‘We all looked up to him’: mourners reflect on Red Kelly at funeral

Scott Morrison takes a look back at the life of Red Kelly.

TORONTO — Red Kelly only ever got two phone calls from the NHL.

The first came from league president Clarence Campbell in 1960 when he refused to report to New York after the Detroit Red Wings traded him to the Rangers.

The second — more than half a century later — was from Gary Bettman to inform the eight-time Stanley Cup champion he’d been named one of the NHL’s top 100 players.

"This call’s much better," Kelly told the commissioner.

Kelly, who died last week at age 91, was remembered at his funeral on Friday as a gentleman, hockey icon and pillar in the community.

He suited up for 20 NHL seasons from 1947 to 1967, won four Cups each with Detroit and the Toronto Maple Leafs, switched from defence to centre mid-career, and was twice elected to Parliament while still playing.

"It was the ability to be the person he was that was so important," said former Toronto teammate Bob Baun. "Red never did change, always such a great guy, very thoughtful and caring.

"He was as honest as the day is long."

The flying redhead — born Leonard Patrick Kelly — spent nearly 13 seasons with Detroit as a defenceman before a trade to the Leafs gave birth to his second act as a centre.

"One of the all-timers," said Eddie Shack, another of Kelly’s Toronto teammates. "One of the greatest."

Shack and Baun were joined by fellow Leafs alumni Frank Mahovlich, Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Dick Duff, Ron Ellis, Dave Keon and Jim Gregory as honorary pallbearers.

"He was a hero to us all," said McDonald, who played for Kelly when he coached Toronto in the 1970s. "We all looked up to him … how he lived his life.

"He showed us the way."

As a youngster trying to cut his teeth in the league, McDonald recalled getting regular invites to the coach’s house for dinner, something that would raise eyebrows then and now.

"I didn’t know as a player you weren’t supposed to do that," McDonald said with a chuckle. "I wasn’t trying to get on the power play. That’s just the way they were. They made me feel so comfortable.

"Red never swore. It was, ‘Wholly smollerinos … son of a sea cookin’ bottle washer.’ That’s the kind of gentleman he was, through in through."

Bettman, Leafs president Brendan Shanahan and general manager Kyle Dubas, Detroit GM Steve Yzerman, Red Wings president Christopher Ilitch and former Toronto captain Wendel Clark were also in attendance Friday at Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church to pay their respects.

"As much as he loved the game and he gave great service to the game and to this country … family was always first," Bettman said. "That’s something I always respected about him. Great, great man."

"He was just a real soft-spoken gentleman," Shanahan added. "Very intelligent, but a very sweet guy."

The mobile defenceman from Simcoe, Ont., won the Stanley Cup with the Red Wings in 1950, 1952, 1954 and 1955, and took home the Lady Byng Trophy in 1951, 1953 and 1954 as the league’s most gentlemanly player.

In 1954, Kelly was named the first winner of the James Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenceman.

Things would eventually sour in Detroit and he was traded to New York, but rather than accept the deal, the eight-time all-star retired.

The Leafs convinced him to change his mind, and he was instead shipped to Toronto, where Kelly would lift the Cup as a centre in 1962 — the franchise’s first title since 1951 –1963, 1964 and 1967, the team’s last championship.

As if he wasn’t doing enough on the ice, Kelly doubled as a Liberal member of Parliament from 1962 to 1965, commuting to Ottawa between practices and games.

"He won four Stanley Cups playing defence and four Stanley Cups as a centreman," said Sittler, who also played for Kelly in the 1970s. "That’s amazing in of itself. But to leave hockey and give back to the community, make it a better place, that’s what we know Red to be."

Kelly retired following the 1966-1967 season, finishing with 281 goals and 542 assists in 1,316 regular-season games, to go along with 33 goals and 59 assists in 164 playoff outings.

His eight Cup victories are the most by anyone that didn’t play for the Montreal Canadiens.

Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1969, Kelly went onto coach three teams over 10 seasons — including the Leafs — finishing with a combined record of 278-330-134.

He made headlines in 1976 by unveiling "Pyramid Power" — placing pyramids under the team’s bench after wife Andra had read of their supposed power — during a playoff series with the Philadelphia Flyers, which Toronto still lost in seven games.

"If you ever wanted to have an idol to model yourself after, you couldn’t go wrong with Red," said Gregory, GM of the Leafs when Kelly was coach. "The only thing I can say that was bad was the way (former owner Harold) Ballard treated him.

"Harold fired both of us, but hasn’t told us yet."

Kelly’s No. 4 is retired in Toronto and Detroit, and his statue is part of Legends Row outside Scotiabank Arena, where memorabilia and a book of condolence were on display Friday.

Kelly — who died on the 52nd anniversary of the Leafs’ last Cup win — is survived by Andra, his wife of 60 years, their four children and eight grandchildren.

"It’s incredible, the quality of life that he led," Shanahan said. "Just a fantastic example for all of us."


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