Red Kelly’s high road to redemption

Red Kelly (Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

If ever an NHL player defied the odds – and succeeded in every way – it was Leonard Patrick ‘Red’ Kelly.

A Maple Leafs scout studied him as a kid graduating from the St. Michael’s College team in Toronto in 1947 and said Kelly wouldn’t last 20 games in the NHL. ‘Red’ wound up playing 1,316 games in the bigs, starting with Detroit and finishing (guess where?) in Toronto.

During his reign in Motown, Kelly skated for no less than four Stanley Cup winners. Nonetheless, after winning three Lady Byngs and a Norris Trophy, Kelly was unceremoniously traded in 1960 to the New York Rangers, along with forward Billy McNeill, for defenseman Bill Gadsby and forward Eddie Shack, because Red Wings boss Jack Adams was angry with Kelly over a contract dispute. Kelly, however, refused to report to the Blueshirts and eventually was dealt to Toronto. His adamant stance proved to be the predecessor of NHL free agency. “When I heard about the trade,” Kelly recalled, “it didn’t take me long to make up my mind about what I was going to do. I decided to retire rather than go to New York. So did McNeill.”

Kelly became a Maple Leaf in exchange for a young, supposedly gifted defenseman named Marc Reaume. Though at first it appeared a supposedly over-the-hill Kelly at 32 years old wouldn’t last more than a year or two, ‘Red’ was good for seven more seasons while Reaume soon exited as a big-league flop.

On Feb. 10, 1960, Kelly made his Toronto debut, against Montreal, but not as a defenseman as he’d starred for a dozen years in Detroit. Instead, coach Punch Imlach put him at center. Though the Leafs lost, Imlach realized his instincts about putting Kelly up front were on target. The trick was finding ideal linemates.

Imlach put underperforming Frank Mahovlich on left wing and unobtrusive Bob Nevin on the right. It was a match made in hockey heaven. In his first full season as Kelly’s portsider, Mahovlich scored 48 goals while a methodical Nevin maintained a backchecking balance with timely goals. Kelly had three straight 20-goal seasons in the early ’60s while turning ‘Big M’ into a red-light machine.
Kelly emerged as one of the NHL’s top centers, spearheading Toronto to four Stanley Cups in six years and nabbing yet another Lady Byng Trophy. Gadsby, for whom Kelly was traded in the first place, played 20 years in the NHL and never skated for a Cup-winner.

By geographical standards, Kelly should have been a Leaf right from the start. His hometown was Simcoe, Ont., and his private high school, St. Mike’s, was just a slapshot away from Maple Leaf Gardens. “When I was ready to turn pro,” Kelly remembered, “and Toronto didn’t want me, Detroit saw it another way and offered me a contract. I was only 17 at the time.”

Even more amazing is Kelly maintained his playing excellence in Toronto while serving a term as a member of Canada’s Parliament from 1962 to 1965. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1969, but it’s difficult to determine whether it was for what he did on the Detroit defense or the Toronto attack.

Stan Fischler is an award-winning writer and broadcaster who’s covered the game since 1954. He’s been a contributor to The Hockey News since 1955 and you can continue to find his Strange But True features in almost every issue. He’s also produced the hockey newsletter, The Fischler Report, for the past 20 years. Fischler’s latest book is Behind the Net: 101 Incredible Hockey Stories.

This feature originally appeared in the Feb. 10 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.