Detroit — Just before his No. 4 joined seven numbers of other Red Wings in the rafters at Little Caesars Arena, 91-year-old Leonard "Red" Kelly, essential to the enormous success of the franchise in the 1950s, talked about his gratefulness and the team.
“I appreciate the great years that we had in Detroit,” Kelly said, in a halting voice. “Seven straight league championships, four Stanley Cups in 12 1/2 years. It was great. A great team, and great players.
“They were a team on the ice and off the ice. We stuck together. We danced at parties together and we played hockey together. It was team. It was a great success.”
With the current players from both teams for which he played in the NHL, the Red Wings and Maple Leafs, arrayed on their benches, and all the Wings wearing jerseys bearing the No. 4, Kelly continued.
“Hockey is a game that’s not individuals,” he said. “It’s a group. To win, you have to have a great group of players. And, we had that in Detroit in those years.
“They were great years, and I’ll never forget them as long as I live.”
Kelly’s retired number joins Terry Sawchuk’s 1; Nicklas Lidstrom’s 5; Ted Lindsay’s 7; Gordie Howe’s 9; Alex Delvecchio’s 10; Sid Abel’s 12 and Steve Yzerman’s 19.
Howe, Sawchuk, Lindsay, Delvecchio and Abel were Kelly’s teammates.
A total of 44 Red Wings including Kelly, have worn the number four.
The honor is arguably many years overdue, after a controversial trade that saw Kelly dispatched for an inaccurate newspaper headline that posed the question of whether the Red Wings of the General Manager Jack Adams’s era had forced him to play injured.
Kelly had never asserted 60 years ago that they had. Nor, he said, did he believe they did.
“I’d like to thank Chris and Marian Ilitch for this great honor,” Kelly said. “It’s a great honor and I thank them and the Detroit Red Wings for doing it.
“It wouldn’t have happened in the old days.”
When Kelly started rushing the puck up ice from his position as a defenseman for the Red Wings, he joined a small group of blue liners who played that way in the NHL in the 1950s.
Scotty Bowman, who watched those players as a young man, said none rivaled Kelly for his offensive ability
“Think about this: As a defenseman in that era, 162 goals he scored,” Bowman said. “A defenseman!
“I can tell you as you go through the history of defensemen in the NHL, they talk about Eddie Shore, they talk about Red Kelly, they talk about Doug Harvey, they talk about Bobby Orr, they talk about Nick Lidstrom and a few other from the '80s and '90s.
“But Red Kelly was the premier offensive defenseman throughout his time in Detroit,” said Bowman, the coach of nine Stanley Cup teams, including three in Detroit.
Kelly won eight Stanley Cups, four with the Maple Leafs after the controversial trade. That is more than anyone who did not play for the Canadiens.
He won the first Norris Trophy for best defenseman in 1954.
A number of influential current and former Red Wings officials pushed for the honor for Kelly.
Jim Devellano, the Wings senior vice-president, advocated for it.
“We’re getting to it a little late, but it’s something that should be done,” Devellano said.
General Manager Ken Holland called it an important day for the franchise.
“The '50s are a glory era for the Detroit Red Wings,” Holland said earlier in the day on SiriusXM NHL Network Radio.
“Gordie Howe, Sid Abel, Alex Delvecchio, Ted Lindsay and Terry Sawchuk were on that team, and now Red Kelly’s jersey is going to go in the rafters with his former teammates.
“He was one of the first defensemen in history to join the rush, to transport the puck, to make it a four-man attack.”
Kelly told the audience of Red Wings and Maple Leafs fans, “I wished I was in better shape than I am.”
And, he said, he wanted to save a special thank you, for last.
“I want to thank the fans who backed us, in those years,” Kelly said. “Even if we lost, they still supported us.
“And so, I wanted to thank them, last of all.
“Thank you, very much!”