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Centennial Classic

NHL greats enjoy perfect day in Toronto

Share stories, email addresses while watching Centennial Classic

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

TORONTO -- Red Kelly's left hand sagged beneath an enormous diamond-encrusted ring, a Detroit Red Wings rock that seemed to be the size of a puck. But no matter that you almost needed sunglasses to study this celebration of the four Stanley Cup championships he won in the Motor City, Kelly's luster eclipsed the sparkle on his finger.

"And this one," he said Sunday, lifting his right pinkie, "is for the four I won with Toronto."

A few seats away, legendary goaltender Glenn Hall was swapping tales with Jerry Sawchuk, son of the late Hall of Fame friend and teammate Terry Sawchuk. Nearby, Hall's son, Pat, was chatting with Michel Plante, son of the late goaltending pioneer Jacques Plante.

The NHL's Centennial Celebration began in earnest Sunday afternoon under perfect, crystal-clear skies, 33 of the League's greatest players through its first half-century introduced before the 2017 Scotiabank NHL Centennial Classic.

A scene just as special was unfolding in Exhibition Stadium's expansive Loge Suite four stories above the ice. Family and relatives of these legends, most of them wearing nameplated jerseys, were crowded around, taking photos of the scoreboard and the ice when the icon in their daily lives was announced.

Others among them had been on the stadium floor taking a bow for their uncle, father or grandfather. And now all were upstairs, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Red Wings getting started on what ultimately would be a thrilling 5-4 overtime win for the home team.

As the first period pressed on, Maurice Jr. and Huguette Richard, a son and daughter of the late Montreal Canadiens sniper Rocket Richard, were shoulder to shoulder with Denis and Gilles Richard, sons of the Rocket's younger brother, Henri.

There was ageless goalie Johnny Bower, and the superb forwards Johnny Bucyk, Dave Keon and Kelly, all unfazed by the small fry buzzing by their shins.

In another time, you'd not have seen the jerseys of Eddie Shore, the hardrock Boston Bruins defenseman, in friendly quarters with that of Charlie Conacher, the Toronto superstar whose unfriendly path crossed often with Shore's.

Nor would you have seen the sweater of Elmer Lach peacefully at arm's length of Milt Schmidt's, the Canadiens and Bruins forwards using their 1940s lumber more for surgery than stickhandling.

But here were sons and daughters and grandchildren of these NHL legends forming friendships, exchanging email addresses, promising to trade photos and stay in touch.

"I did a little reading in advance and it's spectacular, 100 years," Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said postgame. "Red Kelly won four Cups as a D-man and four Cups as a centerman with two different organizations. He was a member of [Canada's] Parliament, too, or something like that. Stuff like that is spectacular."

Babcock has long embraced and been a fan of the history of hockey, introducing it in various forms to his dressing rooms, first in Detroit and now Toronto.

"The other night we were playing in Florida and Bobby Orr was there," he said, the Bruins legend having been Babcock's favorite player in his youth. "We always talk about the history of the game and I think it's special when you're in a game that has the great history that ours does. You embrace it a little bit and, obviously, having these guys around is special."

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Centennial ambassador Wayne Gretzky, statistically the greatest player hockey has ever seen, met the media for a breezy early-afternoon session Sunday. And then into the room trooped Bower, Bucyk, Keon, Hall and Kelly for a short question-and-answer period.

Bower, 92, skirted a question for a perfectly valid reason.

"I'm a little hard of hearing from all these pucks I stopped and kept a lot of these guys in the League, but I just want to say, you have to speak up a little bit, OK?" Bower said. "I can't speak too well, I just had my front [teeth] bashed down and back and I'm forgetting what I'm saying, so I just want to say I'm very happy and pleased to be here at this special event, and [for] the voting."

At the end of the row, Hall had a few thoughts about modern goaltending equipment.

"Certainly we knew nothing about good equipment but, yeah, today's goalkeepers, they're absolutely great. I'll tell you, the goalkeeper gets educated by the forwards. And you learn in practice a little bit. … I learned until I was 25 years old, and then after 25, practice became a problem rather than a solution."

Not long after his stadium introduction, Hall wandered into the suite, a beer soon in his hand. He was wearing a spiffy new winter jacket, crested with the NHL's Centennial logo.

"Can I keep it, or will they ask for it back?" he asked, and with this mischievous gentleman, you never know whether your leg is being pulled.

If the NHL wants its jacket returned, it should know that the Hockey Hall of Fame years ago wanted Hall to return his induction ring, to replace it with another.

The tasteful original is still on the ring finger of Mr. Goalie's right hand, surely a few pounds lighter than the Red Wings monster that's forced Red Kelly to take up weightlifting.

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