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More Than a Gentleman...

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs

by Mike Ulmer

October 4, 2006

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It was wrong. Red Kelly knew it. Soon everybody else would.

After nearly 13 years as a star with the Detroit Red Wings, Kelly was being traded to the sad sack New York Rangers.

The crime, for the great Wings defenceman was telling a newspaperman about the broken foot he had tried to play through the year before.

When Jack Adams, the despotic Red Wings general manager could not convince Kelly to report to the Rangers the next morning, NHL commissioner Clarence Campbell got on the phone.

"Mr. Campbell told me that Jack Adams wanted to suspend me. He told me I would be out of hockey for life, as a coach, a referee, everything."

This was 1960. There were no agents, no players association. Virtually no one said no, especially to the tyrannical Adams.
 Red Kelly did.

"I  told Mr. Campbell, I've given everything to hockey since I was knee high to a grasshopper. If that's what you are going to do, then you go ahead.

 "It wasn't right."

There will never be a more unlikely revolutionary that Red Kelly, a gentleman farmer from Simcoe, Ontario.

Kelly was the rawest of prospects. The Red Wings drafted him because Boston scouts had selected a mittenful of Kelly's teammates at St. Mike's and Detroit scout Carson Cooper didn't want to look bad in front of his bosses.

Leaf scout Squib Walker, one of many who misread Kelly's resolve, bet Cooper a $20 hat that Kelly wouldn't last 20 games in the NHL. He played 20 years instead.

Kelly was at the centre of the rabble that was the great Detroit teams in the 1940s and early 1950s, a soft-spoken teetotaler who when provoked stood out as one of the league's most devastating fighters.

Kelly once played 55 minutes of a game and was the last defenceman to win the Lady Byng Trophy for gentlemanly play. He was the linchpin of a deadly Detroit power play and in 1954 won the inaugural Norris Trophy.

"He was an expert at the power play probably along with Doug Harvey the first real expert," said Hall of Fame defenceman Harry Howell."

When Leafs coach/GM Punch Imlach learned of Kelly's stand, he began working on bringing him to Toronto. In the end, it only cost him journeyman Marc Rheaume.

"The dumbest thing Jack Adams ever did, and there were a lot of dumb things, was trading Red Kelly," said longtime Wings captain Ted Lindsay.

Kelly lugged four Stanley Cup titles to Toronto. He would lead the Leafs to four more.

"When I arrived in Toronto, Punch and I talked things over. He asked me how I would feel about playing defence. I said fine. If I made a mistake, I'd still have players behind me. He told me the road to the Stanley Cup leads through Montreal and he wanted me to check Jean Beliveau."

"I remember 1967 because we could have had another five Cups in a row," recalled Beliveau. "Punch moved Red up to forward and he had a great playoff. I admired Red for his great talent, but I had the occasion to meet him and he's always been more than a gentleman."

Kelly would play never play defence again.

"He was a very, very strong man and a great skater," said Leafs great Dave Keon.  "He had great skills and he wanted to be a great player."

Kelly eventually extended his winning streak outside the rink where he won election as a Liberal Member of Parliament from 1962 to 1965. Since most of the Leafs games were on weekends, Kelly didn't miss a shift.

He coached the Pittsburgh Penguins for three years in the early 1970s before returning to Toronto to coach the Maple Leafs from 1973-1977.

A gentleman farmer he remains. At 79, Red Kelly remembers every step along the road, including the first one.

"I had always dreamt of playing for the Maple Leafs. I remember, when I was a kid, Red Horner and Charlie Conacher came to the Simcoe fair. There were in a white convertible. I remember I shook Red Horner's hand.

"I didn't wash that hand for a week."

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