Ontario’s hockey-star MP: How Red Kelly represented the Leafs and the Liberals

For three years in the 1960s, NHLer Red Kelly — who died last week, at the age of 91 — split his time between Maple Leaf Gardens and Parliament Hill
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on May 7, 2019
Liberal candidate Red Kelly speaking at an unidentified campaign stop on May 9, 1962. (City of Toronto Archives)

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When he passed away on May 2 at the age of 91, Hockey Hall of Famer Leonard “Red” Kelly was remembered for his kindness, his 20-year playing career with the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs — and for the three years, from 1962 to 1965, that he juggled his responsibilities on the ice with those of representing Metropolitan Toronto voters on Parliament Hill.

Kelly wasn’t the first Maple Leaf to sit as an MP while playing with the team. In June 1951, Howie Meeker had won a byelection for the Progressive Conservatives in Waterloo South. He found the parliamentary experience a familiar one. “It’s an arena,” Meeker told the Globe and Mail in 2004. “It was exactly the same as playing hockey. There’s arguing and bitching and complaining and everything else.” Kelly sought advice from Meeker, who had struggled to balance his two careers. “I never got in top condition as a hockey player, wasn’t able to spend enough time in Ottawa to do the work of the riding, and neglected my family,” he recalled in a 1962 interview with the Globe and Mail. After important games, cabinet ministers wanted to talk to him, he said, “which gives you an advantage that most private members just don’t get.” An injury effectively ended Meeker’s playing career during the 1952-53 season, and he decided not to run in the 1953 federal election.

Soon after joining the Maple Leafs in 1960, Kelly became friends with Keith Davey, a backroom Liberal fixer. They frequently discussed politics, and Davey gradually nudged Kelly toward running in the next federal election. Unsure whether he could manage careers in both hockey and politics, he met with Liberal leader Lester B. Pearson at Toronto’s Park Plaza Hotel in early 1962. Kelly was impressed that Pearson understood the challenges he would face and didn’t push him too hard to run.

After being offered five Toronto-area ridings to contest, Kelly chose York West, which included most of Etobicoke. “I looked at them all and I thought York West had been Conservative for most of its existence,” he recalls in the 2016 book The Red Kelly Story. “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.”

Perhaps it was a good omen that, a week before Kelly secured the York West nomination, the Maple Leafs won their first Stanley Cup in 11 years. During his nomination speech on May 1, 1962, Kelly promised that, if after a year he found that he couldn’t handle the demands of dual occupations, he’d give up hockey. “I figure a political party — like a hockey team — needs legs as well as brains,” he told the crowd. “I can help to do the legwork while men with experience, like Mr. Pearson, help to restore Canada’s prestige overseas.”

Not everyone thought his candidacy was a good idea. In a Maclean’s editorial titled “Why There’s One Contest We’d Like to See a Good Man Lose,” Blair Fraser argued that Kelly’s accomplishments in the world of sports were a poor reason to vote for him. “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,” he wrote, “that it amounts to a rejection of democracy.”

On the campaign trail, Kelly’s stardom allowed him to eclipse both his fellow candidates and his party leader, and Liberals in other ridings became eager to appear with him. Fans lined up for autographs. In response, incumbent Progressive Conservative MP John Hamilton had his picture taken with Kelly’s teammate Allan Stanley and other retired Maple Leafs. NDP candidate David Middleton promised to “run him out of the riding, not on hockey skates, but on roller skates.”

When the election was held on June 18, 1962, Kelly won by nearly 4,000 votes.

Kelly described his hectic schedule in a 1989 interview with Canadian Parliamentary Review. “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 week-ends 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 from the Minto skating club.” On at least one occasion, the deputy speaker of the house arranged to have a limo take Kelly to Montreal following a critical vote.

Unlike most MPs, Kelly based his constituency office at his home. His wife, Andra, served as his secretary. If Kelly met with a constituent over the dinner hour, he’d share his meal with them.

When Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s government fell in February 1963, Kelly decided to run again. Playing hockey while also representing York West was mentally and physically draining, but he wanted to use his profile to help Pearson win. His Progressive Conservative opponent during the 1963 campaign was a young lawyer, based in the north end of the riding, who had been acting as a financial adviser for several of Kelly’s teammates. Alan Eagleson depicted Kelly as an absentee MP who coasted on his fame (although Kelly’s attendance record was no worse than that of many others). The insults didn’t work. Kelly beat Eagleson by 17,000, and the Liberals won a minority government. The relationship between the two remained tense over the remainder of their hockey careers: during Kelly’s tenure as coach of the Maple Leafs in the mid-1970s, they often clashed over players Eagleson represented as an agent.

After facing accusations from the media that he was being too quiet, Kelly made his first parliamentary speech in May 1963, addressing controversies over replacing Canada’s flag and national anthem. He noted that the increasing use of “O Canada” instead of “God Save the Queen” at NHL games in the United States created a stronger sense of patriotic pride. When he said that he supported a new flag, an opposition heckler yelled out, “The Maple Leaf?” “Yes,” Kelly responded. “The Red Ensign has been 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 praised the speech as “a sensible, well-considered effort.”

Maple Leafs minority owner Conn Smythe was unhappy with Kelly’s position regarding the flag. The two held meetings and exchanged letters in which Smythe pleaded to keep the old one, noting that many soldiers had died for it. Kelly consulted with colleagues, who assured him that the Maple Leaf would be a stronger international symbol for Canada and that Canadian soldiers were recognized by the Maple Leaf insignias on their uniforms.

Among the highlights of Kelly’s parliamentary career was representing the government during the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. He cleared the trip with Punch Imlach, the Maple Leafs coach and general manager, who told him that he had no objection — as long as Kelly made sure he was back in time for the 1964-65 season opener in Detroit.

But the election looming in 1965 had Kelly pondering his future. As he explains in The Red Kelly Story, the strain of being away from his family had hit him when he walked up his driveway once after a parliamentary session, and his young daughter yelled, “Look Mommy! It’s Red Kelly!” When Pearson visited Toronto for the opening of the new city hall, he met with Kelly for an hour and accepted his decision to retire from politics. “As soon as I made the decision,” he told Canadian Parliamentary Review in 1989, “I felt as though a 200-pound weight had been lifted from my shoulders.”

Kelly played two more seasons for the Maple Leafs and then retired after the team won the Stanley Cup in 1967. He moved into coaching, returning to Toronto in 1973 for a four-year stint now best remembered for motivational stunts, such as “pyramid power” (which involved placing small plastic pyramids under the bench and a 12-foot-tall pyramid in the dressing room). “I was trying to do some stuff to distract things away from [team owner] Harold Ballard saying things about the club,” he explains in The Red Kelly Story. “I was trying to get the guys thinking hockey and positively, and never mind this other stuff.”

After being fired as Leafs coach in 1977, Kelly served as president of CAMP Systems, a company that offers aviation-management products and services, for two decades. He received the Order of Canada in 2002 — his number, 4, was retired by the Maple Leafs in 2016 and by the Red Wings in February 2019.

Sources: The Red Kelly Story, by Red Kelly with L. Waxy Gregoire and David M. Dupuis (Toronto: ECW, 2016); the December 6, 1962, and June 26, 2004, editions of the Globe and Mail; the June 2, 1962, edition of Maclean’s; and the May 1, 1962, May 24, 1962, March 6, 1963, May 29, 1963, and September 17, 1965, editions of the Toronto Star.

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