Fe­dorov’s No. 91 in line for rafters

Kelly’s num­ber had to be re­tired to al­low for next cer­e­mony

The Detroit News - - Nhl -

FDetroit or me, grow­ing up in­cluded hear­ing a lot of sto­ries about the great Red Wings teams of the 1950s. Born in 1956, I heard the tales told af­ter the four Stan­ley Cups in 1950, 1952, 1954 and 1955. None was more poignant, or less com­pre­hen­si­ble, in my young mind, than the story of Red Kelly.

I heard all about the great skat­ing for­ward and de­fense­man, who played with Gordie Howe, Ted Lind­say, Alex Delvec­chio, Terry Sawchuk, Marty Pavelich and the rest of the great Wings cham­pi­ons, while I watched Kelly on “Hockey Night in Canada” Satur­day nights.

But, he was play­ing for the Maple Leafs.

On Thurs­day, the owner of the Red Wings, Mar­ian Il­itch, and her son, the pres­i­dent of Il­itch Hold­ings and NHL gov­er­nor of the team, Christo­pher Il­itch, paid a great honor to a great player, and cor­rected a griev­ous, 60-year-old wrong.

The Red Wings will re­tire Kelly’s No. 4 on Feb. 1, 2019, be­fore a game against the Maple Leafs.

It is be­yond ap­pro­pri­ate. It also heals an an­cient wound.

And, it cre­ates so much jus­tice that it could lead to peace for oth­ers. All Red Wings fans who even­tu­ally want Sergei Fe­dorov’s No. 91 raised to the rafters are now more likely to see the day.

In my mind, Kelly’s num­ber had to be re­tired ei­ther with Fe­dorov’s, or be­fore.

I can ex­plain.

First, the only thing worse, es­pe­cially in the Orig­i­nal Six days, than Kelly skat­ing for the Maple Leafs would have been Red play­ing for the Cana­di­ens, an even more de­tested foe.

“They never should have traded him,” said my brother Tim, re­peat­edly, as we watched the Cana­dian broad­casts in those days on CKLW-TV, Chan­nel 9, out of Wind­sor.

“It is the worst thing the Red Wings ever did.”

In those days, the early

1960s, I also knew the Maple Leafs de­fense­man was a mem­ber of the House of Com­mons in the Cana­dian Par­lia­ment.

Among the great and noble gen­tle­men of the game, Kelly won three Lady Byng Tro­phies.

In a 12-year pe­riod, the Red Wings won eight reg­u­lar-sea­son cham­pi­onships, four Stan­ley Cups and Kelly was a first team all-star de­fense­man six times.

A gen­er­a­tion later, when they all dubbed Nick­las Lid­strom the great­est Wings de­fense­man of all time, some of older fans had longer mem­o­ries, and could re­call a po­ten­tial ri­val.

‘We had ... ev­ery­thing’

But one story about Kelly is seared into the mem­ory.

Asked whom he would pre­fer on his team, be­tween the two goal-scor­ing stars of the era, Gordie Howe and Mau­rice “Rocket” Richard, the coach of the Bru­ins, Lynn Pa­trick, ut­tered a prompt re­sponse.

“Red Kelly.”

All that, and win­ning Stan­ley Cups with Gordie and the guys in De­troit!

At the age of 7, I thought: How could such a man ex­ist?

“It was a great team!” Kelly told me, just af­ter I turned 60.

I in­ter­viewed him upon the pub­li­ca­tion of his book “The

Red Kelly Story."

“We had tough­ness and speed and ev­ery­thing,” he said. “Hockey was it for us. We were a good bunch to­gether, on and off the ice.”

At one point in the late 1940s, Kelly, Lind­say, Pavelich and Howe were room­mates at Ma Shaw’s, a board­ing house down the street and around the cor­ner from Olympia Sta­dium.

“We were all young,” Kelly said. “Off the ice, we used to bowl to­gether, we went to dances at par­ties and places.

“And Lind­say and Howe and Pavelich and great guys like (Bill) Quak­en­bush and Jack Ste­wart and Leo Reise, we were a real team on and off the ice.”

And then, Kelly be­gan to laugh. He said, “We had the Red Wings em­blem on our back­sides.”

Ul­ti­mately, how­ever, Jack Adams — the for­mer Red Wings coach and the gen­eral man­ager in the sto­ried era of Kelly and his con­tem­po­raries — did not have Kelly’s back.

Four sea­sons af­ter their last Stan­ley Cup, with the team not play­ing well, it re­turned home in 1959 from three losses on the road. Kelly had not played be­cause of an an­kle bro­ken in prac­tice.

