Hockey great Red Kelly honored with jersey retirement
The current Red Wings, including the retired Henrik Zetterberg, second from left, gather around hockey great Red Kelly, whose jersey was retired before Friday's game.
Red Kelly has always been known as a gentleman and an outstanding human being. And reaffirmed that belief when he spoke during the ceremony to retire the No. 4 he wore for most of his time with the Red Wings from the late 1940s until 1959-60.
“It’s a great honor. I want to thank my wife and my children for supporting me,” Kelly said as he stood at center ice of Little Caesars Arena before Friday night’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, to whom Detroit traded Kelly during the 1959-60 season.
Kelly, with wife Andra and their four children and their spouses, were seated in chairs on the red carpet for most of the ceremony before heading to one end of the carpet, where there was a chair for the guest of honor. From there they watched a banner with the No. 4 on it lifted to the LCA rafters, where it joined the seven other numbers retired by the Wings: No. 1 (Terry Sawchuk), No. 5 (Nicklas Lidstrom), No. 7 (Ted Lindsay), No. 9 (Gordie Howe), No. 10 (Alex Delvecchio), No. 12 (Sid Abel) and No. 19 (Steve Yzerman).
Kelly, 91, leaned on a cane as he spoke slowly into the microphone on a lectern and a microphone held by Red Wings television analyst Mickey Redmond who, along with his partner, play-by-play announcer Ken Daniels, emceed the ceremony.
After winning four Stanley Cups with the Red Wings as the first true rushing defenseman, Kelly was switched to center in Toronto and helped the Maple Leafs win four more Stanley Cups in the 1960s.
“Bobby Orr was the forerunner of the rushing defenseman of the ’60s, but Red Kelly was the premier offensive defenseman of the ’50s,” said former Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman, who was a teenager and in his 20s living in his native Montreal when Kelly played in Detroit. “Nobody could match him. When Red played, it was like they had four forwards on the ice.
“Nobody was able, that I know of … to play defense and move to forward and do what Red Kelly did … Maybe Sergei Fedorov in my days could have moved back and played defense.”
Said Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard: “Anytime you can see a guy’s number go up into the rafters, it’s a very special moment … a moment we all take in.”
When Kelly first joined the Red Wings in 1947-48 as a 20-year-old, he did not wear No. 4.
“Seventy years ago when I joined the Detroit Red Wings out of Juniors, they gave me No. 20,” Kelly said. “And when I came back the next year, they gave me No. 4. I complained and said I liked 20. They said one number is lighter than two.”
Besides honoring the eight-time All-Star who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1969, the retirement ceremony also resolved nearly 60 years of bad feelings.
Here’s the story:
Kelly played with a broken ankle for part of the 1958-59 season. He told a Free Press reporter in 1959-60 that he played with the injury because coach and GM Jack Adams had asked him to give it a shot.
The headline that ran with the story suggested a different story:
“Was Red Kelly Forced to Play with a Broken Foot?”
Adams was angered by the headline and immediately looked to trade his star defenseman.
On Feb. 5, 1960, Adams tried to deal Kelly to the New York Rangers along with forward Billy McNeill for winger Eddie Shack and veteran defenseman Bill Gadsby.
Kelly didn’t like the trade. He was angry at the way Adams and the Wings had treated him considering he had missed only 24 games in 12½ seasons and had just played half a season on a broken ankle. And he wasn’t thrilled about being traded to the last-place Rangers.
McNeil also refused to report to New York.
After a few days, Toronto coach and GM Punch Imlach called Kelly and asked if he would consider going to the Maple Leafs. The principals met secretly, and a deal was worked out that sent Kelly to Toronto, where he enjoyed a second stellar career, this time as a forward.
No amount of recognition could sweeten the bitterness Kelly felt for nearly six decades. But time, as they say, heals all wounds.
“There are very few players in the history of the National Hockey League with the resume of Red Kelly,” said Red Wings senior vice president Jim Devellano. “He was a tremendous player on both ends of the ice, and really revolutionized how the defensive position was played in an era where defensemen were not known for scoring a lot of goals.
“He encapsulated what it means to be a Red Wing, and I am thrilled that he is getting this deserved recognition.”
"I wish to thank Marian and Chris Ilitch for this great honor,” said Kelly, 91, in a recent statement. “The Red Wings gave me my start in the NHL 71 seasons ago. I proudly wear the ring which commemorates the four Stanley Cups the team won when I played for Detroit.
“I treasure the memories I made during my time with the team, playing alongside some of the greatest players and people in the league's history. I am truly grateful that my number will be raised next to those of several of my former teammates."
Said Chris Ilitch: "I'm sure some of you may be thinking right now, why now? I would say, why not now?” Chris Ilitch said. “Simply put, his resume and his accomplishments in hockey, and in particular his time in Detroit, are undeniable.”
Besides helping Detroit win four Stanley Cups, Kelly was the first Norris Trophy winner (1953-54). He became the first defenseman to regularly get involved in his team’s offense – he had nine consecutive seasons of double-digit goal totals and seven seasons of at least 40 points.
He also won the Lady Byng Trophy as the NHL’s most gentlemanly player three times (1950-51, 1952-53 and 1953-54).
And there was much more to come with the Maple Leafs. It was Imlach who switched the then-32-year-old Kelly from defense to center. In his new position, Kelly helped the Leafs win four Stanley Cups while adding another Lady Byng Trophy in 1960-61, in which he scored 20 goals for the first of three consecutive seasons and had a career-high 70 points.
Winning eight Stanley Cups is the most won by a player who was never a Montreal Canadien.
Despite the four Lady Byng Trophies, Kelly was no pushover physically on the ice. He had been a boxing champion at St. Michael’s School in Toronto, where he played Junior Hockey, and was one of the NHL’s best fighters throughout his 20-season career. He did not have to fight often after pummeling a few unfortunate opponents early in his career.
Kelly retired after the 1966-67 season with 281 goals and 823 points (472 in Detroit).
Kelly’s accomplishments were not limited to the ice. He was also a Liberal member of the Canadian Parliament, representing York-West in the Toronto area, from 1962 to 1965.