Video: Red Kelly won Cup four times each with Wings, Leafs
There are many long-time hockey watchers who contend the passage of time has rendered Red Kelly the most underrated of all NHL superstars. His contemporaries had no such problem.
"If I had to choose the best defensemen in history," Montreal Canadiens general manager Frank Selke told "Sports Illustrated" in 1958, "I would put (Doug) Harvey and Red Kelly on a par among (current) players and pick Eddie Shore and King Clancy from the old days."
As far as teammate Gordie Howe was concerned, when he was interviewed by Rich Kincaide for his book "The Gods of Olympia Stadium," "Red was the best! He was very much a mobile defenseman like Doug Harvey. Red was a better skater. And he was strong."
Games: 1,316 | Goals: 281 | Assists: 542 | Points: 823
And in 1997, when The Hockey News rated the Top 100 Players of All Time, ranking Kelly 22nd, they quoted Hall of Fame center Frank Boucher, who took it one step further, insisting that it was Kelly - not Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay or Terry Sawchuk - who was most responsible for Detroit's dynastic run of seven consecutive first-place finishes and four Stanley Cups championships in six seasons.
"The redhead attacks like a great forward and defends like an even greater defenseman," said Boucher, who played for the New York Rangers and was their general manager during Kelly's prime. "There's nobody like him for taking the pressure off his own team and in a few seconds applying it on the other guys."
All this came before Act II of the Red Kelly Story, in which he was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1960, shifted to center, and became a magnificent two-way performer, igniting the career of his left wing Frank Mahovlich and checking the opposition's star centers. His acquisition was the final puzzle piece for the Leafs' run of four Stanley Cups titles in six seasons, making Kelly the only non-Montreal Canadiens player to skate for eight Stanley Cup championship teams.
In a 20-year career, Kelly scored 281 goals and 823 points in 1,316 games, won the Stanley Cup eight times, the Lady Byng Trophy four times and a Norris Trophy.
Kelly began playing shinny on the ponds and swamps around the family tobacco farm in Simcoe, Ontario, and spent his Saturday evenings listening to Foster Hewitt describe the Maple Leafs games on radio. His father had been a fine amateur player and Kelly dreamed of playing pro hockey for Toronto and winning the Cup. But his older brother's too-large, hand-me-down first pair of skates hampered his development. Later, his skating kept him from making the Junior clubs at St. Michael's in Toronto.
However, young Kelly was a natural athlete and displayed an incredibly high hockey IQ. The St. Mike's coaches reconsidered and Kelly turned his farm-boy work ethic toward bettering his game. His skating improved to the point where veteran hockey writer Frank Orr could reflect on Kelly's NHL career by saying on the TV series "Greatest Hockey Legends," "He was a beautiful skater, just a wonderful, low striding, very fast skater."
At St. Mike's, Kelly came under the tutelage of one of his former Maple Leafs heroes, Joe Primeau, who honed Kelly into a top junior player. After attracting the attention of a Detroit Red Wings scout, Kelly was signed as a prospect. Following St. Mike's 1947 Memorial Cup championship, Kelly advanced directly to Detroit, never spending a day as a minor-leaguer.
Initially the Red Wings fifth defenseman, Kelly moved into the regular rotation around Christmas when Doug McCaig broke his leg. Paired with All-Star and future Hall of Fame defenseman Bill Quackenbush, Kelly acquitted himself so well that when McCaig recovered, Kelly remained in place and McCaig was traded to the Chicago Black Hawks.
"Joe Primeau had trained me very well," Kelly said, "so when I went to the NHL, I had been taught the things I should have been taught and I didn't have to learn them when I went up there."
Among Primeau's lessons was to curb his temper, stay out of the penalty box and help his team on the ice. Kelly took that lesson to heart, and while he played the game hard he also played it cleanly. Like Quackenbush, he began receiving consideration for the Lady Byng Trophy, a difficult feat for a defenseman. Kelly would win the award three times in the early '50s and four times in his career. He was often among the top vote-getters for the Hart Trophy during that period, and when the Norris Trophy was created to honor the NHL's top defenseman in 1953, Kelly was its first winner.
His offensive dimension was unrivaled, the top defenseman in goals and points for five straight seasons starting in 1949-50 and among the top three in the next four seasons. For the seven seasons starting in '49-50, he averaged over 16 goals a year at a time when very few defensemen hit double digits. He was so good with the puck, the Wings would use him at forward on occasion.
