The Red Kelly Affair

As we’ve reported over the past few days, the Los Angeles Kings were reported to be ready to announce that Red Kelly, the great Red Wing and Maple Leaf, would become the fledgling team’s first coach. However, Kings owner Jack Kent Cooke neglected to choose Kelly in the first 10 rounds of the expansion draft so a clearly upset Toronto club claimed and filled Kelly back to their protected list in that fateful tenth round.

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Jack Kent Cooke

Theories abounded about what really happened between the Leafs and Kings. Most folks thought that Toronto and Los Angeles had arranged a deal whereby Kelly would be taken by the Kings in the draft. Toronto sportswriter Dick Beddoes said he figured the Maple Leafs would trade Kelly to the Los Angeles Kings in order to reacquire goalie Terry Sawchuk.

Dink Carroll of the Monreal Gazette reported that Cooke reneged on an earlier agreement by which the Kings would take Leafs goalie prospect Gary Smith with their first pick so Toronto could retain Sawchuk. Leafs would have then left Kelly unprotected until the end of the draft.

Cooke, for his part, says he had a gentleman’s agreement (meaning a verbal pact) with the Leafs to acquire Kelly and he will formally protest to NHL president Clarence Campbell.

Campbell says any such protest will be fruitless unless the agreement Cooke claims he has is documented. Cooke acknowledged that any agreement he had with Toronto was in verbal form only.

Toronto president Stafford Smythe told reporters that he tried to arrange a deal with Cooke whereby the Kings would take New York Rangers forward Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion. Kings would then trade the Boomer  to Toronto after the draft for Kelly. Smythe said that Cooke flatly rejected the offer, saying he wasn’t going to waste the pick of a player for Kelly.

Whatever the arrangement, real or imagined, the entire situation boiled down to this:

Kelly’s employers, the Toronto Maple Leafs, happened to hold the rights to all future employment for the red-head, thanks to the archaic rules that govern the sport of hockey. In order for Red to be able to change employers, the Maple Leafs must give their blessing, which they weren’t going to do without realizing compensation for giving up an asset such as Kelly.

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It matters little that Kelly is perhaps one of the finest gentlemen ever to partake in a career in the National Hockey League. It’s not relevant that he performed admirably for Toronto, playing a large role on four Maple Leaf Stanley Cup winners. What really matters to Stafford Smythe, Harold Ballard and the rest of the Leafs executive is that the $100,000 the club would receive if Kelly were drafted is a mere pittance compared to his relative worth to the team. At least that is what they would have you believe. Believe it or not.

What this entire mess is really about is the gamesmanship playing out between Smythe and company and the brash, over-confident owner of the Los Angeles Kings,  Jack Kent Cooke, himself a former Torontonian.

Cooke came into the NHL lodge of owners brashly, spewing bluster and generally annoying most of the old guard. They allowed him entry into the club because they liked the smell of his money, but a few might be regretting that decision now.

In any event, Cooke totally disregarded the NHL’s tampering rules and discussed employment with good hockey men already under contract to other organizations. He wasn’t about to go by anyone’s outdated (in his estimation) rules. Kelly was one of those whom Cooke contacted without permission and offered jobs.

Cooke felt he could simply take Kelly and not have to compensate the Maple Leafs for doing so. Stafford Smythe and Punch Imlach decided to teach the arrogant newcomer that he will have to play by their rules and in fact, may have to bend over and endure a bit of a spanking in the process. Poor Red has become a pawn in this charade through no fault of his own.

Red Kelly would become the coach of the Los Angeles Kings, the Leafs and everyone else connected with the NHL knew that. But that wouldn’t happen before Toronto would extract their pound of flesh from Cooke, thoroughly embarrassing him in the process.

The Leafs let Cooke stew for a day or so. Finally, when they figured he had learned his lesson, the Maple Leafs relented. Cooke and Punch Imlach finally sat down and during their meeting a contrite Kings owner agreed to trade one of the players he had drafted to the Maple Leafs for the rights to his future coach. He offered Imlach the player the Kings selected with their 13th choice, Jacques Lemieux.

Imlach, ever superstitious, refused the offer, saying instead he wanted pick number 15, a nondescript career minor league defenceman named Ken Block. With the barter thusly arranged, Red Kelly officially became the very first coach of the Los Angeles Kings.

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