Stepping inside Red Kelly’s north Toronto home, it was impossible not to notice the awards lining the mahogany walls and adorning the mantels of seemingly every room — it was like a museum dedicated to one of hockey’s most celebrated figures.
There were the silver plates and serving trays from his eight Stanley Cups (they didn’t give out rings in Kelly’s day) and the plaques honouring his Norris Trophy, four Lady Byng Trophies and 1969 Hall of Fame induction. In the corner of his office, behind a desk that looked out onto his sprawling backyard, was a plaque issued by the Encyclopedia Brittanica that reads “Achievement in Life.”
Hanging above an overstuffed couch with a Maple Leafs throw pillow on it was a giant frame with “Red Kelly Day Proclamation in Canada, April 4, 1989” in it. Beside it hung a signed letter from the Queen dating back to the years he spent representing his Toronto riding of York-West in Parliament while still a Leaf — mementos from a lifetime in hockey in a time when it mattered most.
Kelly passed away Wednesday at the age of 91, but he’ll be celebrated in Toronto and Detroit for years to come.
A true-blue Leafs fan growing up near Port Dover, Ont., Kelly always treasured meeting his heroes, Charlie Conacher and Red Horner, at the Simcoe County fair.
“I came home and told my family, ‘You’ll never guess who shook this hand…” he recalled, leaning forward in his chair the day I met him. “I didn’t wash it for a week.”
As a teenager, he moved to Toronto to play for St. Mike’s, then in its heyday as a pro hockey factory, where he began to show the skills that would set him apart in the NHL: excellent passing ability, great vision and a unique ability to manoeuvre the puck with his skates. At 19, the Detroit Red Wings had seen enough to sign him.
“If I could have picked any team to play on I would have chosen Toronto,” he said, “but I was tickled pink that anybody would want me.”
Over more than 12 seasons — and four Stanley Cups — in Detroit, Kelly established himself as one of the NHL’s most skilled and versatile players. But his lifelong dream of playing for the Blue and White almost didn’t happen. After a dispute with Red Wings GM Jack Adams over a proposed trade to the Rangers, Kelly abruptly retired late in the 1959–60 season.
He had been away from hockey all of one week before his wife, Andra, got a phone call from Conn Smythe asking if Red would consider becoming a Maple Leaf. Kelly flew to Toronto and met with the Leafs GM and coach Punch Imlach, who told him, “If we’re going to win the Stanley Cup we’re going to have to go through Montreal, and I need someone to check Jean Beliveau. I’m thinking about starting you at centre against him. Whaddya think?”
Kelly signed his contract at midnight and suited up against Beliveau and the Canadiens that night.
“Walking up to Maple Leaf Gardens that night I have never — even in a Stanley Cup playoff — felt what I felt,” Mrs. Kelly recalled, pouring her husband a cup of tea. “You could really see how excited Red was to come home.”
Kelly took the ice for the opening face-off to a standing room–only crowd chanting his name.
“There was such a roar,” he said, “that the hair on the back of my neck stood straight up, like a violin string pulled as tight as you can get it. My life was back in hockey.”
He remembered that first shift vividly — how he won the face-off, fired the puck to the left of Jacques Plante and rocketed towards the Habs’ goalie.
“I would’ve gone right through him, but he just dropped to the ice to cover the puck and I went ass over tea kettle over top of him and landed on my head.”
It got better from there. In Kelly’s eight seasons in Toronto, the Maple Leafs reached eight semis and claimed four Cups.
“We had a great thing going here,” Kelly said, looking at the two massive rings he had recently received, each representing four championships.
A huge grin emerged on his 85-year-old face.
“That’s eight Stanley Cups that Montreal didn’t win.”
Spoken like a true Leaf.