Red Kelly, the eight-time Stanley Cup champion and Hockey Hall of Famer, talks about his life at St. Mike’s in The Red Kelly Story. Kelly helped lead the Majors to the Memorial Cup. Photo by Evan Boudreau

St. Michael's College created a champ in Red Kelly

By 
  • November 9, 2016

TORONTO – For hockey fans of a few different generations, Red Kelly represents the very best of the game and the NHL.

Eight Stanley Cups. Eight NHL all-star selections. Four Lady Byng awards as most gentlemanly player. Voted NHL’s top defenceman. Elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. A Member of the Order of Canada.

And to think it all might never have happened were it not for the one more chance he was given some 70 years ago to crack the famed St. Michael’s College hockey program in Toronto.

After being cut during tryouts from three different squads at the prep school, Kelly — fresh from his family’s tobacco farm in Simcoe, Ont. — was more than a little discouraged.

“As a little boy I grew up dreaming about playing in the National Hockey League,” recalled the 89-year-old Kelly during a book launch event Nov. 2 for The Red Kelly Story. “Hockey was my life. I didn’t have a plan B.

“I didn’t think I was going to get anywhere (after being cut). I just wanted to play.”

For the Roman Catholic teen, the school had been viewed as the perfect place to further hockey ambitions.

“My dad went to St. Mike’s so he knew you’d get a good education and you’d be well looked after,” he said. “So I figure, well, I’ve got to concentrate on getting the best marks I can.”

Fortunately for both Kelly and St. Mike’s, fate stepped in to keep his dream alive. Kelly had spotted a group of fellow students engaged in a scrimmage on the ice outside his dormitory, and he couldn’t help himself. Dropping his books and grabbing his gear, Kelly raced to join in.

“I went out in the backyard to play after school and the assistant coach of the midget team happened to be out there and decided to get (head coach) Fr. (Edward) Flanagan to give me another shot,” he said.

There was no stopping Kelly this time, and by the time he graduated in 1947 he had added a significant chapter to the St. Mike’s sporting legacy, capped by winning the Memorial Cup as the top junior team in Canada in his final season.

“Just being there under the care of the priests, it was tremendous,” said Kelly.

“They taught us on the ice, they taught us in the classroom and they were who we looked up to. Some of them were taller than us so we’d look up to them that way, and others just because they were great people.”

Kelly credits Fr. Flanagan with improving the skills that would land him in the NHL.

“I couldn’t skate backwards very well early on and I had trouble turning right but I got the ice time and the coaching I needed,” Kelly wrote in his book, co-authored by L. Waxy Gregoire and David Dupuis. “(He) taught me to skate with power, ‘don’t let your butt bounce up and down, skating power is below the waist,’ he’d say. I practised it, practised it, practised it; over and over and over. I learned to go down the ice with a cup of coffee and never spill a drop and still be able to skate as fast as anybody — or faster.”

Kelly was a pivotal presence on the ice for St. Michael’s helping to bring home an All-Ontario Junior B Championship as well as making two trips to the Memorial Cup. The school, which last won the Cup in 1961, has produced a long line of players and students — 212 at last count — who went on to NHL careers, including Joe Primeau, Tim Horton, Ted Lindsay, Dave Keon, the Mahovlich brothers (Frank and Peter) and, more recently, Dominic Moore and Jason Spezza.

Kelly’s years with the Majors earned him a spot with the Detroit Red Wings at the age of 20.

“Most good players at St. Mike’s were Maple Leafs property,” he said. “Toronto didn’t want me, they didn’t think I’d last 20 games in the NHL. Then after 12 ½ years of playing in the NHL, I got the chance to come back to Toronto.”

During the two decades Kelly played in the NHL he continued to collect championships, four with Detroit and four with the Leafs, who opened this season by retiring the No. 4 jersey he wore along with another Leaf great from the previous era, Hap Day.

In addition to hockey and academics, the Basilian Fathers helped shape Kelly’s faith, something the former altar server would come to rely on in his 10-year coaching career in the NHL, including four with the Leafs in the 1970s.

“Your faith gives you faith in what you are doing,” he said. “You don’t get down in the dumps when things go wrong.”

That integration of faith and athletes is a tradition which continues to flourish at St. Michael’s College today.

“The Basilian Fathers have always encouraged everyone in the school to see their faith, their studies, their activities and their sports not as separate aspects of their life, but as naturally integral elements of who they are,” said Fr. Jefferson Thompson, the school’s president who graduated from St. Michael’s in 1979. “(Students) learn to pray for and accept God’s will, that their lives be blessed and unfold as they ought to, whether in the spotlight of talent and fame or in equally honourable pursuits and family life.”

Looking back now Kelly understands that this is why his father insisted that he attend St. Michael’s College.

“Fortunately I came to St. Mike’s and I fortunately had great coaches,” there he said. “Being at St. Michael’s, which I’d recommend to anybody, that was the greatest thing that happened to me.”

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