Soon after arriving in Toronto to play for the Maple Leafs in the winter of 1960, Leonard (Red) Kelly had a chance encounter with Keith Davey, then the federal Liberal Party’s national campaign director. Mr. Kelly was in the midst of reinventing himself as a hockey player. In Detroit, where he won four Stanley Cups with the Red Wings, he played defence. In Toronto, they needed him at centre.
But politically, Mr. Kelly always leaned a little left so when Mr. Davey proposed that he run for federal office – in the heart of his 20-year NHL playing career – he said yes, with a little urging from the leader of the then leader opposition, his friend, Lester Pearson.
Mr. Kelly eventually won the riding of York West and served two terms in the House Of Commons – defeating a young rising Conservative politician named Alan Eagleson the second time around – and was a key voice in the 1965 debate over Canada’s new national flag.
But Mr. Kelly, who died Thursday morning in Toronto at the age of 91, was far better known for his hockey exploits than his life in politics.
He became a fixture on the Leaf teams of the 1960s – and won an additional four Stanley Cups in Toronto. Mr. Kelly remains the only player to win eight career Stanley Cup championships, without playing for the Montreal Canadiens.
In all, he spent two decades as a player in the NHL and another 10 years as a coach. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1969, and his only regret there was his wife, the former figure skating champion Andra (née McLaughlin), couldn’t attend. In those days, the event was a for-men-only dinner.
Mr. Kelly was invested as a member of the Order of Canada in 2002 and in January, 2017, was named by the NHL as one of the top 100 players in its history.
At the height of his popularity with the Maple Leafs, Mr. Kelly estimated he signed up to 400 autographs a week, from requests that came in the mail. In his 2016 biography, The Red Kelly Story, he shrugged it off as part of his responsibility as a professional athlete. “Why not sign – Kelly’s a short name,” he explained. “I sympathize with [Frank] Mahovlich though.”
Mr. Kelly and Mr. Mahovlich played a lot of hockey together for the Leafs after he was traded to Toronto from Detroit in the middle of the 1959-60 season. Originally, the Red Wings tried to trade him to the New York Rangers, but Mr. Kelly refused to go and briefly retired. Leafs coach Punch Imlach coaxed him back, promising to deploy him at centre, so he could play head-to-head against Montreal Canadiens star Jean Béliveau.
At the time of his retirement from playing in 1967, Mr. Kelly was seventh all-time in NHL scoring (823 points) and second only to former Red Wings teammate Gordie Howe in games played (1,316). In all, he won the Lady Byng Trophy (“for sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct, combined with a high standard of playing ability”) four times; won the inaugural Norris Trophy for best defenceman in 1954; and was runner-up to Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Al Rollins for the 1954 Hart Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s most valuable player.
According to Lanny McDonald, who joined the Maple Leafs in 1973 when Mr. Kelly was head coach, it was Mr. Kelly’s support during the early difficult years that helped him eventually forge a Hall of Fame career.
Mr. McDonald came from a rural background just as Mr. Kelly did. As Mr. McDonald struggled to adjust to life in the big city, and all its attendant pressure, the Kellys helped him make the transition.
“I didn’t live that far from Red and Andra,” Mr. McDonald said. “They’d invite me over for dinner. I was just an old farm boy. They were the nicest people. I didn’t know any better – that you weren’t supposed to go to the coach’s house for dinner. It just seemed like a normal thing to do.”
Mr. McDonald became close friends with Mr. Kelly over the years and his wife Ardell assisted Andra in helping teach figure skating to the blind.
At a time when many NHL coaches were autocrats, Mr. Kelly was a gentle soul and a devout Catholic, Mr. McDonald said.
“Red never swore,” Mr. McDonald said. “About the strongest thing he’d say was, ‘holy smolerina’ or ‘son of a sea-cooking bottle washer.’ He was such a gentleman and there were times we didn’t play very well. I remember one particular game, he came in and he was saying everything properly and right at the end, he finally lost it and said, ‘you guys are playing like hell.’ And Jim McKenney, who was a real trouble maker, said ‘whoa, whoa Red, I know we’re not playing well, but you don’t have to swear.’ Then Red was so flustered, he couldn’t say anything and went into his office and everyone started laughing.”
Leonard Kelly was born on July 7, 1927, in Simcoe, Ont., the fifth of seven children of Pete and Frances Kelly. He grew up on a tobacco farm and after surviving a near-drowning when he was 4, began to play organized hockey at the age of 11 in Port Dover.