Asked to take off his be­lowthe-knee-to-toes cast and give it a try, Kelly said he did it for the team. He played on it, not al­ways to great ef­fect, and in con­stant pain.

No one knew.

“My an­kle was not bend­able, it was stiff,” Kelly told me. “And I couldn’t turn to that out­side.”

Asked by a re­porter at the be­gin­ning of the next sea­son about his di­min­ished play, Kelly said, “Might have been the an­kle.”

“The next day, a Satur­day,

Ted Lind­say’s wife calls my wife and says, well, have you got your bags packed?” Kelly said.

While the re­porter got the story straight, Kelly said, the head­line writer added drama and in­trigue, sug­gest­ing that Kelly had been forced to play in­jured.

Kelly said it was never de­manded, only asked.

He went to a large news­pa­per stand in the city be­fore a game that night and read the head­line.

“It must have been three inches high,” Kelly said. “Was Kelly forced to play on bro­ken foot?”

“Holy, man, I said. Then I read the story, and the story wasn’t like the head­line.

“So, that’s when I got traded. That night, you see.”

‘That wasn’t right’

Sum­moned to Adams of­fice af­ter the game, he ar­rived to find the gen­eral man­ager sit­ting at his desk with owner Bruce Nor­ris stand­ing be­hind him.

Kelly’s new wife was preg­nant.

Adams in­formed him that he and Bill Mac­Neil were traded to the Rangers for Bill Gadsby and Ed Shack and that he needed to re­port to Rangers Gen­eral Man­ager Les Pa­trick at the Wil­liams Ho­tel the next morn­ing.

“And I said, I’ll think about it,” Kelly, the con­sum­mate gen­tle­man, said to the big boss.

“He said, ‘WHAT?’ And he al­most put his fin­ger into my eye.

“I said, I’ll think about it. “I don’t know for sure whether I slammed the door or not, on the way out. I don’t re­mem­ber,” Kelly said.

“I just de­cided that what they were do­ing was wrong. That wasn’t right.”

The six-time All Star went home, thought about it all night, called Pa­trick and re­tired.

He took a job at a tool sup­ply com­pany.

“I’d eloped. I hadn’t pre­pared to get mar­ried,” Kelly said. “I knew I wasn’t go­ing to get paid from hockey any­more.”

He was 31.

Even­tu­ally, Punch Im­lach, the Maple Leafs gen­eral man­ager had his as­sis­tant, King Clancy call to of­fer Kelly a slot on that team. And so, the farmer’s boy from nearby Sim­coe, On­tario, went to the big city, lifted the scor­ing of a few lag­ging Leafs stars and won four more Stan­ley Cups.

The griev­ous trade and Kelly star­ring with a ri­val elim­i­nated the chance he would re­ceive the grand re­tire­ment a ca­reer-long Red Wings star is ac­corded.

That in­cluded the like­li­hood his No. 4 would have been raised to the rafters.

“Oh, I never wor­ried about it,” Kelly told me, two years ago. “They can say or do what­ever they want.

“I did all I could for them when I played there. It was a hun­dred per­cent.”

On Wed­nes­day, Mar­ian and Christo­pher Il­itch did jus­tice, and re­tired No. 4.

It needed to be Kelly be­fore Fe­dorov, be­cause while both are de­serv­ing, the Red Wings un­fairly dis­patched Kelly.

When Fe­dorov talked dur­ing his in­duc­tion into the Hockey Hall of Fame about what led to his de­par­ture from the Wings, he talked about a tor­tur­ous re­la­tion­ship with the ten­nis star Anna Kournikova and per­haps lis­ten­ing too closely to agents.

And then, sit­ting in an au­di­to­rium in Toronto, he said, “I don’t know, let’s blame it on agents!”

When Chris Il­itch talked about Kelly and was asked about Fe­dorov, he said each fran­chise has its ap­proach to re­tir­ing num­bers and it is clear the Wings are highly se­lec­tive.

Se­lec­tive enough to re­al­ize No. 4 in the rafters is the right thing, right now.

But one has the feel­ing Kelly’s honor helps clear a path for an­other player who played his best years in De­troit be­fore mov­ing on. Not many of those in the rafters in De­troit.

Kelly is one.

And, there are rea­sons No. 4 went be­fore No. 91, and an in­creased like­li­hood, in my mind, that Fe­dorov might get his day.

John T. Greil­ick/De­troit News

For­mer Red Wings great Red Kelly will have his No. 4 re­tired be­fore the De­troit-Toronto game on Feb. 1.On­line:


Re­tired num­bers in De­troit pro sports

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