Ted (Teeder) Kennedy was the prototypical hockey captain, a player relentlessly competitive, fiercely determined and driven.
It was through those traits, not to mention his deft passing skills, that he overcame a choppy skating stride to lead the Toronto Maple Leafs through one of their most glorious stretches of hockey, with five Stanley Cup championships in seven years.
His death early Friday morning at age 83 robbed the franchise of an iconic link to those memorable seasons from the late 1940s and early ’50s, a leader who was well respected by both friend and foe alike.
“I was certainly happy to play against him, and I’m so sorry to hear (of his death),” said Montreal Canadiens legend Jean Beliveau. “He was a complete centreman, a good playmaker, a good passer, good on faceoffs.
“I was just starting, he was just completing his career. I must have learned a few tricks from him on those faceoffs.”
Kennedy died of congestive heart failure at a nursing home in his hometown of Port Colborne, Ont., where he lived with wife Doreen, said son Mark. His father had been in poor health recently and his death was not unexpected.
“It was just a wearing down of the body,” said Mark. “The last three days, things became pretty serious so it wasn’t really a surprise for us. We’d been told maybe a month ago that there wasn’t too many more weeks or months left.”
An only child, Mark was too young to remember his father on the ice, but experienced his competitive side whenever they played golf together.
“I was totally hopeless against him,” he said. “When he was in his 70s, things got a little more even. He was a natural athlete, any sport he picked up and gave a try to, he did really well.”
That was certainly the case with hockey.
The five-foot-11, 175-pound centre was a five-time all-star and finished his career with 231 goals and 329 assists in 696 games. He added 29 goals and 31 assists in 78 playoff contests, winning the Stanley Cup in 1945, ’47, ’48, ’49 and ’51, and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966.
Kennedy succeeded Syl Apps as Maple Leafs captain in 1948 and held the role through 1955, when he won the Hart Trophy as league MVP. He was captain again in 1956-57, his 14th and final season, all with Toronto.
Not bad for someone linemate Howie Meeker once said, “wasn’t a skater, didn’t have the legs.”
“His skating was not 100 per cent,” agreed Beliveau. “He certainly compensated with his great want to win, to do things right.”
That even extended off the ice in his leisure time.
“Dad was a member of Scarborough Golf and Country Club and in the winter time, they had an outdoor skating rink and it was right beside the train tracks,” recalled Mark Kennedy. “He would wait for the train to come along and then he’d race the train. It’s just a neat memory.”
Kennedy became so respected as a player, that Dick Duff, a fellow Hockey Hall of Famer, recalls the honour he felt when Conn Smythe gave him the No. 9 Kennedy had worn.
“When they gave me Teeder Kennedy’s number, that a was a big thing for me. They couldn’t have done a bigger thing for me,” said Duff. “Charlie Conacher wore it before me as well, and he and (Kennedy) were the greatest Leafs to ever play.”
The passion and leadership Kennedy demonstrated while wearing the blue and white was passed on to future Leaf captains, Duff added.
“I would say the ones that followed Teeder like Wendel (Clark), Dougie (Gilmour) and Darryl Sittler, those (leadership) qualities started with him.”
Beliveau’s strongest memories of playing against Kennedy come from games at Maple Leaf Gardens, where season-ticket holder John Arnott would break moments of silence prior to faceoffs with a piercing shout of, “Come on Teeder.”
“This I think most of the people will remember,” Beliveau laughed.
One thing fans may forget is that Kennedy very easily could have made his mark with the hated Habs. The Canadiens initially held his rights but he never settled in after he came over to Montreal from Port Colborne in 1942.
“I didn’t like the environment,” Kennedy is quoted as saying in “The Leafs,” a history of the team by Jack Batten. “I just told them I was going home.”
Once back, Kennedy came under the influence of Port Colborne Senior coach Nels Stewart, who “taught me to operate in front of the net.”
Stewart also told the Maple Leafs to have a look at him, and Frank Selke ended up trading young defenceman Frank Eddolls to get him.
After a two-game stint in Toronto in 1942-43, he stuck as an 18-year-old in 1943-44, scoring 26 goals with 23 assists in 49 games.
He scored a career-high 29 goals the next season, and set personal bests with 43 assists and 61 points in 1950-51.
The Maple Leafs honoured Kennedy and Apps by raising their sweater numbers to the rafters in 1993.
“He truly was a man of great class and he was one of the most accomplished leaders in our team’s long history,” Leafs GM Brian Burke said in a statement. “It’s a mark of great distinction for Ted Kennedy to have earned the Hart Trophy in a time when legendary players such as Gordie Howe, Rocket Richard, Jean Beliveau and Ted Lindsay were playing in the league.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman also offered his condolences.
“The National Hockey League family mourns the passing and cherishes the memory of Teeder Kennedy, the embodiment of Maple Leaf success,” Bettman said in a release. “Teeder never wanted to play for any other team, and he never did. He always wanted what was best for the Leafs, and for 14 superb seasons, that is what he helped them achieve through his leadership, his incomparable work ethic and his ferocious will to win.”
Kennedy is survived by his wife Doreen, son Mark, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.