TORONTO, Canada — As great as Leonard (Red) Kelly was as a hockey player — and he was one of the best, with eight Stanley Cup titles over an illustrious 20-year National Hockey League career — he will perhaps best be remembered for being a humble, devoted family man and a true gentleman.
The hockey legend, a member of four Stanley Cup-winning teams in Detroit and another four in Toronto, died May 2 in Toronto. He was 91.
Kelly was a member of Holy Rosary Parish next to St. Michael’s College School, the Toronto Catholic high school where he honed the hockey skills that would lead him to being enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1969, just two years after hanging up his skates.
Msgr. Robert Nusca, Holy Rosary pastor, said he came to know Kelly over the past four years at the parish. He described him as a “real, real gentleman, a real kind man.” He recalled a man with a wonderful sense of humor and a warm smile, but a man who took his faith seriously.
“I was always impressed with this man of real faith,” said Nusca. “He was very devout.”
Kelly and his wife, Andra, were regular attendees at the Sunday 10 a.m. Mass at Holy Rosary, always arriving early and taking up their regular seats to pray before Mass, said Nusca.
“All the parishioners will certainly miss this wonderful man, a legendary hockey player, but a man of real faith,” the priest said.
Former teammate Dick Duff, a fellow St. Mike’s alumnus who played against Kelly before they became teammates in the early 1960s glory years of the Maple Leafs, recalled a man who exuded a calm on those around him — on the ice and off. If something needed to be discussed among teammates, with Kelly around people knew the problem would be resolved, said Duff. And on the ice, especially among the young Leafs, they looked up to the team’s veterans, Kelly in particular.
Kelly was a six-time first team all-star and the first ever recipient of the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman. But he also received the Lady Byng Trophy, emblematic of the most gentlemanly player in the rough and tumble NHL, not once but four times. And as a defenseman at that, Duff said incredulously.
“He wasn’t crude on the ice, he didn’t cheap-shot anybody. He just played. He understood the game,” said Duff.
Kelly’s death caught Duff by surprise. He and fellow Leafs’ and St. Mike’s alumni Frank Mahovlich had been to see Kelly at Sunnybrook Hospital in the days before he died. He said Kelly was scheduled to visit a downtown clinic for some rehabilitation.
In his 2016 autobiography The Red Kelly Story, Kelly devotes a chapter to “The Lessons of St. Michael’s.” While focusing on his hockey career, he also tells of life for a boy away from home boarding at school and how, just like at home, he was an altar boy.
“We had Mass every morning in the basement, though it was different on Saturday and Sunday, but during the week it was early in the morning,” he wrote. “At Christmas time, when everybody else went home, I still had hockey, so I had to stay.”
After Kelly died, his family released a statement through the Detroit Red Wings.
“Red was a devoted husband and caring father and grandfather and was tremendously proud of his many hockey accomplishments. He was very moved by decades of love and support from Red Wings fans and was humbled to have his jersey retired earlier this year. We are comforted in knowing that he impacted so many people both at and away from the rink and know that his life will be celebrated,” the family statement said.
The Maple Leafs, where Kelly finished his playing career and would later coach in the 1970s, also mourned his passing.
“For those of us who were lucky enough to have known or encountered Red, we will all miss his sharp mind and keen intellect,” said Leafs’ president Brendan Shanahan. “He was a gentle man but a fierce competitor. Above all, he was a family man and he will be missed by his hockey family. Our deepest sympathies go out to Andra, their children, grandchildren and the entire Kelly family.”
Leonard Patrick Kelly was born July 9, 1927, in Simcoe, Ontario, in the heart of Ontario’s tobacco belt, where his family farmed. He soon earned the nickname “Red” for his bright red hair.
After 20 years as a player in the NHL, he entered the coaching ranks with the expansion Los Angeles Kings and coached 10 years with various teams, including his final four seasons with Toronto.
Twice he was elected a member of Parliament for the Toronto riding of York West while playing for the Maple Leafs. Following his hockey career, he ran a successful aircraft maintenance company.
Conlon is a staff writer at The Catholic Register, Toronto.