Anyone with even a passing knowledge of NHL history is well aware that Leonard Patrick ‘Red’ Kelly was a hockey player through and through, one of the best to ever play the game. He was undoubtedly one of the most versatile and underrated. He was a pioneer, every bit as stubborn and competitive as he was gentle and stoic. He was quietly tough, a welterweight boxing champ in high school who served notice early in his career that he was not to be challenged, then went on to win four Lady Byng Trophies. To be sure, he was the most successful and one of the most decorated players ever to play for teams other than the Montreal Canadiens.
But Red Kelly was more than that. So, so much more. A true renaissance man, he played the piano and sang. He was a federal politician while he was still playing in the NHL. Red Kelly loved his family, his God, his game and his team. And he loved to dance. “People used to clear the floor for him and my mother when they would dance,” said Kelly’s daughter, Casey Kelly. “My dad was so light on his feet for such a big guy. We used to say he danced like Gene Kelly and he sang like Bing Crosby.”
Kelly, who died in early May due to complications from diabetes at 91, was just as versatile on the ice. In his first NHL life, he was an elite defenseman for the Detroit Red Wings, winning the first-ever Norris Trophy in 1954 and helping the Wings to four Stanley Cups in a 1950s dynasty. One thing that prevented him from winning more than one Norris was that the award wasn’t established until his seventh year in the league.
The second half of his career was spent with a different team at a different position, where he moved to center and won four more Cups, establishing himself with the Toronto Maple Leafs as one of the best two-way pivots in the game. The Leafs had a center in Dave Keon who could keep up with Henri Richard but needed one who could somehow neutralize Jean Beliveau, and they found him in Kelly. “He was so strong, and that was something you can’t forget,” Keon remembered. “That was one of his great strengths, his strength, along with his skating. He could handle himself, and there was really nobody who could push him around because of his strength. He was the only guy who was strong enough to play against Beliveau, and he skated as well.”
As strong as he was and as forceful as he could be, Red Kelly was as docile and gentle off the ice. He was a doting father and grandfather. Kelly’s youngest daughter, Kitty McGorry, was born after his career ended when he was coaching the Los Angeles Kings. Kitty was a principal skater in the Ice Capades and would often have her father on the ice shooting pucks while she practised her jumps and spins. Once, when she was living in San Francisco, she was asked by a local hockey team to help out with conditioning and skating. In order to prepare, she and her husband joined a local co-ed league. Red had the opportunity to watch her play, and it was one of the most heartwarming moments they shared. “It was the first time I saw my dad’s eyes just light up,” Kitty said. “He had so much information for me. ‘Try this,’ and ‘Remember to keep your head up.’ It was an amazing moment for me because I saw another side to my father. He had watched me all those years (in the Ice Capades), and he was very proud, but it wasn’t the same happiness he could share with me. It was such an amazing moment.”
On another occasion, daughter Casey was having her first communion in Los Angeles in March 1968 when her father was coaching the Kings. The team had finished a two-game road trip in Minnesota the night before, and Red told his daughter he wasn’t going to be able to make it in time for the service. “About a quarter of the way through the mass, he appeared at the back of the church with his suitcase,” Casey said. “He had come straight from the airport to be there. He did his best to be wherever he could be whenever he could be for his kids. Sometimes he couldn’t be, but he did the best he could.”
Casey’s two sons are now competitive international ice dancers. Her older son, Bruce, competes for Canada and her younger son, George, for Britain. When the two boys were playing hockey and skating as youngsters, their grandfather told them how he and Gordie Howe and their Wings teammates would take their wives out dancing and that it helped him as a player. “He told them, ‘When you’re out there on the ice, you’re a unit,’ ” Casey said. “ ‘You play as a team, and you have partners, and you need to know where they are without even looking. And when you dance with someone, you don’t look at them the whole time, and you don’t look down at your feet. You learn to do this as a partnership. We all went dancing, and we learned to move as a unit by learning to sense where the other person was.’”
Kelly was blessed with good health most of his life but had suffered from the pain associated with diabetes during his final months. Still, he made it to Detroit when the Red Wings finally retired his No. 4 in February, and his family had renewed his passport for another 10 years just three weeks before he died. He had to have the big toe on his right foot amputated recently, and in the days before his death, he was steadfastly learning to walk on his heel with the help of a walker in the hospital. The same determination he showed as a player – he was cut from teams at St. Michael’s College until finally making the midget team, and one Detroit scout predicted he wouldn’t last 20 games in the NHL – was front and center in his resolve to recover and get back home. And back to dancing, of course. Whenever any of the caregivers who were treating him asked if he had any questions, the only query he had was when he was going to be able to get out of the hospital and return home.
In early May, Kelly was resting comfortably in the hospital one morning and looked as though he was well on his way to recovering. The nurse who was treating him left his room for 10 minutes, and when she returned, he was gone. “He looked so good the day before, and his skin was good, his eyes were clear, and he was speaking in such a positive way,” Casey said. “All he kept asking was when he was going to be able to go home, and I said to my mom, ‘He said it so often that God listened and took him home.’”