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Kelly remembered as mentor idolized by greats of game

Hall of Famer who died Thursday played big role in development of McDonald, Sittler with Maple Leafs

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / Staff Writer

It was last June, at an event to celebrate the Hockey Hall of Fame's 75th anniversary and the 25 years at its current Toronto location, that the full impact of Red Kelly's career and life was on display.

Kelly, along with fellow Hall of Famer Ted Lindsay, each sat at a table with admirers lined up to greet them.

"It was amazing," Hall of Fame chairman Lanny McDonald said in a phone interview Thursday. "Red and Ted were at two tables next to each other at dinner and there were lineups of guys wanting to talk to them. They were like rock stars."

Those waiting to meet and greet Kelly and Lindsay weren't fans or groupies. They were fellow Hall of Famers like Bobby Clarke and Serge Savard. And they all were in awe of the two men sitting in front of them.

"It was an incredible scene," McDonald said. "I mean, what better endorsement can you have? All the men in that room were some of the best that had ever played the game. And they acted like kids getting to meet their hockey heroes for the first time.

Video: Remembering Red Kelly

"It was amazing. As we all mourn Red's passing, that's a moment I will never forget."

Kelly, who played on eight Stanley Cup-winning teams during a 20-season NHL career, died Thursday at the age of 91. His death came on the 52nd anniversary of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Kelly winning their last Stanley Cup.

Kelly was a member of four Cup-winning teams as a defenseman with the Detroit Red Wings from 1947-60 and four more as a center with the Maple Leafs from 1960-67. His eight championships are more than any player in NHL history who did not play for the Montreal Canadiens.

McDonald first crossed paths with Kelly in 1973. McDonald was a rookie forward with the Maple Leafs, the team Kelly was coaching.

They would forge a friendship that would last decades.

"It's rare for a coach to do this with a player, but Red would invite me to his house for dinner," McDonald said. "He wanted to make sure this prairie kid from Hanna, Alberta was getting acclimatized to life in the big city.

"His family still jokes that they all laughed that I would put ketchup on mashed potatoes. They couldn't believe I would do that."

Video: Hall of Famer Red Kelly passes away at age 91

Kelly's wife, Andra, and McDonald's wife, Ardell, each of whom had backgrounds in competitive figure skating, soon became close friends and began teaching figure skating to the blind. When the McDonald's first daughter was born, Lanny and Ardell named the baby Andra in honor of Kelly's spouse.

"We couldn't think of a more inspirational person we wanted to name her after," McDonald said. "That's how much she meant to us."

McDonald and center Darryl Sittler were the stars of the Kelly-coached Maple Leafs of the mid-1970s. To this day, Sittler still chuckles about one of Kelly's famous coaching props: Pyramid Power.

The Maple Leafs entered the second round of the 1976 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Philadelphia Flyers having not won a game at the Spectrum since Dec. 19, 1971. The Flyers had their own good luck charm in Kate Smith, who would sing "God Bless America" before games.

"Heading into that series, I guess Red thought we needed our own good luck charm after losing the first two games," Sittler recalled in a phone interview Thursday. "One of Red's daughters suffered from headaches, and his wife, Andra, had read somewhere about the power of pyramids. So they put a small one under her pillow and the headaches went away."

Kelly thought: If it worked at home, why couldn't it work at the rink?

"I have to admit, we snickered a bit about it," Sittler said. "But it took the attention away from a lot of other stuff, so it did work a bit in that way."

After the Flyers won the first two games. Kelly put five plastic pyramids under the Maple Leafs bench when the series moved to Toronto, where they won Games 3 and 4.

After Philadelphia won Game 5 at the Spectrum, Kelly hung a large pyramid from the ceiling in the Maple Leafs home dressing room for Game 6. Sittler stood under it, then scored five goals and had an assist in a decisive 8-5 Toronto victory. His five-goal performance equaled an NHL playoff record set by Maurice Richard in 1944 and Newsy Lalonde in 1919.

"Yeah, but we lost Game 7," Sittler said. "It was fun while it lasted though."

All these years later Sittler and Kelly lived in the same neighborhood in north Toronto. Sittler remembers seeing Kelly at the bank a couple of months ago.

"You could see he was ailing," Sittler said. "But you could tell he was happy the Red Wings were going to retire his No. 4 (Feb. 1). He wasn't sure he'd be able to attend. It was so special that he ended up being able to be there in Detroit for that.

"He was a special man. Rest in peace Red."

Video: Red Kelly won Cup four times each with Wings, Leafs

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