• Brian McFarlane

Red Kelly - My first interview on my first hockey telecast


By Brian McFarlane

For 33 years, after each hockey season ended, my wife and I would fly to New York for the Canadian Association of New York’s annual hockey banquet at the famous Waldorf Astoria. Paul Levesque, a former Montrealer, would persuade many of the biggest names in hockey to attend, to be head table guests and none ever demanded a fee. Why? Because their wives were invited. The wives loved an all expense paid weekend in Manhattan where they’d shop and take in a Broadway play.

At the Waldorf Astoria, for breakfast you can pay 20 bucks for a bowl of oatmeal and a small glass of orange juice. My wife and I, known for our frugality, usually walk two blocks to a deli and get a full breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast and coffee for less than seven bucks. One year, we opted for the expensive oatmeal and juice because we ran into our friends Red Kelly and his wife Andra in Oscars, the hotel's posh restaurant.

While the girls chatted, I enjoyed a lengthy talk with Red about his career in hockey. I reminded Red that he was the first guest player I interviewed on our initial game on the CBS network in 1960. Yes, that far back. It was also my first network appearance. And I reminded him that one big league scout, after watching him play junior hockey for St. Mikes, predicted he’d never play 20 games in the NHL.

“Red, you played for 20 seasons. That’s amazing.”

And I reminded him that most people weren’t aware that he was the only non-Montreal player to win eight Stanley Cups-four in Detroit in four more in Toronto.

“Red, that’s also amazing.”

Our hockey talk surprised Andra. She said to me later, “Brian, Red seldom talks about the game anymore. I couldn't believe you two. Red hasn’t talked about his career like that in years."

I asked Red what he recalled of his childhood hockey days.

“My brother Joe had the skates and when he outgrew them I got the skates. We'd ride the pony a few miles to Port Dover and we'd put the pony in the lumber shed next to the arena to keep him warm. Then we'd dash into the rink to play hockey.

“There was a pot bellied stove in the dressing room. We'd put our skates close to the stove to warm them up. We'd play all morning and come back home on the pony. I'd be behind my brother, hanging on.

“Some days we'd go to the old mill pond or out to a big lake not far from Port Dover. If you missed a hard pass on the lake ice, the puck would roll for a mile because the ice was so hard. Great fun to play on.

“Other times we'd walk down the railway tracks for about three miles and come to the cedar swamp. We'd scrounge for some wood and get a fire going and play all day there. When the sun went down, it was back up the tracks and then you’d see the lights on in the farmhouse and that made us feel good. We were almost home. You were cold, you were tired, you were hungry and you couldn't wait to get inside and get close to the stove. And you couldn't wait to eat my Mom’s home cooked meal. One night it was so cold my dad brought in 13 baby pigs in a basket to keep them alive.

“We had a radio and every Saturday night I’d listen to Foster Hewitt on Hockey Night in Canada. I liked Red Horner of the Leafs because he had red hair—like I did.

“My dad had played with Hap Emms at St. Mikes and my dad was good. I mean really good. We'd go to see him play against the Green brothers—Red and Shorty--who later played in the NHL with Hamilton. And he played against Charlie McSorley, Marty's dad. Back then, there was a cross country trolley train and sometimes the teams would travel by train. They held the train up for two hours one day waiting for my dad to finish his work on the farm--that's how important he was to his team.

My dad gave me one hockey tip I never forgot. "Coming in on a goalie, look him straight in the eye," he said. "Don't look down to see where the puck is. When you do, the goalie may shift left or right or come out at you. Lock eyes with the goalie and he won't know what you are going to do. I scored a goal on Sawchuk like that and on Plante,"

But it was Joe Primeau--they called him Gentleman Joe--who taught me to play a clean game. He'd say, "Red, nobody ever won a game sitting in the penalty box." I used to get in a few skirmishes when I was a young player but I listened to Joe. Mind you, you had to be tough. But you learned to ignore the guys who threatened to "rip your ears off if you touch that puck."

“Did you know back then, you might be a star one day?”

“No, no, never. My dad got me into St, Mikes, a school known for its hockey--he knew some of the priests there. But making the hockey teams there was a challenge. I tried out for the strong Junior 'A' team and I was cut after one scrimmage. I tried out for the 'B' team, and I was told I wasn't needed. Not good enough. I tried out for the midget team and I was told to come back next season.

