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A RED JUST LEFT OF CENTER
Arlie W. Schardt
December 03, 1962
As a rookie lawmaker Leonard Kelly (above) is a liberal, but on the ice he is the conservative playmaker who gave Toronto a Stanley Cup
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December 03, 1962

A Red Just Left Of Center

As a rookie lawmaker Leonard Kelly (above) is a liberal, but on the ice he is the conservative playmaker who gave Toronto a Stanley Cup

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Shortly after 2:30 of a cold Canadian afternoon a week or so ago, the Honorable Leonard Patrick Kelly, Liberal Member of Parliament from Toronto's York West, took his assigned bench No. 235 in the Gothic limestone and oak chambers of Canada's Parliament building at Ottawa. Thoughtfully and patiently, he listened to a heated discussion of the Conservative austerity program of which, as a loyal member of the opposition, he disapproves.

This hardly would be worth reporting here were it not for the fact that less than 24 hours earlier Leonard Kelly, M.P., had been electrifying his fellow Torontonians on the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens, where he and his teammates out-skated and outplayed their bitter NHL rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, in a tense 4-2 hockey game.

Whereas sitting in Parliament is a brand-new experience for 35-year-old Red Kelly, winning hockey games is old stuff. He is one of the few players in the NHL who has scored more than 200 goals, and he has been named to the league's All-Star team no less than eight times. The highest scoring defenseman in history, Kelly is now in his 16th year in the big league, a career already twice the length of the average and still going strong. Last April, Red led Toronto to its first Stanley Cup in 11 years, and he cannot enter a taxi, restaurant or airport without being asked for his autograph. Largely because of this popular idolatry, Red Kelly agreed, soon after the Cup victory, to enter politics. The decision was popular with fans (and constituents) but not with everybody.

"Sure, I had my doubts," says Toronto's gruff, peppery Coach Punch Imlach. "My theory is that a man can't serve two masters. Red's getting old. I felt he needed every possible day of rest and training. Instead, he missed part of training camp, where all kinds of rookies were making a beeline for him, anyway. They figured they'd take his spot because an old man will injure easier. No respect for our M.P.s, you see."

Imlach's apprehension seemed justified as the season opened with a tired Kelly getting off to a very poor start. He tried to play despite an onset of flu, was knocked cold in a game against Boston, then missed four games. Any normal man would have known it was time to quit, but not Red. "There's always an exception—and that's Red," says Imlach, with rare affection. "He is an exceptional person. He's the type who if he feels he's hurting the team will go out and work all the harder."

Kelly did just that. Now, suddenly, he is playing better than ever, having scored five goals and five assists in 16 games. His recovery has lifted Toronto from a dismal 4-6-1 to a contending 10-9-1, moving rival Montreal Coach Toe Blake to say: " Red Kelly is still one of the greatest hockey players on ice."

Kelly learned to skate at age 2 on his parents' 200-acre farm near Simcoe, Ont. Until his marriage three and a half years ago, he worked on the farm every summer, strengthening his legs by marching behind a plow. "I used to love to plow the fields," he recalls, "because I could sing at the top of my voice and no one could hear me. Except the horse, and he couldn't say anything."

The Detroit Red Wings signed Kelly in 1947 at the precocious age of 19. He responded by helping them to eight championships and four Stanley Cups in 12 years. Then, in a deal that shocked the NHL, he was traded to New York near the close of the 1960 season. He had fallen into disfavor with Detroit General Manager Jack Adams, first for his frankness in facing Adams with the team's complaints ("I felt that was my duty as captain," says Kelly) and second for admitting to a newspaper reporter that Adams had urged him to play part of the previous season six days after breaking an ankle. The story created a sensation. " Adams tried to get the doctor to say the ankle wasn't broken," says Kelly, "but it was." Rather than report to last-place New York, Kelly decided to quit. Five days later, after considerable backstage maneuvering, league officials okayed a deal by which he was to report instead to Toronto, and Kelly changed his mind.

Red made his first appearance with Toronto the very next night. When his line skated onto the ice, the ex-Detroiter received a four-minute ovation that has never been matched in Maple Leaf Gardens. "Just when the applause should have died down," recalls Red, "everyone stood up."

In Detroit, Kelly had become one of the best defensemen in the league, but Punch Imlach, who is never inhibited by tradition, decided to make a center of him. In doing so, he lighted the spark that propelled a formerly floundering club to the finals of the Stanley Cup. In the semifinals Toronto met Detroit. "I never once looked up in that box where I knew Adams would be looking down at us," says Kelly softly. "I knew they'd be told to come after me, and they did, but it didn't bother me. The more they came the harder I fought. I figure it made me play better. I liked it."

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