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The Redhead Never Looked Back

When “Red” Kelly finished his Junior A hockey career with the Memorial Cup winning St. Michael’s Majors--an amateur team sponsored by the Toronto Maple Leafs--in the spring of 1947, he wasn’t supposed to be talented enough to make the NHL: according to Leafs scout Squib Walker, who was convinced Kelly wouldn’t make it past 20 games in the NHL. Detroit Red Wings super scout Carson Cooper thought otherwise and signed the defenseman.

Red Kelly
'52-53 Parkhurst gum card of Red Kelly (Cdn Public Domain)

As it turned out, the strong, six-foot, 195-pound Kelly didn’t play a single game in the minors. At 20, he jumped right to the Red Wings in the fall of 1947 and stayed in the NHL until he retired in 1967. Six times a First Team All-Star on defense, including five in a row, and twice on the Second All-Star Team, he was the first recipient of the then-new James Norris Trophy in 1953-54 as the NHL’s best defenseman. In his 20 seasons played, his teams missed the playoffs only once and he was on eight Stanley Cup winners. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1969; and in 1998 was ranked 22 on The Hockey News list of 100 greatest hockey players.

Leonard “Red” Kelly was born July 9, 1927 in Simcoe, Ontario. A typical Canadian boy, he learned to skate and stickhandle at an early age on frozen ponds near the family farm. At St. Mike’s College in Toronto, Kelly had the good fortune to be coached by ex-Leaf Joe Primeau, who had centered the Kid Line with teammates Charlie Conacher and Busher Jackson a decade before. All three are Hall of Famers.

Primeau taught Kelly--a left winger for the first two seasons--and his teammates to get the puck out of their zone quickly. Kelly did so well at clearing that he was put on defense in his last year.  Primeau also emphasized that you win games on the ice, not in the penalty box--words that Kelly never forgot in his pro years. Four times he was awarded the NHL’s Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship combined with talent.

In his first year with Detroit, Kelly was the fifth defenseman on an exceptional Red Wing team. By Christmas, he got his big chance when Doug McCaig broke his leg. As a regular, Kelly played alongside Leo Reise, a stay-at-home defenseman, which allowed Kelly to cut loose with his puck-carrying skills into the offensive zone. Kelly would also sub at center or left wing when injuries hit the team. On the power play, it was up to him to trigger the offense. While killing penalties, he often played up front as a checker.

During the 1949-50 season, right winger Gordie Howe sustained a serious head injury that forced him from the playoffs. As a result, GM Jack Adams juggled the lineup. He brought Marcel Pronovost up from the minors, where he was put on defense, thus slipping the versatile Kelly into a left wing spot. Despite Howe gone, the Wings still won the Stanley Cup that spring. By Kelly’s third year with Detroit, coach Tommy Ivan told the Toronto Star that Kelly was “The greatest all-around player in the league today.”

Kelly’s talents were not ignored by the opposition either. By the mid-1950’s, Leaf owner Conn Smythe said that “Kelly is the most valuable player in the NHL today.” New York Ranger coach Bill Cook added, “I’ve never seen anyone equal to him when it comes to bringing the puck out of his own end.” When Boston Bruins coach Lynn Patrick was asked which player he’d want on his team, Rocket Richard or Gordie Howe, Patrick said that he’d take Kelly instead. “Red is not only great on defense, he can score, too.” Montreal Canadiens GM Frank Selke paid Kelly the ultimate compliment: “Red is the best hockey player I have ever seen.”

The Red Wings finished first in the standings seven straight times from 1949-1955 and won four Stanley Cups with Kelly playing a major role in the team’s success as one of the first offensive defensemen in the post-war game: His goal totals were 15, 17, 16, 19, 16, and 15 respectively, and he had at least 30 assists every season except one.