One day I'm out on the open-air rink playing with some of the young fellows who were going into the priesthood. One of them was an assistant to the coach with the midget team. I guess I showed him something because he went to Father Flanagan and said, 'You'd better take another look at this red-haired kid.' I was invited back to the midget team and we won the 1943-44 championship. I graduated to the B team in 1944-45 and we won another championship. In 1945-46, playing with the Major A team, St. Mike's went all the way to the Memorial Cup final, but lost to Winnipeg. We were leading 3-2 in games and then lost two straight. It was so disappointing.

The next year (1946-47), we won the Memorial Cup in four straight games against Moose Jaw. We had to go west and play in three different cities--Winnipeg, Moose Jaw and Regina. That squad featured Hall of Famer Joe Primeau as coach, with a lot of future pros on the roster. Benny Woit and I graduated to the Detroit Red Wings, Les Costello, Ray Hannigan, Fleming MacKell, Rudy Migay and Tod Sloan moving to the Maple Leafs and Ed Harrison and Ed Sandford signed with the Boston Bruins. Another team member, Johnny McLellan, didn't get to the NHL but later coached the Maple Leafs. We won by scores of 12-3, 6-1, 8-1 and 3-2. The 8-1 game was played in Regina and for some reason the fans cussed us and jeered us. And then they hurled bottles on the ice and the game was called. Never finished.

With the Red Wings, as a rookie, you'd go around the league and they'd test you. They'd knock you around to see if you could take it, see how you'd react. That's always been a part of hockey.

But I was lucky to be part of a winning team, with stars like Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel leading the way—the Production Line. They brought us eight league championships in the fifties and four Stanley Cups.

“And there were four Norris Trophies for you.”

Well, that was all right, too. But I always thought of hockey as a team game.

“Red, in 1960, my first year on TV with CBS, you were not only the first player I interviewed to begin my career but you were the centre of the biggest story of the season--the shocking trade that sent you to New York but saw you wind up in Toronto.”

“Well, I had a cracked ankle in 1959 and it still bothered me the following season. Jack Adams, the Detroit manager, asked me to play on it if possible. So I played but I told him I just couldn't turn easily in one direction. So now I've got Bobby Hull coming at me at 100 miles an hour and I simply can't turn fast enough to cut him off. I guess Adams figured I was slowing down, on my last legs.

Then suddenly, on Feb. 5, 1960, I found out I’d been traded to New York, along with Billy McNeill for Bill Gadsby and Eddie Shack. Adams was notorious for making deals. Well, that came as a major shock. I stayed up all night thinking about my situation. What could I do about it? The next day I went to see Mr. Adams and told him I didn't think that I was going to move to New York. He didn’t like that bit of news one bit. Mr. Adams said, “Listen, Red, you have to go. You’ve been traded. Don’t you get it? If you don't go you'll really be in deep trouble.”

I told Adams, ‘Look, my contract is up. I don't owe you anything. So I am just not going to go.’ And I walked out.

NHL president Clarence Campbell phoned me immediately and threatened me. He said, “Red, you must go to New York. If you don’t, you’ll be blackballed by the NHL. You’ll never have a job in hockey again, not as a player, coach, manager or ‘stickboy’. Get on the next plane to New York”

I told Mr. Campbell, “Well, you can blackball me if you want but I am just not going to go. Besides, I already have another job.”

It was true. I did have another job. I’d agreed to work for a fellow I knew. So the deal with the Rangers was nullified.

Eddie Shack and I often laugh about this, but when I was traded to New York and Eddie learned that he was coming to Detroit, he called Ranger coach Phil Watson every name in the book. Now, a day later, he has to go back and play for Watson. That was one time Shackie wished he’d kept his mouth shut.

So I’m at my new job when King Clancy of the Leafs called and Andra answered the phone. We were newlyweds then and she had vaguely heard of King Clancy. Mr. Clancy said, “You'll let me speak with your husband won't you?”

She said, “I can't, Mr. Clancy. He has gone to work.”

Clancy finally contacted me and said, “Look, Red, come to Toronto, Mr. Imlach would like to talk to you, but try to do it on the hush.”

So I flew to Toronto wearing a bowler hat. When I got off the plane nobody even recognized me-not even Clancy. He was still scrutinizing passengers when I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Here I am, King.”

Clancy put me up at the Westbury Hotel and then we went over to the Gardens and talked to Punch Imlach about the possibility of me playing for Toronto. Punch thought I might like the idea because I had a tobacco farm in Simcoe which wasn’t too far away. We talked all day about working out a deal and then we decided to go out for dinner at a nice restaurant-Winstons. But Imlach still wanted to keep everything a secret. In the car, King and Punch were up front and I was in the back. We hadn’t gone a block when we almost ran over Jim Vipond, the sports editor for the Globe and Mail. Punch and King were shouting at me, “Get down, Red! Get down!”

