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Remembering a special person, former Maple Leaf player and coach, Red Kelly

I was about to sit down today and pen a few thoughts about the passing of Leonard "Red" Kelly, the highly-regarded former Maple Leaf standout. Just as I started typing, I received a note from Alec Brownscombe from the Maple Leaf Hot Stove web site.

Over the years I've contributed a few articles to the good folks at MLHS, and Alec was asking if I would be able to do a piece for them about Red.  I was only too happy to to do.

Rather than do an entirely new piece here at VLM, I'll share a link to the piece over at the Hot Stove site for those who might wish to read that post.

I'll just add a few quick thoughts here.

I don't know the whole "back story", but somehow Red, though he went to school and played for the old St. Mikes Junior A team (a team owned/"sponsored" by the parent Maple Leaf hockey Club), became a Detroit Red Wing- just like fellow future Hall-of-Famer Ted Lindsay. Kelly had a remarkable career with the Red Wings, being an end-of-season NHL All-Star as a defensemen in front of all-time great netminder Terry Sawchuk (and Glenn Hall for a time, too, I believe) eight times during the 1950s.

He won a Norris Trophy and several Lady Byng trophies in Detroit as well. But he had, almost unbelievably, just as much success with the Leafs in Toronto when General Manager and coach Punch Imlach acquired him in a trade and asked him to play centre. (That's Kelly, left, #4 with the helmet, scoring a goal against Glen Hall and the Hawks in the early 1960s at the old Chicago Stadium, with Armstrong and Keon in the background.) 

He did a splendid job for several seasons in that role as a two-way forward with the Leafs, just as he had been not only a great defensive defenseman but also a spectacular offensive threat from the backline with the Red Wings as well.

He was a gentleman on and off the ice, but there was no mistaking how driven he was to be successful- and to help his teams win.

Kelly played through serious injuries many times in his career, including, if I recall correctly, during the playoffs against Chicago and Montreal in the spring of 1967. He always soldiered on, played through pain and made his team better.

Those were wonderful Leaf teams that he was such an important part of.  They won four championships in the 1960s. So many greats- Mahovlich, Bower, Sawchuk for a few seasons, Horton, Stanley, Baun and Brewer. (Brewer was a mainstay for the first three Cup years.) Some invaluable "5th" defensemen like Al Arbour, Larry Hillman and Kent Douglas, all of whom contributed to at least one Stanley Cup.  Up front you had Duff and Nevin for the first two championships, Bathgate and McKenney for the one in '64, Ron Stewart and Eddie Litzenbeger for the first three.  Billy Harris was a fine player for the first three championship squads. Ellis, Pappin, Stemkowki, Walton and Brian Conacher, along with the great Marcel Pronovost, helped massively with the '67 championship[.

Guys like Armstrong, Pulford, Keon and Shack (I'm likely forgetting somebody) were mainstays on all the Leaf championship squads of that era.

And so too was Red Kelly, who was just as well regarded and respected for his life off the ice as he was during his time as a player and later coach with the Maple Leafs.

Red died on May 2, 2019- 52 years to the day the Leafs won their last Stanley Cup, on May 2, 1967 against Montreal in Game 6 at Maple Leaf Gardens. I'll say again what I wrote about Red in my piece for MLHS- thanks Red, for everything.

I welcome VLM and MLHS readers to share their thoughts on Red, who will always be remembered fondly.


  1. When I heard the news about Red Kelly, I anticipated (and, really, knew) that the best recounting of the man (and his impact in life and the game) would be found at the 'tip of your pen', Michael.

    Thank you for sharing your memories that we remember publicly and for the personal anecdote about your meeting when Red was 89. Those are among the 'savoury' moments in life... I appreciate sharing that 'taster'.

    You mentioned Red's influence upon young Leafs like Mike Palmateer and Borje Salming in the 70's. And, to 'daisy chain' the connection, just a week or so ago, I found a card that had been in my wallet in 1980 when I went to a Leafs game at the old Pacific Coliseum against the Canucks and got those two signatures on the back of that card!

    After the game, I went down to where the team got on the bus and had a nice, if brief, chat with both (even though the Leafs had lost the game... hockey players really do have a good reputation for connecting with the fans and I'm sure your story about Red Kelly will help to remind budding and current players about the kind of legacy they can leave by such means.

    Good to hear from you, Michael!

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts here, Stephen (In Time for 62). We've had some wonderful chats here and by email over the years about the Leafs and our love of hockey as I've worked on the Vintage Leaf Memories site (though not very often in recent times). I have always much appreciated your input and feedback.

      Red was very much one-of-a-kind, a good and caring family man above all else.

      Warm wishes, Stephen. Stay well- and hold on to those autographed cards!

  2. Thank you Michael for that wonderful piece on Red Kelly. I was always fascinated at his ability to succeed at two different positions in the NHL. A very unique player, and I'm glad he was honoured recently for his accomplishments in Detroit as well.

  3. Thanks for the kind words, Hogie. And yes, it's really good (and much deserved) that the Wings retired his number after all these years.

  4. Mr Kelly, like Mr Beliveau, personified elegance and grace. Both respected people and fanatics. Both attended Sunday's mass and answered questions in front of their churches steps. An incredible athlete, Mr Kelly will be remembered as Mr Red Wing and Mr Maple Leafs. RIP Coach.

  5. Thank you very much for sharing those thoughts, Serge. I absolutely agree with your sentiments about Kelly and Beliveau. True gentlemen of their sport, and true gentlemen in their lives.

  6. Great article, full of fond memories and highlites, however you omitted that one of his very own sons did indeed make it to the Olympics as a Speedskater.

  7. Thanks Horleau. There's lots I'm sure I did not know about Red. I never research my posts, as I always just write from memory and personal experience. Given how talented both Red and Andra were, it's not surprising one of their children would be a gifted skater, too!