Leave it to the man known as Mr. Hockey to best put Red Kelly’s NHL career into perspective
“Maybe there were others who were better at specific parts of the game than Red,” said the late Gordie Howe, who played 13 seasons with Kelly as stars of the Detroit Red Wings in the late 1940s and early ’50s. “But I can’t think of anyone who was as good at so many parts of the game as Kelly. Very few others did what Red Kelly did in his career.”
Leonard (Red) Kelly, one of the few professional hockey players to go through life without using a cuss word, died Thursday in Toronto, at 91.
What Kelly “did” in his 20-season career was star at two different positions with two different teams.
In more than a dozen seasons with the Red Wings, Kelly was an elite defenceman, an NHL all-star in eight consecutive seasons and a member of four Stanley Cup championship teams.
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Traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a puzzling 1960 deal, Kelly switched to centre, where he excelled for another eight seasons, an important part of the four Cup triumphs by the Leafs in the 1960s.
Kelly’s eight Cup wins make his the only name not belonging to a Montreal Canadien on the Cup that often.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Kelly’s career was “so storied and distinguished that it may never be duplicated.”
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“Red was the ultimate hockey Renaissance man who seemingly could do it all,” Bettman added.
But hockey was only part of the Red Kelly story.
He did an amazing turn of double duty when he won the York West riding for the Liberal party in the 1962 federal election, serving until ’65 in the minority governments of a man Kelly called his “hero,” Lester Pearson.
Dubbed the “Member for Centre Ice” in Ottawa, he won two elections before giving up his seat. Fellow politicians and hockey players alike marvelled at his ability to do two high-profile jobs while flying back and forth between Commons votes and NHL games. Kelly said in a 1996 interview that he “lived on the plane” during those hectic years.
“I never missed a game, though I came close.”
His remarkable versatility was first demonstrated on the ice. Only two players in NHL history equalled Kelly’s two-position excellence, Dit Clapper of the Boston Bruins and Neil Colville of the New York Rangers, all-stars both on defence and as forwards.
“Any list of the best 10 or so players in hockey history that doesn’t have Kelly’s name on it just isn’t right,” the late Punch Imlach, the Leafs’ general manager/coach who made the trade for Kelly, once said. “He could do it all in the game like very few others. Bobby Orr is credited with changing the defenceman’s role with his great offensive skill, and rightfully so. But the groundwork for defencemen joining the attack regularly was established first by Kelly.”
Kelly credited two men as the big influences in his hockey career — his father, Lawrence, and Joe Primeau, a Leafs star in the 1930s and Kelly’s coach with the St. Michael’s College Juniors.
Born Leonard Patrick Kelly on July 9, 1927, he grew up on the family farm in Simcoe, Ont.
His father wasted little time putting him on skates, and hours spent on outdoor rinks paid off years later for Kelly. He left home at 16 for St. Michael’s College, a Toronto hockey hotbed that his father had attended.
“I wasn’t a strong skater as a kid but my dad knew how much I loved hockey,” Kelly said. “We were like many farmers in the ’40s — we didn’t have much money — but my father found enough to enrol me at St. Mike’s. I was a waiter in the dining room to pay my way.
“I skated a great deal at St. Mike’s and when I got to play for Joe Primeau, it was my lucky day. First, he taught me how to control my temper, which, I guess, matched my red hair, and not to react to everything on the ice and take dumb penalties.
“Joe was a wonderful teacher who worked on my skating, especially going backwards, how to read plays and react to situations and fundamentals of the defence position. I don’t think I learned anything in the NHL that had not been taught by Primeau at the junior level.”
Because of Kelly’s ordinary skating and what, under Primeau’s strong guidance, seemed a placid disposition, the Leafs did not rate him highly as an NHL prospect, the same approach that cost the Toronto team another St. Mike’s Hall of Famer, Ted Lindsay, a few years earlier. When Red Wings scout Carson Cooper placed Kelly’s name on his team’s NHL negotiation list, Leafs scout Squib Walker bet Cooper that Kelly would not play 20 games in the NHL.
