When you look at the greatest players of the 1950s and 1960s, a lot of names come up like Jean Beliveau, Rocket Richard, Gordie Howe, Terry Sawchuk and Bobby Hull. There is another name mixed in there though and it is Leonard Patrick Kelly, better known as Red Kelly.
This episode isn’t about the career of Red Kelly, or really his life. Needless to say he had an extraordinary career. He won the Stanley Cup eight times for two different teams, Detroit and Toronto. He has won the Cup more than any player who didn’t play for Montreal and he is the only player to be part of two dynasties, neither of which were with Montreal. With 823 points in 1,316 games as both a defencemen from 1947 to 1960 and then a centre from 1960 to 1967, he entered the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1969, had his number retired by both Toronto and Detroit and is considered one of the 100 greatest players ever.
Red Kelly was very good.
So why am I talking about him if I’m not talking about his career? I’m talking about him because of something else he did while winning Stanley Cups with Toronto and that was serve in the Canadian House of Commons, during his NHL career, from 1962 to 1965.
For Kelly, he had great admiration for Lester B. Pearson, saying, quote:
Pearson was also keen to have Kelly run in the election, specifically asking him to after the trade from Detroit but Kelly told him at the time, quote:
“I told Mr. Pearson I did not think it was possible to combine the two. He agreed!”
Pearson would keep on Kelly though, eventually convincing him. Kelly would say, quote:
“Lester Pearson had a great ability to bring people together and the more we talked the more I liked him and admired him. I decided I would do whatever I could to help him become prime minister.”
Kelly was offered five ridings to choose from in order to run, and he would choose York West. He said, quote:
“I looked at them all and I thought York West had been Conservative for most of its existence. It didn’t have much of a local team in place, and so I selected it, because I thought that if I lost the election, I haven’t hurt them any, given a Liberal had not been elected in the riding for quite a while. It was the largest riding population-wise in Canada at the time.”
In the 1962 federal election, Kelly ran with the Liberal Party in York West, where he was up against the incumbent John Hamilton for the seat in the House of Commons. As if a symbol of his future victory, Kelly and the Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup only one week prior to securing his nomination in the riding.
As Kelly was famous enough from his hockey career, he didn’t need to knock on doors. Instead, he would go and help other Liberal candidates in other ridings.
This was the election that saw the John Diefenbaker government suffer a huge collapse when they went from the biggest win in Canadian election history to losing 92 seats and falling to 116, while Lester B. Pearson and his Liberals gained 51 seats to get to 99. Diefenbaker and his government remained in power, at least for a year, but for Red Kelly it was a big victory.
John Hamilton had served as the Member of Parliament for the area since 1954 and the Progressive Conservative Party had been in charge there since 1940. In fact, since the creation of the riding, a non-Conservative Party member had only been elected there twice, once with Thomas Wallace of the Unionist Government from 1917 to 1921, and John Everett Lyle Streight, a Liberal member from 1935 to 1940.
It was going to be a challenge for Kelly but as someone who had already won several Stanley Cups and changed to a new position, it was one he was up for. He would defeat the incumbent by nearly 4,000 votes and in the next year, was re-elected where his Progressive Conservative Opponent was Alan Eagleson. Eagleson would go on to have a very large impact on hockey, both good and bad, and like Kelly would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, until he was removed following his arrest for fraud and embezzlement after he defrauded his clients and stole money from tournaments.
Eagleson, who at the time represented some of Kelly’s teammates, attempted to depict Kelly as an absentee MP who coasted to fame. In reality, his absentee record was no worse than many other MPs. The insults didn’t take though and Kelly was reelected in a landslide with 17,000 more votes than Eagleson.
Kelly always felt that if he could not give it his all, he would not continue. He would tell a crowd, quote:
Even though he worked hard at both his careers, it was not always easy. Kelly would say later, quote:
“That was a tremendous experience. I enjoyed those years but it was tough doing both things. I thought I had one foot in the grave.”
Not everyone felt that Kelly was up to the task of becoming an MP. Blair Fraser with Maclean’s wrote an editorial called “Why There’s One Contest We’d Like To See A Good Man Lose.” In it he says, quote:
“The deliberate attempt to turn an athlete’s fame into a partisan asset implies such a deep contempt for the voter’s intelligence, such a patronizing reliance on bread and circuses for the ignorant plebeians, that it amounts to a rejection of democracy.”
In his first year as an MP, Kelly was at a Christmas party thrown for the House of Commons page boys and he gave each page an autographed hockey stick.
In 1989 on Hockey Night in Canada, Kelly described how hectic it was for him to be both a star hockey player and a Member of Parliament, saying quote:
“The National Hockey League played games mainly on Wednesday night, Saturdays and Sundays. The House of Commons did not sit Wednesday or Friday evenings or on the weekends but the sessions extended well into the summer. I missed few sessions and no games but was frequently unable to practice with the Maple Leafs and took my skates to Ottawa where I would rent some ice at 5 a.m. in Hull or the Minto Skating Club.”
His colleagues also helped him, including one time that the Deputy Speaker of the House organized a limo to take Kelly to Montreal following a critical vote in the House of Commons.
Kelly’s wife Andra would serve as his secretary and the constituency office was based right out of the home. Kelly would often meet with a constituent over the dinner hour and even share his meal with them.
Nonetheless, it was extremely difficult some days. When the Leafs won the Stanley Cup in 1964, Kelly had his knee frozen before the final game and fell asleep in the shower afterwards, and still had to be in Ottawa the next day.
His role as an MP and hockey player also gained him some fame on American television when he appeared on To Tell The Truth.
Sometimes, Kelly’s experience as a hockey player also helped him in the House of Commons. His first parliamentary speech was in May of 1963 when he addressed controversies of replacing the national anthem, and the flag. He would tell the House of Commons about the increased use of O’ Canada instead of God Save The Queen at NHL games and that it created a stronger sense of patriotic pride. He also said he supported a new flag and an opposition heckler yelled out, “The Maple Leaf?” Kelly responded, quote:
“Yes. The Red Ensign was borrowed from Britain and now it is time to give it back and have our own distinctive flag. It is time to cut the apron strings from Britain.”
The Toronto Star would praise his speech as a sensible and well-considered effort. That speech and his support of the new flag would bring some issues with his former boss, Conn Smythe. Kelly received heavy opposition from Conn Smythe, who at the time was a minority owner of the Leafs.
Smythe would say of the debate to change the flag, quote:
Smythe would hold meetings with Kelly and exchange letters with him pleading with him to keep the old flag. Kelly stuck to his guns though, speaking with colleagues who felt that the new flag would be a stronger international symbol for the country.
In 1964, Kelly would represent the Canadian government at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, after getting permission from Punch Imlach, his coach and general manager, who said Kelly just needed to be back for the season opener.
In 1965, Kelly chose not to run again because he wanted to spend more time with his family. In his autobiography, The Red Kelly Story, he was walking up his driveway after a parliamentary session when his young daughter yelled, “Look mommy! It’s Red Kelly!”, which showed him how often he had been away.
Pearson was in Toronto for the opening of the new city hall and he spoke with Kelly for an hour and accepted his decision to retire from politics. Kelly would say after he made his decision, quote:
“As soon as I made the decision, I felt as though a 200-pound weight had been lifted from my shoulders.”
Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, CBC, Wikipedia, TVO, Toronto Sun, Zoomer.com, CTV News,