Red Kelly was a unique player - versatile and talented enough to be one of the National Hockey League's best-ever defensemen early in his career and a high-scoring center at the end. The red-haired gentleman was cool and calculating on the ice and never swore, but there was no doubt about his ability to take care of himself. He had been a championship boxer at Toronto's St. Michael's College, skills the four-time winner of the Lady Byng Trophy wouldn't often display during his 20-year NHL career.
Born in Simcoe, Ontario, in 1927, Kelly was 20 years old when the Detroit Red Wings brought him up to the big league directly from St. Michael's. A solid but mobile and skilled defenseman, he quickly found a home on the team playing with such superstars as Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel. Kelly was an effective checker, at home on the blue line or on the left wing, where he was sometimes used due either to injuries or to add a little muscle on the offense.
Kelly earned enough All-Star votes in 1950 to win a spot on the NHL's Second Team and the chance to play in the All-Star Game. The Red Wings, well on their way to being the league's dominant team, won the Stanley Cup that year, as they would in three of the next five seasons. And Kelly was an integral part of Detroit's winning formula. His puck-carrying ability allowed the Wings to move from their own zone quickly and provided them with a quick transition game.
Kelly was an All-Star for eight consecutive seasons with the Red Wings, six times on the First Team, and won the Lady Byng Trophy three times. In 1954 he was chosen as the first recipient of the James Norris Memorial Trophy as the outstanding defenseman in the league. In 1956 he was named team captain, a job he held until the end of 1957-58 season.
In 1960 the relationship between Kelly and Detroit management began to sour when complaints about his play became public. Kelly had been playing with a broken bone in his foot, a fact only the top executives of the club knew. The Wings announced a trade, sending Kelly to the New York Rangers for Eddie Shack on February 4, 1960. Kelly, upset with his treatment, refused to report to New York and announced his retirement the next day. Toronto coach Punch Imlach attempted to talk him out of it and managed to acquire his rights from Detroit for Marc Reaume. NHL President Clarence Campbell gave Kelly a week to rescind his retirement. Red had been a Toronto fan all his life but soured on the team after a few visits to Maple Leaf Gardens as a junior player. He didn't like the building and was further put off when his team lost some important games there.
His alienation was a throwback to his early playing days, when a Toronto scout proclaimed that Red would never play more than 20 games in the NHL and went so far as to bet a hat on his prognostication. Despite all this, Kelly decided to take Imlach up on his offer and join the Maple Leafs, though not as a defenseman. Imlach moved him up to the center position and, days after retiring, he began what could be called a second career as a successful full-time forward. Any of Kelly's bad memories were quickly forgotten when the Toronto fans gave him a rousing welcome in his first game with the Leafs.
Frank Mahovlich played on the left wing in Kelly's first full season with the Leafs and set a team record with 48 goals, many of them due to the veteran's playmaking skills. In addition to his talent, Kelly brought his winning ways to the Leafs. In his eight years with the team, Toronto won the Stanley Cup four times. He won even when he entered the world of politics in 1962. He was elected to the Canadian Parliament, where he served for three years until retiring in 1965 to concentrate on hockey again. In 1967, after winning his last Stanley Cup - and the Maple Leafs' last championship as well - Kelly was traded to the expansion Los Angeles Kings, where he was named head coach. As a coach, he proved to be a winner yet again, guiding the Kings into two consecutive playoffs. After a three-year stint with the Pittsburgh Penguins, he returned to Toronto and took the Leafs to four straight quarterfinal appearances.