After Kelly’s two-way excellence was a big part of the St. Mike’s 1947 Canadian junior championship, he jumped directly to the NHL with the Red Wings. That team’s longtime boss, Jack Adams, was building an extraordinary roster with the Production Line of Howe, Lindsay and Sid Abel, with Kelly, Marcel Pronovost and Bob Goldham on defence, and Terry Sawchuk in goal. The Wings won the Cup four times in six years in the ’50s.
Kelly led NHL defencemen in goals eight times, was the first winner of the Norris Trophy as best defenceman and played with such efficiency that he was a four-time winner of the Lady Byng Trophy as most gentlemanly and effective player.
The Wings were pushed aside by the mighty Canadiens in the late ’50s, the club’s roster torn apart by Adams’ squashing of Lindsay’s attempt to start an NHL players association. Kelly and Howe were loyal to management during the controversy but Kelly soon discovered the depth of Adams’ contempt for the players.
During the ’58-59 season, Kelly suffered a broken bone in his ankle. Adams ordered him not to reveal the extent of the injury, which the Wings claimed publicly was a minor sprain, and insisted that Kelly continue to play.
“My play suffered because I couldn’t push off that leg and stories started that I was at the end of my career,” Kelly said. “But I kept playing as hard as I could when I really needed time off for the ankle to heal right.”
At the end of that season, Kelly married another redhead, world champion figure skater Andra McLaughlin.
Kelly was back in top form the next season, but when he told Toronto writer Trent Frayne that Adams had pressed him into playing on a broken ankle, the Wings boss immediately traded him to the Rangers with forward Bill McNeill for defenceman Bill Gadsby and winger Ed Shack.
But Kelly did something unusual for an NHL player in that time: he refused to join the Rangers.
Building a winner in Toronto, Imlach quickly offered journeyman defenceman Marc Rheaume for Kelly. Adams, who called Kelly “a traitor,” took the deal.
“My assistant King Clancy talked to Red, who was thinking about retiring from the game, and convinced him to come to Toronto,” Imlach recounted. “When the deal was done, King and I were almost jumping up and down because we knew that we had added an important piece to our team.
“When Red joined our team, he hadn’t played in a week or so, so he suggested that he play a few games as a forward to get his skating back in the groove,” Imlach recounted. “We were pretty much set with two good defence pairs (Allan Stanley and Tim Horton, Bob Baun and Carl Brewer), who, I think, were a little edgy about Red taking a regular job on the blue line. But from the start, Red was so effective up front that we never thought of him as a defenceman.”
From the start, Kelly and left-winger Frank Mahovlich were what Imlach called “the match made in heaven.” In their first full season together, Mahovlich scored a team-record (at the time) 48 goals, many of them the product of Kelly’s superb playmaking touch.
“I had played against Red and knew how talented he was but thought of him only as a defenceman,” Mahovlich said. “It was a bit of surprise that he was such a good centre, so smooth and creative.”
He would carry the puck up the middle and I learned quickly to come from a little behind the play. If the defenceman concentrated on him, it created room for me to drive down the wing. If he left any room to close off my space, Red would just burst towards the net himself with the puck.”
Kelly excelled in the Leafs’ three consecutive Cup wins from 1962 to ’64, plus the surprise ’67 win by the oldest roster ever to claim the title.
“Punch (Imlach) made several good deals to fill all the holes in our roster,” said Johnny Bower, the goaltending anchor of those winning teams. “But to add a player of Kelly’s stature was a tremendous boost. Red never said much but what he could do for two hundred feet of ice spoke plenty for him.”
Because the majority of games in that six-team era were on weekends, Kelly was able to become a member of Parliament. He could practise with the team in the morning, catch a flight to Ottawa to sit in the House of Commons, then take the late flight back to Toronto.
