Detroit — For 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.
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.
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 below-the-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.”
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.
Some older Wings fans have long argued it should be, regardless, especially after all these years.
“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.