Defensively, Kelly proved so exceptional that his coaches took advantage of his superb conditioning by giving him all the ice time he could handle. He recalled in "Legends of Hockey" that coach Tommy Ivan "used me as much as 55 minutes in a game in Detroit. The guys used to always say, 'Red, you should say no. You're going to wear out. You'll never last.' But I was always in great shape; I guess that helped keep me in great shape, and whenever you want me to go, I went."
"One of Kelly's assets was the use of his skates to move the puck," teammate Johnny Wilson told hockey writer Stan Fischler. "He was one of the few players to be able to use his feet as well as his hands. This technique was particularly effective along the boards. While most guys were trying hard to get their stick on the ice to get the puck, Red wouldn't even worry about that. He would just drag his foot and kick the puck up to his stick and get it out of the zone."
Yet, individual honors hardly mattered to him compared to team honors and, with Kelly now recognized as a top defenseman, the Red Wings embarked on their historic dynasty, their first of eight Prince of Wales Trophies captured in 1949, their first of four Stanley Cups victories in 1950.
For Kelly, winning the Cup became "the goal every year. If you don't win the Stanley Cup, what have you won? And you can't be successful if you haven't reached your goal. You can win scoring championships, you can win anything, but it's a team game; it's to win the Stanley Cup."
He was so team-oriented that when Wings management asked him to play shortly after he broke an ankle in the latter stages of the 1958-59 season, Kelly had it taped and returned to the lineup, missing only a handful of games. His play, naturally, was below his usual excellence and Detroit missed the playoffs for the first time in 21 seasons. Since news of the injury's severity had been kept secret, rumors swirled that Kelly was washed up. After he healed and rebounded the following autumn, he divulged the injury to a reporter. General manager Jack Adams was furious and traded Kelly to the New York Rangers.
But Kelly refused to go, insisting he'd had enough and he decided to retire. The trade was nullified and Kelly quickly got a job with a Detroit tool company. A few days later, Maple Leafs coach/GM Punch Imlach came calling to talk him out of retirement. Imlach engineered a deal with Adams for Kelly's rights and, suddenly, at 32 years old, Kelly was living his childhood dream of skating for the Maple Leafs.
With the idea of checking Canadiens center Jean Beliveau in mind, Imlach made Kelly a fulltime center and teamed him with Mahovlich and Bob Nevin, a trio that became one of the game's most dangerous lines thanks to the chemistry between Kelly and Mahovlich, who scored 48 goals in 1960-61.
"He had the ability to bring a player toward him," Mahovlich recalled with a chuckle. "And as soon as that player made that move he would leave the puck where that player had left his position and I'd come and sweep in."
At season's end, Kelly was honored with his fourth Lady Byng trophy. But the three consecutive Stanley Cup seasons that followed in Toronto meant far more to him. Imlach's vision that Kelly's all-around talents would complete the core of a championship squad proved accurate.
His Leafs teammates were as impressed with Kelly as the Red Wings had been.
"I can't remember Red Kelly getting knocked on his rear end from a body check or whatever," said center Orland Kurtenbach, who played with Kelly during the 1965-66 season. "He was so strong, even if you knocked him off the puck and kept going, he got one hand, one stick on you and pulled you back in. He was a delight to watch, maybe not so much to play against at various times when you got behind by one or two goals."
During this time, Kelly was elected as a Member of Parliament and he'd shuttle between Toronto and Ottawa often during the season, his dedication to both jobs unwavering.
Toronto remained a strong club despite the advanced ages of most of its core players. The only concession Kelly made to Father Time was covering up his red head with a white helmet, becoming a pioneer when nearly the entire NHL played without one. After the '67 Cup, the 39-year-old Kelly decided to go out on top, although the Leafs offered him a four-year contract.
He would coach in the NHL for 10 seasons, going 278-330-134 with three the Los Angeles Kings, Pittsburgh Penguins and Maple Leafs, and continued to operate the family farm in Simcoe, as well as other businesses. But his impact on the NHL - overlooked by many as time passed - was evident when the Hockey Hall of Fame waived its mandatory five-year waiting period and inducted Kelly two years after he retired.
"His dossier cannot be disputed," Fischler, the hockey historian, wrote 15 years later. "He was the balance wheel of champions as a defenseman in Detroit, and as a center, the most decisive factor in creating a dynasty in Toronto more than a decade later."
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