Red Kelly, the eight-time Stanley Cup champion and Hockey Hall of Famer, talked about his life at St. Mike’s in this picture dated 2016. Kelly passed away May 2 in Toronto. He was 91. Photo by Evan Boudreau

Hockey legend Red Kelly was a ‘real gentleman'

  • May 6, 2019

As great a hockey player as Leonard ‘Red’ Kelly was — and he was one of the best, with eight Stanley Cup titles over an illustrious 20-year National Hockey League career while being named a six-time first team all-star and the first ever recipient of the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenceman — 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.

Mr. Kelly was a devout Catholic, a member of Holy Rosary Parish next to St. Michael’s College School, the Toronto Catholic high school where Mr. Kelly 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. 

Holy Rosary pastor Msgr. Robert Nusca came to know Mr. Kelly over the last four years with the parish, calling him a “real, real gentleman, a real kind man.” He recalls a man with a wonderful sense of humour 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.” 

The two often talked hockey, said Nusca, and would discuss how the Toronto Maple Leafs were playing. He would always get a laugh out of Mr. Kelly, he said, when the Leafs would hit a rough stretch in the season and Nusca would tell Mr. Kelly that perhaps he should come out of retirement to help straighten the team out.

Mr. Kelly and his wife, Andra, were regular attendees at the 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,” said Nusca.

Former teammate Dick Duff, a fellow St. Mike’s alumnus who played against Mr. Kelly before they became teammates in the early 1960s glory years of the Leafs, recalls a man who exuded a calm on all those around him.

“In his presence, there was a calmness about him,” said Duff, who won three Stanley Cups with Mr. Kelly.

It was on the ice and off. If something needed to be discussed among teammates, with Mr. Kelly around you knew the problem would be resolved, said Duff. And on the ice, especially amongst the young Leafs, they looked up to the team’s veterans, Mr. Kelly in particular.

“He was a comforting, calm person,” he said. 

Maybe the best example of what a gentleman he was can be found in Mr. Kelly being honoured with the Lady Byng Trophy, emblematic of the most gentlemanly player in the rough and tumble NHL, not once but four times. And as a defenceman at that, said Duff incredulously.

“He wasn’t crude on the ice, he didn’t cheap-shot anybody. He just played. He understood the game,” said Duff.

Mr. Kelly’s death caught Duff by surprise. He and fellow Leafs’ and St. Mike’s alumni Frank Mahovlich had been to see Mr. Kelly at Sunnybrook Hospital in the days before he died. He said Mr. Kelly was to go in the coming days to a downtown clinic for some rehabilitation and was surprised to hear from Mahovlich when Mr. Kelly died.

Mr. Kelly maintained a long association with St. Michael’s College School where “he was always involved in anything they asked him to do,” said Duff. The school inducted him into its Order of St. Michael and he is remembered for being “an outstanding ambassador for our school,” said Fr. Andrew Leung, interim president of the Basilian boys’ school. 

“Red was universally respected and admired by all those fortunate to meet and spend time with him. He will be greatly missed, but his accomplishments will live on forever,” said Leung.

In his 2016 autobiography The Red Kelly Story, Mr. 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 the 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.”

Mr. Kelly’s family released a statement through the Detroit Red Wings following the passing of the family patriarch.

“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 Toronto Maple Leafs, where Mr. 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, Ont., in the heart of Ontario’s tobacco belt where his family farmed. He soon earned the nickname “Red” for his bright red hair. He spent 20 years in the NHL after four years at St. Michael’s where he led the Majors to the Memorial Cup championship in 1947. That same year he would make his debut for the Detroit Red Wings, making the team out of training camp, virtually unheard of in the Original Six days. Upon retirement, 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.

Mr. Kelly also made a name for himself in political circles, twice being elected a Member of Parliament for the Toronto riding of York West while playing for the Maple Leafs. Following his hockey career, Mr. Kelly ran a successful aircraft maintenance company.

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Mr. Kelly leaves his wife of 59 years, Andra, their four children and eight grandchildren. A funeral Mass will be celebrated for Mr. Kelly May 10, 10 a.m., at Holy Rosary Church.

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Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.