.
“A great player.
“A great guy.
“A great leader.
“And a no-doubt, slam-dunk Hall of Famer. Everybody who knows him, has played with him or against him, thinks of him that way.”
Friday should make it official.