His father was a strong intermediate player and helped his son gain admittance into his alma mater, St. Michael’s College in Toronto, which was then affiliated with the Maple Leafs. After initially failing to make any of the three St. Mike’s teams – the Majors, the Buzzers and the midget team – Mr. Kelly thought his hockey career was about to grind to a halt. But he was given a second chance by William Conway, an assistant coach on the St. Michael’s midget team, who convinced the head coach, Father Ted Flanagan, to give Mr. Kelly a second look. From there, his career took off. Former Leafs great Joe Primeau moved Mr. Kelly back to defence from forward after he’d been promoted to the St. Michael’s Majors, and helped them win the 1947 Memorial Cup.
Mr. Kelly attended his first NHL training camp in the fall of that year, and made the Red Wings as a rookie. Gradually, his role and ice time increased as Detroit advanced to the Stanley Cup final in his first season. Two years later, they won the first of four championships in a six-year span. In Toronto, following his trade to the Leafs, Mr. Kelly became an immediate fan favourite and helped the team win consecutive Stanley Cups in 1962, 1963 and 1964.
By 1967, Mr. Kelly’s injuries and the passing of time were starting to take a physical toll. But in the playoffs of that year, he and his fellow members of a veteran team euphemistically described as the “over-the-hill” gang upset the first-place Chicago Blackhawks in the opening round and then defeated Montreal in the final. “To win the Stanley Cup eight times, that’s almost one for every two-and-half years,” Mr. Kelly reflected afterwards. “It’s what you dreamed of as a kid. To win one Stanley Cup was a big goal, but I won it eight times – and each one was great.”
The Leafs offered Mr. Kelly another contract to keep playing after the 1967 championship, but instead, he turned to coaching. Jack Kent Cooke, a Canadian expat, had been awarded the Los Angeles Kings franchise in the expansion that doubled the size of the league from six teams to 12. Mr. Kelly was appointed as their first coach.
Influenced by the likes of Mr. Primeau and Tommy Ivan, who coached him with the Red Wings, Mr. Kelly saw his role with the Kings more as an instructor than a taskmaster, especially since so few of his players on the expansion team had any previous NHL experience.
Once, in the Kings’ inaugural season, he rented a movie camera to teach his players how to skate with their heads up – an innovative practice that eventually became the NHL norm. Midway through that first season, amid a great deal of hoopla, the Kings moved into their new state-of-the-art building, the Fabulous Forum, otherwise known as The House That Jack Kent Cooke Built. According to Mr. Kelly, many Hollywood celebrities would drop by the dressing room for a visit that year, including Donna Douglas, who played Elly May Clampett on the hit television series The Beverley Hillbillies and dated a couple of Kings players.
From L.A., Mr. Kelly moved on to coach the Pittsburgh Penguins, where he was fired in the midst of his fourth season. At a career crossroads, Mr. Kelly received an unexpected overture from the Maple Leafs to see if he would consider coaching in Toronto.
When Mr. Kelly answered yes, he received a call from Leafs owner Harold Ballard – who was then serving a sentence at the Millhaven penitentiary for fraud, theft and tax evasion – to offer him the job.
Mr. Kelly coached the Leafs for four seasons and was behind the bench on Feb. 7, 1976, when Darryl Sittler set the NHL record for points in a single game, scoring 10 in an 11-4 victory over the Boston Bruins. But Mr. Kelly’s greatest notoriety as a Leafs coach came later that season, when Toronto was set to face the Philadelphia Flyers (of the Broad St. Bullies era) in the playoffs.
Mr. Kelly needed a diversion after the Leafs lost the first two games in Philadelphia and came up with the concept of Pyramid Power. In his biography, Mr. Kelly explained he got the idea from his wife, Andra, who’d been reading about pyramid power in the hopes of curing the headaches that were bothering their daughter, Casey. In the beginning, Mr. Kelly placed small pyramids under the Leaf bench for Games 3 and 4 at Maple Leaf Gardens, but kept their presence there a secret. Toronto won both games to tie the series.
After they lost again in Philadelphia, Mr. Kelly upped the ante and brought a plastic pyramid into the Leafs’ dressing room. Feeling he had nothing to lose, Mr. Sittler took six sticks and placed them under the pyramid – and then promptly scored five goals in the Leafs’ victory.
“We were skeptical in the beginning,” Mr. McDonald said, with a laugh. “I remember Tiger Williams saying, ‘this is all BS. What’s this pyramid doing in the dressing room?’ But then Darryl Sittler sat under it and scored five goals and the next thing you know, Tiger’s under there, and all the rest of the players are fighting for their turns as well. The next year, it was ions. Red would do these things that seemed crazy at the time, but it was done to take the pressure off the players. He was a totally different coach than Scotty Bowman or Roger Neilson, but in his own way, he was pretty darn smart.”
Mr. Kelly leaves his wife Andra; their four children, Casey, Patrick, Conn and Kitty; and eight grandchildren George, Charles, Bruce, Maeve, Shawn, Andra, Molly and Katey.