His Leaf mates were surprised when Kelly announced his plans to seek election.
“In his first few years with the Leafs, Red said hello when he arrived for training camp, goodbye when the season ended and almost nothing in between,” said Bob Haggert, the club’s trainer at the time. “But being a politician loosened him up a little and suddenly he was quite talkative. I can remember one of the guys needling Red by saying to him that he had the vote of everyone in the room so why didn’t he shut up?”
“The two jobs were almost too big a load and sometimes I wondered how I would get through the day,” Kelly said. “But I would remember the long days my father had put in on the farm to feed his family and that kept me going.”
Kelly retired as a player after the ’67 Cup win, finishing his career with 281 goals, 823 points, plus 92 playoff points. He was the first coach of the expansion Los Angeles Kings, a job he held for two seasons, then spent four years as coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins. He became the Leafs coach in ’73, holding the job for four years.
During his Leaf days, Kelly brought “pyramid power” to the NHL. Looking for a distraction for the players during a violent playoff series with the Philadelphia Flyers, Kelly had pyramids in the dressing room and under the bench, claiming they gave extra strength and inspiration to the players. In another playoff, Kelly employed ions in the same way. As a coach, Kelly was especially strong at helping young players in their adjustment to big league play.
“I had a terrible time in my first couple of NHL seasons after I had signed what was viewed as a ‘huge’ contract in ’73 and was called a failure when I didn’t set the league on fire right away,” said winger Lanny McDonald. “But Red never lost faith in me. In fact, he showed me how some of the best players in the league at the time had struggled through their first two seasons with low offensive totals, then made the breakthrough in their third year. I owe him a lot for his help in getting me started.”
Kelly’s career record behind the bench was 278-330-134 in 742 regular-season games.
Replaced — he was never fired officially — by owner Harold Ballard in 1977, he became a director of Camp Systems, a company that maintains private jets. He was so successful as a businessman that in 1991 he said he was paying more in income tax than he ever earned as salary in the NHL.
He was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1969 and was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2002.
Kelly and Andra had two sons, Conn and Patrick, and two daughters, Kitty and Casey. Patrick represented Canada as a speedskater at the 1992 Winter Olympics.
“Red was a devoted husband and caring father and grandfather and was tremendously proud of his many hockey accomplishments,” the Kelly family said in a statement. “He was very moved by decades of love and support from Red Wings fans and was humbled to have his jersey retired earlier this year.
“We are comforted in knowing that he impacted so many people both at and away from the rink and know that his life will be celebrated.”
Kelly’s No. 4 jersey was honoured by the Leafs in 2006. In October 2017, the team added statues of Kelly, Mahovlich, Charlie Conacher and Wendel Clark to Legends Row outside the Air Canada Centre.
“I never dreamed about anything like this in all my life,” a 90-year-old Kelly said at the time. “I dreamed about hockey, the greatest game in the world. I dreamed about Stanley Cups and playing in the NHL.”
In 1997, the Hockey News had Kelly at No. 22 in its top 100 players of all time.
In 2016, the Leafs retired Kelly’s No. 4, along with the numbers of 15 other players that were once honoured with banners hanging in the Air Canada Centre, alongside the two previously retired numbers of Ace Bailey and Bill Barilko.
The honour was shared with Hap Day, who wore No. 4 from 1924 to 1937.
“For those of us who were lucky enough to have known or encountered Red, we will all miss his sharp mind and keen intellect,” said Leafs president Brendan Shanahan. “He was a gentle man but a fierce competitor.”
On Feb. 1, 2019, the Red Wings retired their No. 4 in honour of the 91-year-old Kelly.
“I want to thank the fans who backed us and supported us in those years. Even if we lost, they still supported us,” Kelly told the fans at Little Caesars Arena before the Wings’ game against Toronto.
With files from The Canadian Press
Published at Thu, 02 May 2019 18:44:48 +0000