By 1958-59, the Red Wing dynasty was ending due to several disastrous trades made in the front office by Jack Adams. The defense in disarray, the 32-year-old Kelly broke his ankle near the end of the season and was asked by Adams and coach Sid Abel to keep playing, despite the injury. Kelly obeyed, but he could barely turn on his skates. The Wings finished dead last, the first time out of the playoffs in 21 years. The injury was kept silent until Kelly, himself, leaked it in passing the following season to Trent Frayne, who had been working on a hockey piece about Kelly for the Star Weekly.

Kelly, by that time, was healthy and his play had improved dramatically. Marshall Dann, a Detroit Free Press reporter, picked up the Star Weekly story at the end of January 1960 and expanded on it under the headline, “Was Red Kelly forced to play on a broken foot?”

The news got back to Jack Adams, who called Kelly into his office on February 4 after a home game for a meeting with him and owner Bruce Norris. There, Adams informed Kelly that he was traded to New York along with forward Billy McNeill for Bill Gadsby and Eddie Shack, and told to be at the Leland Hotel at 8 AM to take a bus to New York. Kelly stood his ground, and said he’d think about it.

“What do you mean, you’ll think about it? Be there!” Adams roared in the player’s face.

Kelly repeated, “No, I’ll think about it.”

Kelly then went to his Detroit home to talk the situation over with his wife, Andra. By morning, he decided he was going to retire. McNeill, whose wife had died only weeks before, also refused to report. The furious Adams threatened to suspend Kelly, until the Maple Leafs made an offer to take Kelly off Detroit’s hands. Adams wanted a young defenseman named Marc Reaume in return. The deal was made before a stunned hockey world on February 10 and turned out to be one of the most lopsided transactions ever in NHL history.

Red Kelly
'63-64 Parkhurst gum card of Red Kelly (Canadian Public Domain)

Leafs coach Punch Imlach immediately made Kelly a full-time center. The following year, 1960-61, Kelly anchored a line with sharpshooter Frank Mahovlich, turning the youngster into a scoring machine. Kelly finished with 20 goals and 50 assists, helping the Big M collect 48 goals. Many people felt that if Kelly had not been injured for the last six games, Mahovlich would no doubt have reached the coveted 50.

By the time he retired in 1967, Kelly played on four more Stanley Cups winners as a Leaf. By adding in the four he had seen with Detroit, he holds the record for most Stanley Cup wins for a player not a Montreal Canadien. Meanwhile, Reaume played only 77 more games in the NHL, with the majority of his professional seasons in the minors until his retirement after 1970-71.

Kelly also found time to serve three years from 1963-1965 as a Liberal MP for Toronto’s West York riding in the federal parliament at the same time as the great flag debate. Lifetime, Kelly scored 281 goals and 542 assists in 1,316 games. In 164 playoff games, he scored 33 times and assisted on 59 others.  Kelly was known to never swear and was one of the least penalized players in his day--only 327 minutes in the regular season and 51 minutes in the playoffs.

Kelly went on to coach 10 seasons with three teams in the early years of expansion: The Los Angeles Kings, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Toronto Maple Leafs before leaving the game for good and going into business. One of his greatest accomplishments coaching was his development of a young, frustrated left winger named Lanny McDonald--Toronto’s first pick in the 1973 draft and fourth overall--who had trouble scoring and was often booed by the impatient hometown Leaf fans. Under Kelly’s tutelage, McDonald found his scoring touch and was placed on a line with center Darryl Sittler and right winger Errol Thompson. These three fit like a glove, terrorizing opposition goalies throughout the late-1970’s.

I’ve been in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena for some hockey games over the years, and when I look up and see retired uniforms belonging to such greats as Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Terry Sawchuk, and Steve Yzerman, I just shake my head. Where’s Kelly’s jersey? Some people seem to think that it may have been because he refused to report to New York in 1960. Really? What about Ted Lindsay? He bucked the Red Wing ownership as well as the NHL establishment when he organized his Players’ Association in 1957. His Number 7 is raised high over the ice.

Why not Kelly’s Number Four?


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