DETROIT – First, a story about Red Kelly, as told by his daughter, Casey. When Kelly and his wife, the former Andra McLaughlin, first started dating, they weren’t able to spend much time together because of his career with the Detroit Red Wings and hers with the Hollywood Ice Revue. We’ll let Casey take it from here:
“In those days there were no cellphones and they communicated by mail,” Casey said, shortly after watching her 91-year-old father have his No. 4 retired by the Red Wings Friday night. “So they courted by mail. My father didn’t write very much, but my mother would write lots of letters. And he wouldn’t answer or he would give something very small. He said, ‘I don’t know what to say.’ And she said, ‘Well, give my some hockey news.’ So he got her a subscription to The Hockey News.”
It was something of a shame that the Detroit Red Wings honored one of their greatest players ever in front of a half-empty arena. Then again, it’s been almost 60 years since Red Kelly starred for this organization, so there’s probably not a lot of connection to the current fan base.
For those of you who can’t really fathom why Kelly’s No. 4 was lifted to the rafters of the Little Caesars Arena Friday night, perhaps a little perspective is in order. When you talk about all-time great defensemen in Red Wings history, Nicklas Lidstrom is No. 1 by a significant margin, then Red Kelly. Kelly won only one Norris Trophy with the Red Wings, but that is largely because the award didn’t exist until he was the first player in history to win it in 1953-54. He was a first-team all- six times in Detroit and a second-team all-star twice. That means for the 12 years he played with the Red Wings, Kelly was considered one of the top four defensemen in the league eight times and one of the top two six times.
With four Cups in Detroit in the 1950s and four more with the Toronto Maple Leafs as a centerman in the 1960s, Kelly is the leader in Stanley Cup victories among players who did not play for the Montreal Canadiens. He’s also one of the few players in NHL history who would be considered a among the top-10 players of all-time for two franchises.
“Doug Harvey was one of the greatest that ever played, but Doug was more a defender,” said Scotty Bowman, as much an authority on players in the 1950s and ’60s as anyone on the planet. “To think about a guy who played defense and then had to go up and play forward, that’s how great a skater he was.”
The thing that was most special about Kelly, Bowman said, was that he was a workhorse with the flair of a stallion. He was an outstanding skater a player the Red Wing juggernauts relied to lug the puck out of their zone and get it into the offensive zone for the Production Line, which consisted of Sid Abel between Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe, to do their work down low.
And that often resulted in Kelly getting opportunities of his own. Long before Bobby Orr redefined the position, Kelly was setting up his own template for offensive defensemen. Kelly led all defensemen in scoring five straight seasons and finished in the top three among blueliners four more times. But some of his best work was done when the Red Wings were shorthanded.
“In those days, you dressed five defenseman,” Bowman said. “The fifth defenseman played in case of an injury or if one of the four got a penalty. In those days, they played a minute-and-a-half, two-minute shifts. He probably averaged 40 minutes a game because he played the power play and the penalty kill.”
Kelly may very well have played his entire career for the Red Wings, but after he disclosed the Red Wings had forced him to play on a broken ankle, Kelly was dealt to the New York Rangers, but threatened to retire rather than report. That led to a deal to the Maple Leafs for defenseman Marc Reaume in 1960, the last season of the Montreal Canadiens’ run of five Stanley Cups. With Dave Keon able to counter Canadiens’ speedster Henri Richard, the Leafs deployed Kelly as a center to give the Leafs an answer to Jean Beliveau and it worked brilliantly. Kelly won four more Cups with the Maple Leafs, including three straight between 1962 and 1964. And if the Selke Trophy had been around then, he might have picked up one or two of those.
It’s easy to see why Kelly was a no-brainer for the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1969. Makes you wonder why the Red Wings waited 50 more years to retire his number.