Imagine the dedication and commitment it takes to become one of the 100 best players in National Hockey League history.
Now consider how much effort it takes to get into federal politics — winning a party’s nomination, knocking on thousands of doors, being successful on election night, then doing the job of representing your constituents.
Astonishingly, one Ontarian, who just celebrated his 90th birthday earlier this month, did both of those things at the same time.
Even more than a half century after the fact, people are still amazed when I tell them the story of Leonard “Red” Kelly, who in the 1960s was both a star performer for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the Member of Parliament for York West.
The year was 1962, and ever since 1878, York West had been a reliably conservative bastion in northwest Toronto. Over those 84 years, some version of the Conservative Party had won the seat in every single election, save for two, when the then leader of the opposition, Lester B. Pearson, met Kelly at the Park Plaza Hotel in Toronto and urged him to run for the Liberals in the upcoming June 18, 1962 election. Pearson offered any of seven seats for Kelly to run in, but since York West wasn’t spoken for (and had no organization either), Kelly figured, “Why not run there? I wouldn’t be stepping on anyone’s toes so what did we have to lose.”
Kelly and I spoke about this time in his life a few years ago, as a prelude to doing a possible biography on him. (That project never happened with me, but I kept the notes of our conversation anyway).
Kelly assured his wife Andra, who as a professional figure skater was as good on the blades as her husband, that it would all be over soon enough. In April, he helped the Maple Leafs win the first of four Stanley Cups the team would win in the 1960s, and then in June against all odds, captured the seat in the election, defeating John Hamilton, who’d won the seat three times previously.
Andra’s reaction was less than enthusiastic, given that she was pregnant, and would also have to organize a move from the family’s East York home to one in the riding.
Kelly’s victory was a huge shock since he knew next to nothing about how to run for office. But one day during the campaign, he got a call from MP Paul Martin, Sr., the father of Canada’s 21st prime minister, who wanted Kelly to come to Windsor to help him campaign.
“I told him I couldn’t commit to doing it since I didn’t even know the people in my own riding yet,” Kelly recalled. “But you couldn’t say no to Paul Martin.”
Martin, who would spend 33 years in the House of Commons, showed Kelly how it was done. “I didn’t know beans about this stuff,” Kelly remembered. “We went to the Catholic school, the Chrysler plant, the Ford plant, and he knew everyone. He spoke at his own nomination meeting that night for an hour without any notes. Then he came to my riding and gave a speech like it was to a thousand people, when in fact it was to just a few in a park.”
The 1962 election saw John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservatives win only a minority government, which was precarious from the word go. Less than a year later, Canadians were back at the polls, dumping Dief and giving Pearson’s Liberals a minority government instead.
Kelly’s re-election was even more memorable, given who his main opponent was: lawyer, player agent, and future NHL Players’ Association chief Alan Eagleson. It wasn’t close. Kelly took 51 per cent of the votes compared to just 30 per cent for “The Eagle.” In fact, Kelly was such a star candidate at this point, he accepted invitations to campaign in the ridings of future prime ministers Jean Chrétien and John Turner, plus future finance minister Donald S. Macdonald as well.
“I brought in my teammates to campaign against Eagleson,” Kelly laughed.
Kelly was in Parliament on December 15, 1964 for one of the most momentous votes in the country’s history, and cast his support in favor of Canada’s new red maple leaf flag — something that did not endear him to the Leafs’ founder Conn Smythe, who’d fought in both world wars under the old Red Ensign.
“But the people wanted a new flag. It was time,” Kelly says. “If I didn’t get re-elected that was fine. But it’s what our people wanted.”
Somehow, during the three years he was both an MP and a hockey player, Kelly never missed a single game. His House duty tended to be Thursday nights; NHL games were normally on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday back then. Occasionally, he said, he’d rent the rink at the Minto Club in Ottawa, bring his equipment to Parliament Hill, and practice by himself.
One time, Kelly recalled, there was a Leafs’ away game in Montreal on a Thursday night. Kelly was in the House all afternoon long for votes until the 6 pm adjournment time.
“The Speaker of the House had a chauffeur waiting to drive me right to Montreal,” he says. “I got to The Forum just as the team was going on to the ice for the warmup. I had no dinner or pre-game meal, and got through the game. The team went back to Toronto, I went back to Ottawa and got home at 5:30 a.m. That was the only time I almost missed a game.”
Kelly was asked by prime minister Pearson to represent the Canadian government at the Tokyo Olympics in October, 1964. He called Leafs’ coach Punch Imlach, told him of his dilemma, and that the assignment would require him to miss all of training camp.
“You can tear up my contract if you like, Punch,” Kelly offered contritely.
“Can you get to our first game in Detroit?” Imlach asked.
“Yes,” Kelly answered, even though it was only a few days after the opening of the Olympics and half a world away.
“Good,” Punch said. “Come sit on the bench. You won’t have to play.”
Kelly went to Japan, gave a speech at the World Recreation Congress on behalf of Prime Minister Pearson in Osaka, and actually rented some ice at 5 o’clock one morning to train. While Kelly was doing his starts and stops, his wife Andra was practicing her figure skating jumps.
Kelly made it to Detroit on time but nothing went according to script after that. The Leafs got down 2-0 to the Red Wings, at which point Imlach shouted, “Kelly, get out there!”
“Apparently, I was in better shape than the guys who he’d been cracking the whip on,” Kelly laughed. “I played the rest of the game, and never missed a shift.”
Ironically, the one time the prime minister came to see his MP from York West play, Kelly had one of his worst nights. It was the 1964 playoffs, and the Leafs were on the verge of winning their third straight Stanley Cup. But on this night at Maple Leaf Gardens, Kelly was experiencing excruciating knee pain. He took a shot of Novocaine to deaden the pain but by the third period the freezing was wearing off and he was in serious trouble. After the game, he passed out in the dressing room, was rushed to hospital, and missed the PM’s visit to the locker room entirely.
He showed up the next day in Ottawa on crutches.
“Conn Smythe’s son Hugh was the team doctor,” Kelly recalled. “He apologized for putting me through so much pain but I told him, hey, it’s okay, I wanted to play too.” The Leafs were playing Kelly’s former team, the Red Wings, whom they bested four games to three for the club’s third consecutive championship.
In 1965, Kelly stepped down as an MP, but played two more seasons in the NHL — 21 in all. In the November election that year, Robert Winters held his York West seat for the Liberals. Winters would cement his place in history as the man Pierre Trudeau defeated on the last ballot for the party leadership three years later.
Kelly would go on to win another Cup with the Leafs in 1967 (two months shy of his 40th birthday), then had a 10-year career as an NHL coach with the Los Angeles Kings, Pittsburgh Penguins, and finally the Maple Leafs. He is without question the only Canadian ever who can say, as he does, “I won three Stanley Cups and two elections in just three years!”
I last saw Red Kelly this spring at the Ontario Legislature. A new book on his life (The "Red" Kelly Story, authored by Kelly with L. Waxy Gregoire and David M. Dupuis) was nominated along with my most recent effort on former premier Bill Davis for the Speaker of the Legislature’s Book Prize. I won’t try to snow you by saying I didn’t want to win (because I did), but I was genuinely thrilled when Speaker Dave Levac announced Kelly’s book was the winner.
It was a fitting tribute to a Canadian whose story is utterly unique in both politics and professional sports.
Happy 90th birthday, Mr. Kelly.
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