Leonard "Red" Kelly very well might be the most underrated superstar in National Hockey League history.
You might be asking yourself how can this be? He's an 8 time Stanley Cup champion who starred with 2 different dynasties He's an 8 time all star who won the Lady Byng trophy 4 times and the Norris trophy once. He's and a battle proven veteran of over 1300 NHL games that was named as the 22nd greatest player of all time by The Hockey News at the dawn of the 21st century.
Yet somehow when the general public discusses the games' greatest performers Kelly's name rarely mentioned. Such an oversight needs to be corrected.
Kelly was born in Simcoe, Ontario back on July 9, 1927. He would develop his incredible hockey gifts in Toronto with the famed St. Michael's Majors. Under coach Joe Primeau's leadership, Kelly and the Majors became junior legends, capped off with a Memorial Cup championship in Kelly's last year, 1947. However the Leafs weren't impressed enough with the fine defenseman. Concerns about his lack of speed and aggression convinced Leafs chief scout Squib Walker that Kelly wouldn't last more than 20 games in the National Hockey League.
Boy was Walker wrong. Kelly would end up playing 20 years in the league. And the Detroit Red Wings were the beneficiaries of Walker's misjudgment.
Without ever playing a game in the minor leagues Kelly stepped directly into the NHL in 1947-48. Before long he was establishing himself as the best defenseman in the league. He was the predecessor to Bobby Orr as the offensive defenseman in hockey as he easily outscored his fellow NHL defensemen. He led all rearguards in goals 8 times, points 5 times and assists three times during his glory years in the 1950s. He reached the double digits mark in goals scored with shocking regularity - 9 consecutive times - in an era when defensemen were still supposed to stop goals rather than score them.
Yet as good as he was offensively, he was better defensively. He had an uncanny knack of reading plays and breaking them up, and he controlled the puck in his own zone adeptly. To make his defensive legend even more impressive, Kelly excelled without taking many penalties himself. He took just 327 penalty minutes in 1316 career games and won the Lady Byng trophy as the game's most gentlemanly player 4 times. Given the nature of the position, it is almost unheard of to have a defenseman win the most gentlemanly player award once, let alone four times. Just ask Kelly's modern day blue line contemporary Niklas Lidstrom, also of Detroit. Although don't think Kelly didn't know how to handle himself. A former boxing champion in his youth, Kelly could handle himself if need be.
Frank Boucher, the New York Rangers Wayne Gretzky-like center and later astute coach and general manager and also a former Lady Byng champion, was perhaps Kelly's biggest admirer. He went so far as to claim that it was Kelly who was the key component of the Detroit Red Wings dynasty of the 1950s. That's quite a compliment considering the talented lineup the Red Wings iced most nights - Terry Sawchuk in nets, Marcel Pronovost on defense, and Ted Lindsay, Alex Delvecchio, and most importantly Gordie Howe patrolling the forward units.
Early in the 1950s the Red Wings assumed the position of top dog in the National Hockey League from the Toronto Maple Leafs. That particular Wings dynasty, like Kelly the individual, doesn't quite get the the recognition it deserves. Despite winning 4 Stanley Cups in the first half of the decade, their reign was cut short by and subsequently overshadowed by arguably the greatest of the great dynasties - the Montreal Canadiens of the late 1950s.
As the decade closed out the Wings were descending into the rebuilding stage. Kelly, who was named as team captain in 1957, was also slowing. The Wings decided that their ace was near the end and with a deteriorating relationship with Wings management, the Wings opted in 1960 to trade him along with Bill McNeill to the New York Rangers in exchange for Bill Gadsby and Eddie Shack.
However both Kelly and McNeill refused to report to New York. The league gave Kelly 5 days to decide what to do. Kelly said he was going to retire and attend to his tobacco farm back in Ontario, but then the Toronto Maple Leafs suddenly entered the picture. With the Rangers trade rescinded, they convinced Kelly to not retire and instead become a Maple Leaf. Kelly agreed and the Leafs traded a promising young rearguard named Marc Reaume to Detroit as compensation.
Kelly arrived in Toronto in time to debut against the rival Montreal Canadiens. But instead of Kelly lining up along the blue line, coach Punch Imlach decided to experiment with Kelly at center ice. Kelly, who had played some forward in Detroit although usually while on the power play, shut down the graceful Jean Beliveau all night.
Needless to say the experiment would be extended beyond one game.
Kelly continued to excel as a defensive centerman, but another interesting perk came from the experiment. Kelly was centering a line with crafty Bob Nevin on right wing and "The Big M" Frank Mahovlich on the left wing. At the time Mahovlich was still struggling to harness all his hockey skills to achieve his potential as one of the games' greats. With Kelly's expert presence in the middle, Mahovlich was able to achieve his destiny and become a superstar. Kelly has never been given enough credit in his development.
Kelly added 4 more Stanley Cup rings in his time in Toronto as he was a key component of a veteran dynasty. An even more impressive fact is that Kelly spent 4 of his 7 Leafs years doubling as a Member of Parliament. When he wasn't playing or practicing, he'd zoom up to Ottawa and sit in the legislature.
Kelly is perhaps better remembered as the star defenseman in Detroit rather than the ace center in Toronto. But few players have ever possessed the intellectual and physical gifts to be both a star forward and defenseman. A few wingers have made good defenders and vice versa, but it is tough to find anyone else who excelled at hockey's two toughest skating positions to master - center and defense - like Red Kelly did.