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Mahovlich, Kelly share strong bond from Maple Leafs' Cup wins

Reminisce while being honored at unveiling of Legends Row statues

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

TORONTO -- Their smiles lit up the dressing room 57 years ago, Frank Mahovlich and Red Kelly beaming after an almost endless night of Stanley Cup Playoff hockey.

It was March 27, 1960, at the Detroit Olympia, and the Toronto Maple Leafs had just defeated the Detroit Red Wings 5-4 in triple overtime of Game 3 of the NHL Semifinals. Mahovlich had scored the winner at 3:00 of the third overtime, giving the Maple Leafs a 2-1 lead in a series they won in six games.

"Unbelievable," Mahovlich said Thursday, Kelly on his right shoulder in front of Legends Row statues of the two great friends that had just been unveiled. "Game 3, the third month, third overtime period, the goal at three minutes exactly."

The assist, naturally, went to Kelly; the defenseman's shot from the blue line was deflected by Mahovlich past Red Wings goalie Terry Sawchuk. It was Kelly's third point of the night -- he had scored two goals in the second period after Toronto trailed 2-0 in the first -- and it ended a puck-scarred night for Sawchuk and Toronto's brilliant Johnny Bower at the other end, the Red Wings having outshot the visitors 62-47.

Now, surrounded by well-wishers at his new statue, Mahovlich was looking at a joyful 1960 dressing-room photo that was being shown to him, his arm around Kelly's shoulder in the image. What better time than now to re-enact it? So the graceful forward known as The Big M pulled Kelly in close, and the two Hall of Famers happily struck a similar pose about six decades later.

Their bond is one of former Stanley Cup champion teammates who became much more than that. They are blood-brothers, in a way, puck-handling as a pair through conversations as easily as they moved the puck up a sheet of ice.

Kelly, 90, is 11 years older than Mahovlich, 79, almost a lifetime in hockey. They were inducted into the Hall of Fame 12 years apart -- Kelly in 1969, Mahovlich in 1981. But this span has only tightened their friendship, their black-and-white Maple Leafs memories now tinted with a rich sepia tone.

Mahovlich was 9 years old when Kelly broke into the NHL with the Red Wings in 1947-48 after never having played in the minor leagues.

Kelly played 13 seasons for the Red Wings, winning four Stanley Cup titles (1950, 1952, 1954, 1955) and the Norris Trophy in 1953-54 as the NHL's best defenseman. He soldiered through many tough nights with injuries, but that doesn't tell the whole story.

During a practice in January 1959, with the Red Wings mired in a slump, Kelly's left ankle was fractured by a shot. His leg was placed in a cast that stretched ankle to knee, and he was kept out of view of the press, who was told by Detroit general manager Jack Adams that he had a bruised foot.

Within days, loyal to his team, Kelly had the cast removed and his ankle and leg (up to his knee) were heavily taped for action. The Red Wings won their next two games, Kelly hailed as the reason for the turnaround.

He would play the rest of the season on a broken ankle, his mobility limited and the Red Wings never disclosing the injury. Detroit, which at one point would fine Kelly $100 for "indifferent play," missed the playoffs for the first time in 21 seasons, and management pointed the finger of blame at a defenseman who was by now reported to have clearly lost a step.

Word of the fracture came out the following season, however, when a healed, more productive Kelly filled in a reporter during a hotel-room talk. Adams was furious when the story broke and became huge news, and after denying that Kelly had sustained anything worse than a bruise, he angrily traded him to the New York Rangers on Feb. 5, 1960.

Having missed 24 games in 12 1/2 seasons and now six months married, Kelly chose to quit the game and work at a tool company rather than report to New York. The four-player trade collapsed.

But the Maple Leafs knew there were miles left in Kelly's legs and too much hockey intelligence to waste. He was lured out of retirement by fellow Irishman King Clancy, an assistant to Toronto GM and coach Punch Imlach, and he found new life with the Maple Leafs, who acquired him in a trade with the Red Wings on Feb. 10, 1960.

In Toronto, he clicked immediately with Mahovlich, and together they won the Stanley Cup in 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1967.

"When Red first came to Toronto, he told me, 'Look, I'm going to get that puck and I'll be going up the ice with it. The first move the fellow makes to come to check me, you go where he leaves,'" Mahovlich said at the Legends Row unveiling. "And boy, that's where the puck was. I had full flight all the way in toward that net. That was easy work, believe me. We just clicked. It was a great experience, winning four Stanley Cups with Red and all the great players we had."

Incredibly, Kelly would be converted from defense to center, the Maple Leafs needing a strong checker to go up against Jean Beliveau of the archrival Canadiens. But before he thrived up front, his passing eye always found Mahovlich.

"I knew where Frank was going, where he'd be, and I knew what to do to help him get there," Kelly said. "And then I knew to catch up so that if he got stopped, he'd have a place to throw the puck.

"If the puck came to me and the opponent was charging me, I'd just touch it, move it, because I knew he was coming. Punch said to me, 'I never saw any player to didn't hold onto the puck for a while.' But if I held onto it, the opponent would have nailed me and stopped the whole play. When I saw Frank go around the net and I saw these guys coming in to check him, I'd get in their way so they'd have to take another stride, which was all Frank needed and he was gone."

The two men enjoyed productive careers in politics. Kelly served as an elected member of Canada's Parliament from 1962-65, finding time to play for the Maple Leafs; in 1998, Mahovlich became the first former NHL player to be appointed to the Canadian Senate, which he served influentially for more than 14 years.

On Thursday, their paths intersecting once more, Mahovlich and Kelly embraced at the feet of their Legends Row statues and spun their yarns of yesterday.

Mahovlich especially loved the fact that his right arm, as cast by sculptor Erik Blome, is touching the back of Kelly, the two standing together in bronze.

Video: OTT@TOR: Leafs induct four players into Legends Row

"My stick blade maybe should be turned a little more this way than that," Kelly joked of a tiny detail, no hockey player ever completely happy with himself.

"And how come you look taller than me?" Mahovlich said to Kelly with a laugh.

That's no matter, of course. In Maple Leafs lore, bonded in friendship and now in bronze, these two are larger than life.

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