Skip to main content
Original Issue

Kelly's light shines under Pitt's bushel

Brilliant coaching has inspirited the Penguins but not their fans

For the past three years most of the games played by the Pittsburgh Penguins have been carried on a local FM radio station whose call letters, appropriately, are WEEP. The Penguins made you want to. Not anymore, though. Thanks to Coach Red Kelly, the Penguins last week found themselves in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in their brief history—and were making the most of it: on Sunday night they defeated the Oakland Seals 3-2 to complete a sweep of their opening series and put themselves into the West Division finals with the survivor of the surprisingly tight St. Louis-Minnesota playoff.

Unfortunately, too few people in the old steel town seemed to care. Even though Mayor Peter F. Flaherty had proclaimed Wednesday "Pittsburgh Penguin Day," only 8,051 turned out for the first game and, despite the Penguins' 2-1 victory, only 7,253 were there the following night to see the home team win 3-1. Pittsburgh, it seems, likes hockey on Saturday (three such crowds have exceeded 10,000 this year) and doesn't give a damn the rest of the week. Reasons for the town's apathy are varied. But a big one is that the club is weak on promotion. Board Chairman Donald H. Parsons, a Detroit banker, jets in just for the games, leaving the franchise susceptible to the ills of absentee ownership, while the fact that the team does not own the Civic Arena compounds the problem. Last week, for example, the arena's marquee read, quite casually, PENGUINS HOCKEY OAKLAND 8 P.M. Not much clout in that.

Then there is the building itself. Completed four years ago at a cost of $22 million, the 12,580-seat arena is not entirely right for sports events. Soundproofed throughout, it is great for Johnny Cash but tough on the home team. "The fan who pays $5 to $7 for a ticket there doesn't get his money's worth," said an official from another NHL club. "He sees the game O.K., but it's so quiet in there he doesn't feel it. He doesn't get the excitement you get in places like St. Louis and Philadelphia and Minnesota. Or even in Oakland. Why, 5,000 people in Oakland's arena sound like 10,000 when they get worked up. In Pittsburgh 5,000 people sound like 2,000."

Leonard Patrick Kelly is quiet, too, but he is a superior coach. One of Parsons' most serious challenges may simply be holding on to him. All year long rumors have been flying that Kelly, who has a one-year contract, might be headed back to Toronto, where he finished his playing career and where he has a multitude of ties. Just how astute a hockey mind operates beneath Kelly's red-haired but slowly balding pate is evident in the present gap between the team he left and the one he joined. In both years under Red Kelly the Los Angeles Kings made the playoffs, while Pittsburgh was the only expansion club to miss them both years. This season Kelly coached the Penguins to a second-place finish, no less than 26 points ahead of the last-place Kings. Considering that Kelly had Los Angeles seven points ahead of Pittsburgh last year, it is fair to say that he has meant a difference of 33 points—or 16½ victories—between the two. Pittsburgh whipped the Kings six times in eight games, outscoring them 20-11, and last week Kelly winked and said yeah, he sure did feel sorry for Jack Kent Cooke.

The problems Kelly had with the Kings' owner and his general manager, Larry Regan, never got the Hollywood treatment, though anybody remotely interested in hockey was aware of them: the owner and the general manager fined players without consulting Kelly; they held calisthenics on the Forum's asphalt parking lot with Los Angeles Rams coaches as a cadre, without Red's approval. When Kelly's two-year contract expired, he got out.

Enter Jack Riley, the general manager of the Penguins. "I'd always thought Red did a great job in Los Angeles because his material really wasn't very good," recalls Riley. "I didn't know Red very well, but from where I sat I understood he was pretty fed up with things out there. When I talked to him in the springtime about coming to Pittsburgh, he said he was interested but that he needed some time to think things over. I just tried to impress upon him the fact that he'd have a free hand here."

Kelly was well set in outside businesses and had also been offered a job in television, but on July 2 he signed to coach the Penguins. "It all came down to the simple fact that I've spent practically my whole life in hockey," he says. "I've played every position except goal, and I think I know the game as well as anyone. It would have been pretty stupid of me, wouldn't it, to turn my back on something I'd been preparing myself for all along?"

Students of hockey will recall that Kelly was only 19 when he jumped from junior hockey to the Detroit Red Wings. He helped them win eight championships and four Stanley Cups in nearly 13 years. Following a dispute with the late Jack Adams, then the Detroit coach and general manager, Kelly was traded to. Toronto, where-the bold Punch Imlach shocked everyone by switching him from defense to center on a line with a young, brooding hopeful named Frank Mahovlich. With Kelly feeding him the puck, Mahovlich soared from 18 goals in 1960 to 48 a year later. In 1962 Kelly decided to combine hockey with politics, and for the next three years served as a Liberal Member of Parliament from Toronto's York West while still playing for the Maple Leafs. Changing from sweat-soaked hockey gear into a tweed suit, challis tie and black Burberry topcoat, he commuted all but daily between hockey games and practices and the Gothic sandstone-and-oak chambers of Canada's Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. Before retiring from hockey in 1967, Kelly played on still another championship team and helped win four more Stanley Cups—making the All-Star team a total of eight times.

As a coach, Kelly's strongest suit seems to be his patience. ("Red, I am a more patient man than you are," Jack Kent Cooke used to say—to which Kelly would reply, "Mr. Cooke, perhaps we can debate that someday.") This is fortunate. While Chicago's Billy Reay appears likely to be named Coach of the Year, having lifted the Black Hawks from last place to first in but one season, the magnitude of Kelly's work in Pittsburgh is apparent only when one considers how little he has to work with. It is a team without stars. The local favorite is in fact a 20-year-old rookie center named Michel Briere, a little 165-pounder with a quick, deceptive shot. (Although he scored only 12 goals this year, Briere showed he had the touch in his last year in amateur hockey, scoring 75 goals for Shawinigan Falls.) "He's got the moves, no doubt about it," says Kelly. "He's a will-o'-the-wisp type. Why, not long ago two big defensemen went after him—only at the last instant he wasn't there and they wound up cracking their heads together." Briere cracked in the shot that beat the Seals Sunday in sudden-death overtime.

The Penguins say their coach is fair but tough. He never blows up, but when he speaks they listen. "He's the general," says Winger Jean Pronovost. "You follow him. If he says, 'Go jump in the lake,' you go jump in the lake." Of course, being one of hockey's all-time greats doesn't hurt.

"I don't drive this club," says Kelly. "I guess I'm pretty low-key anyway. I just want respect, that's all. I'll bet we're the only club in the league that doesn't have curfews. I believe in tossing a little honor in there—you know, it helps develop teamwork."

The only way the Penguins built their edge on Oakland was through teamwork. In Wednesday's tight game Pittsburgh jumped off to a 1-0 lead in the first two minutes on a shot by Pronovost, only to have Oakland come back to tie it at 9:26. The Penguins won by means of a disputed goal in the third period by Nick Harbaruk, who had scored only five goals all year. The Seals argued, with cause, that a Pittsburgh player was in the crease when the puck went in the net, and insisted the game films would prove it. "We don't," said Red Kelly, "lend out our game films."

Pittsburgh should pray that the club does not lend its coach, either.