I ducked down in the back seat and Jim Vipond never knew how close he came to getting a good scoop. He just missed seeing me. We got to Winstons and there was another problem. All of the Montreal Canadiens were sitting around having dinner. They had a game at the Gardens the following night and they were really surprised to see me dining with Clancy and Imlach. Rocket Richard came over and said, “Red, what are you doing here? I thought you were in Detroit. I heard you were retired. Don’t tell me you’re going to play with the Leafs. Forget the Leafs. Come play with us.” And we kind of made light of it. After the Habs left the place Punch and I finally made a deal. By then it was one in the morning. Imlach said he’d send Detroit a player for me and that Adams would not be a problem.

Punch wanted me to play the following night against Montreal. I didn't even have my skates with me. Imlach said, “Red, have Andra fly in with your skates. I am going to play you at centre. I need someone who can handle Jean Beliveau.”

That was another big surprise.

“Playing centre’s fine with me," I told Punch.

So we shook hands on a deal and I came away with more money than I was making in Detroit.

Clancy says, "How would you like to have number four for your number?" I didn't know he'd called my wife and asked her if there was anything he could do for her. And Andra said, "Could you get Red number four?"

And King said, "I'm sure we can."

Andra flew in for the game against Montreal and when she walked over from the hotel, she heard people talking on the street. They were all talking about the trade and her husband.

Andra laughed and said, “I must admit I didn't realize what a huge star Red was. I knew he was a big name on the Red Wings, of course, but to find out what a well‑known personality he was in Toronto surprised me. Virtually everybody in the city was talking about him. I was amazed.”

I couldn't believe the reception I got from the Leaf fans when I skated out to centre ice. It grew louder when I squared off against Beliveau.

The puck was dropped and I made up my mind there was no bloody way Beliveau was going to get that puck. I snared it and flipped it into the Montreal end and I went barrelling in after it and there was goalie Jacques Plante coming out of the net. I was so hyped up I decided Plante wasn't going to clear that puck so I raced in and just levelled him. I did a beautiful somersault right over him.

So that was the start of my career as a Leaf. And what a wonderful career it turned out to be.

I played on three Stanley Cup winners as a Leaf-and then a fourth in 1967 Canada’s Centennial Year when everybody said the Leafs were too old. Well, we were old, most of us over 30. But we surprised everybody by beating Montreal in six games with Johnny Bower and Terry Sawchuk, giving us the goaltending we needed.

For three of those seasons I had another job. I served as a Member of Parliament for the riding of York West. I decided to run because of Mr. Pearson, the Prime Minister. In 1952 I won by 4,000 votes and in the next election I won by 17,000 votes, beating out a young lawyer named Alan Eagleson. Somebody told me I should knock on doors soliciting votes so I did. I knocked on two doors and both the ladies who answered said I had their vote. I figured I better quit while I was ahead so I didn't knock on any more doors. I served until 1965. It meant a lot of travel back and forth, leaving for Ottawa right after a practice and getting back in time for a game. Or catching up with the team on the road.

Why did I leave politics? Well, I came home one day after a busy week and my daughter Casey, who was about four years old, saw me when I stepped out of a cab. She said to Andra, "Mommy, here comes Red Kelly up the walk."

That made me blink. Casey didn't even call me dad or daddy. And I thought, my kids will be all grown up and not even know their father if I don't cut back. So I decided to stick to hockey.

After we won the Cup in ’64 Bob Baun and I were both on the limp. He had scored a dramatic goal to win a crucial game in Detroit while playing on a broken leg. And I had a bad knee injury. We both played in the Stanley Cup winning game and I passed out in the shower afterward from the pain.

There was no time for partying for either of us. I went straight home and rose early and left for Ottawa. The Liberal party needed my vote on some issue.

Later that morning, Harold Ballard came to my house looking for me. He had the Stanley Cup with him and a photographer in tow.

“Where’s Red?” he asked Andra.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Ballard. Red left for Ottawa.”

Ballard said. “Well, get your kids together around the Cup. We’ll take some photos anyway.”

The photographer asked Andra to put our baby son Conn in the bowl of the Stanley Cup where he promptly took a poop. I think about that and smile every year when I see fellows drinking from it.

I retired after the ‘67 Cup win to accept a coaching job in Los Angeles for Jack Kent Cooke. His general manager was Larry Regan who had been my teammate with the Leafs.

