The great Red Kelly: cat lover, hockey superstar…new-age spiritualist? Well, not quite. As with everything here at Church & Carlton, the truth is stranger than fiction.
Full transcript under the cut. See you in two weeks!
Hi, I’m E. C. Marcon and this is Church & Carlton, a bi-weekly podcast about the intersection of sports and life in Toronto.
The great Leonard “Red” Kelly needs no introduction, but the medium demands I give him one anyway. Eight-time Stanley Cup Champion, eight-time NHL All-Star, three-time Lady Byng Trophy winner, Norris Trophy winner, Hockey Hall of Fame Honoured Member, the Honourable Member of Parliament for York-West from 1962-1965, and member of the Order of Canada, the affable defenceman is living proof that nice guys don’t always finish last.
I met him last year, and he spent a good ten minutes telling me about all of his cats. He’s absolutely lovely.
As a beloved alumni of both the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs, Kelly holds almost mythical status in the hockey world, and the fact that he’s still sharp as a tack at 90 has made him a popular figure at alumni events.
In his single term in Parliament as a member of the Liberal Party, he was the mastermind behind the Great Canadian Flag Debate, ensuring that the iconic maple leaf design replaced any visual representation of the British Empire. This not only endeared him to an Irish-Canadian community in desperate need of a champion, but made him an integral part of developing Canada’s distinct national identity.
His impact on both the game of hockey and the game of Canadian politics is immeasurable. But as a coach in 1970s, Red Kelly would become a pioneer in another, more subtle way. And while it seemed totally bonkers at the time, Kelly’s lifelong devotion to being on the right side of history is actually pretty touching.
Red Kelly coached the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1973 to 1976, and in that time, he became fascinated by the nascent field of sports psychology. And he began to research all kinds of pseudoscientific techniques to boost his players’ confidence.
Don’t forget, this is a guy who played for Punch Imlach and saw Ron Ellis, Mike Walton, Terry Sawchuk, Frank Mahovlich, and Tim Horton suffer from some serious mental health issues. And by the time he started coaching, Darryl Sittler was struggling pretty hard too.
In 1976, the Leafs had to face defending champions The Philadelphia Flyers in the second round of the NHL playoffs. This was peak Broad Street Bullies era, and the Flyers’ brute strength and, let’s say, nonchalant attitude towards the rules had made them virtually unstoppable. Toronto had just emerged victorious from a tough series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. They were exhausted, beat up, and demoralized. Kelly had to find a way to motivate them.
So he thought back to a few years earlier, when his young daughter Casey was suffering from mysterious headaches. The headaches were excruciating, and Casey would work herself into such a panic about getting a headache that she would end up triggering them. It was a vicious cycle and nothing the Kellys did to help her seemed to work. But Red’s wife Andra discovered a weird new-agey technique all the hippies were trying – pyramid power.
Pyramid power is a nutty theory spread by the same people who think aliens built the ones in Egypt. It was kinda like the essential oils craze of its day. Square-based pyramids apparently give off a certain frequency that promotes positive vibrations or…something. It was stupid, but Casey was a little girl and she was in a lot of pain so the Kellys made a little pyramid and told her that if she slept with it under her pillow, it would keep the headaches away.
No longer afraid of getting the headaches, Casey stopped getting the headaches and Red Kelly realized that even if pyramid power was a bunch of crap, the psychological boost from having a perceived lucky charm was definitely real. Remember Ned Hanlan and his Chinese Perfume?
So Red Kelly built a giant plastic pyramid and he hung it from the ceiling of the Leafs’ dressing room. He used his political training to craft a convincing, scientific-sounding explanation for the players, and watched in amazement as they each took a turn standing underneath it to absorb its power.
You can insert your own joke about the intelligence of hockey players here.
The Leafs lost the series, but they made it to Game 7 and the troubled Darryl Sittler played some of the best hockey of his life. When asked about it afterwards, Kelly admitted that the whole thing was more psychological than scientific: “I was trying to do some stuff to distract things away from Harold Ballard saying things about the club,” he said. “I was trying to get the guys thinking hockey and never mind the other stuff.” And it worked. The Leafs may not have won the series, but they played focussed, confident hockey.
What is really touching and sweet to me about this crazy story is that Red Kelly cared so much about the mental health of his players. Winning was one thing, but he wanted his players to be happy and healthy and to enjoy themselves on the ice. And that motivated him to turn a cute trick to get his sick daughter to sleep into a bona fide sports psychology strategy. He tried other techniques over the years – back when they were playing together, he once spritzed a nervous Johhny Bower with water he told him was “energized with negative ions” and he had his players wear earmuffs on the bench to drown out fan taunting. He did a lot of things that seemed ridiculous, but were ultimately done to show his teammates and his players that he cared about them. It was a complete 180 from the dominant coaching style of the day and brought a level of empathy and sensitivity to the locker room that’s still lacking in the sport now.
Yeah, there’s no such thing as pyramid power. But when you consider that several players made off with Kelly’s little pyramids as fond mementos of their coach, there really is something to compassion.
Church and Carlton is written and produced by me, E.C. Marcon. The idea for this episode was given to me by my dad, by far the biggest supporter of this podcast so Happy Birthday, Gianni. Original music by the one and only Josh Labelle.
If you liked what you heard, and I hope you did, check out my website at www.churchandcarlton.net There, you’ll find links to my Patreon and social media.
We’ll be back with a brand-new episode in two weeks. Until then, I’m E.C. Marcon reminding you to make up your mind before you get in the gelato line.