One night Andra and I went to a big party hosted by Cooke where there was lot of booze but not much food. So we left with Regan and his wife she was related to Lord Thompson—a niece I think to get something to eat.

In the restaurant Larry’s wife spotted the actor who played The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Remember him-Robert Vaughn? He was seated with two young women in the back. Larry’s wife loved celebrities so she rushed over to get his autograph. When he brushed her aside she took his plate and dumped his meal all over his head.

That triggered all kinds of law suits. He sued the Kings, the Lakers, Cooke and the Kellys. The story got in all the papers and it was really embarrassing. But the lawyers got together and settled things.

Then I coached in Pittsburgh for three seasons and came back to the Leafs as head coach in 1973.

We were in St. Louis one night and boy it was noisy in there. I was trying to think of some sort of a gimmick to counteract all the noise, so I bought all these earmuffs for my players and I made them all wear earmuffs on the bench. Even I wore earmuffs and wouldn't you know they scored a goal against us in the first minute we had them on.

Then I came up with some other gimmicks like the pyramid power. Boy, the guys really picked up on that. Some of the players put their sticks under the pyramids and swore it brought them more goals. Sittler scored five goals one night after placing his stick under a pyramid. Apparently the pyramids produced positive and negative ions and I talked the Leafs into becoming believers. That was back when the Flyers brought in an aging heavyweight singer named Kate Smith to their games—for good luck. Tiger Williams told the guys, “I’d rather sit under Red’s pyramid than sit under Kate Smith.”

“Years later, Red would put his stories in a book. I missed the boat not asking him to be his ghost writer. What a dummy I am. He’s almost 90 and has enjoyed a fascinating career in the game. If he has one regret it’s probably not being more supportive of Ted Lindsay when Lindsay tilted his stick at the league and said, ‘We are going to form a player’s association’ We all know what that brought Terrible Ted—condemnation from the owners and a trade to last place Chicago engineered by his boss, the old curmudgeon Jack Adams.”

Andra says, "I was very surprised when Red opened up and talked to you about these subjects that he hasn't discussed in years and years.

“Eddie Shack moved into our neighbourhood some time ago and he comes around every once in awhile. He’ll call out to me through my kitchen window like a little kid, ‘Hi Andra! Can Leonard come out and play?’”

Andra talks about Lanny MacDonald.

“Early in Lanny MacDonald’s career, he was struggling so hard to help the Leafs. Red tried to get him to relax. He brought him over to the house and we fed him a good home cooked meal. The kids were goggle‑eyed when Lanny sat down to eat. He was a country boy, and he ate so much. The potatoes and the vegetables and the meat were piled high on his plate. Lanny swirled them all around and mixed them all up in the center of his plate then dug in. The kids had never seen anything like it.

“When I was skating in the ice show I was travelling all over North America. Occasionally there would be a knock on my dressing room door and I would say, ‘Who is it?’ And a voice would reply, ‘It’s the world’s greatest hockey player.’ When I opened the door, Red would be standing there. But one night in Montreal there was a rapping on the door. I was surprised because I thought Red was in Detroit. ‘Who is it?’ I called out. ‘It’s the world’s greatest hockey player.’ I was stunned. How in the world did Red get to the Montreal Forum? I threw open the door, ready to embrace him and standing there with a big grin on his face was-Rocket Richard. Camille Desroches, the publicity man for the Canadiens, had cooked up the little joke.

On the Hockey News list of hockey’s top 100 players, Red Kelly is listed at number 22. He played in 1316 games, almost 1300 more than the mere 20 a scout had predicted for him. He scored 231 goals and 542 assists. In his first full season as a Leaf, he helped Frank Mahovlich to a 48 goal season, the Big M’s career high.

He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1969. And no, he didn’t get there riding a pony.

The Kellys have been good friends to the McFarlanes for over three decades. We attended Red’s 90th birthday party at the Granite Club in 2017 and when his daughter thought that Red was rambling on, she touched his elbow and said, “Dad we’ve only booked the room until 5 o’clock.” I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t cherish the moments they’ve spent with the Kellys.

Red joined a group of oldtimer players at our noon workouts in North York one season. The men were thrilled to have him with us. And I was thrilled when he took me aside and said, “All this time I’ve known you and I had no idea you could play hockey so well.”

What a compliment. I’ve never forgotten it.

Now the Red Wings have retired his famous number 4 (a pretty good Boston player snapped up the same number years ago) and you wonder what took them so long. Jack Adams would never have allowed it. He must be spinning in his grave.

Red Kelly—my first interview on my first hockey telecast--was one of the finest men I ever met.