Flyers Heroes of the Past: Bob Kelly
Friday, 12.22.2006 / 12:00 AM / News
"Take the shortest route to the puck carrier and arrive in an ill-humor." That was the mantra of Fred Shero's Philadelphia Flyers. No player on the club better exemplified this philosophy than Bob "The Hound" Kelly, who spent a decade as one of the orange and black's most valuable foots oliders.
At 5'10'' and 190 pounds, Kelly wasn't the biggest player. He was an above-average skater, but he wasn't the fastest player. He certainly wasn't one of the most naturally gifted offensively. But, he was one of the toughest and the most tenacious.
True to his nickname, Kelly bounded across the ice like an unleashed bloodhound, throwing his body around with abandon. A consummate team player, Kelly did whatever it took to win. He'd be the first in line to fight to defend a teammate. He'd sacrifice offense for defense. He'd chip in timely goals.
Off the ice, Kelly's good-natured sense of humor and outgoing personality made him a favorite of teammates, fans, and reporters alike. A consummate team player, Kelly was a sparkplug in the Flyers Stanley Cup engine.
Culture Shock in Oshawa
Robert James Kelly was born in Port Credit, Ontario, on November 25, 1950. Kelly says he grew up "in a small family living in a small town." He has one sister, Jo Anne. Like many Canadian boys, Kelly started skating and playing hockey at a very young age and the rink has always been his home away from home.
As he got older, Kelly took a summer job wrecking houses for a contracting company. "The cops were always chasing us for damaging other property, too," he recalled.
He never got into too much trouble, though, because "the cops knew us pretty well."
Meanwhile, Kelly says his pee wee coaches saw potential in his game. At age 17, Kelly moved up to a rather prestigious major junior club – the Oshawa Generals of the then-OHA (Ontario Hockey Association). The Generals had fallen on some tough times after Bobby Orr graduated to professional hockey, but Kelly was excited by the opportunity.
"Total culture shock," is how Kelly describes his early days with Oshawa.
He soon found that the challenge became more difficult as he moved up the ladder. While he was a solid offensive player at the junior level (21 goals and 44 points in 54 games as a rookie, good for fifth on the club), it was already clear that his physical play, more than his goal scoring, would be Kelly's calling card.
Kelly was not only a fearsome forechecker, he also knew what to do when he dropped the gloves. He quickly gained the reputation as one of the toughest players, pound for pound, in the OHA. Even on a tough Generals club featuring the likes of future NHL pugilists Terry O'Reilly and Bob Stewart, few opponents considered fighting Kelly a better alternative.
Kelly's 128 rookie penalty minutes were by no means a staggering total, but his windmill style of punching and his low center of gravity made his fights memorable.
"I can honestly say I never lost a fight in junior," says Kelly.
In Kelly's second OHA season, he averaged close to a point-per game (21 goals and 53 points in 54 games) to go along with his 117 penalty minutes. When the 1970 NHL draft rolled around, the Flyers selected Kelly in the third round, 32nd overall.
"When I think back to where I could have ended up, I probably would have been an auto mechanic because college wasn't even a possibility for me. Hockey provided me the opportunity to make a difference and be part of something," Kelly said in Jim Jackson's book, Walking Together Forever.
Straight to the NHL
As Kelly reported to his first NHL training camp in 1970, most eyes were on up-and-coming second year center Bobby Clarke and former junior hockey phenom Rick MacLeish, who had come over to the Flyers in the three-way trade with Boston that sent Bernie Parent to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Relatively few people expected Kelly to make the big club right away.
Kelly's human pinball style of play quickly opened the eyes of Flyers' coach Vic Stasiuk. Every time Kelly would get a tap on the shoulder, he'd leap onto the ice and run into anything in his path – be it an opponent, the boards, a goal post or the occasional teammate.
"He skated so swiftly and with such reckless abandon that he seemed totally out of control," wrote legendary Flyers announcer Gene Hart in the book, Score. "In fact, just about the only way for Kelly to stop himself was to crash into something or somebody. The other player, whether friend or foe, always came out second best."
Sometimes Kelly missed his mark, but he'd bounce right back and zero in on a new target. One time during his rookie NHL season, Kelly attempted to throw an open ice hit on a Detroit Red Wings player near the left offensive circle. The opponent sidestepped the check and Kelly tried to throw on the brakes. Instead, he spun himself around and around, nearly corkscrewing himself into the ice.
Stasiuk took a shine to Kelly, who made the team right out of camp. Kelly still recalls getting a phone call from Stasiuk telling him to get ready to play for the Flyers. Unlike many role players, Kelly was destined to spend his entire pro career in the NHL without a single game in the minor leagues.
"My first three NHL games were an unbelievable test for me and the whole team. Right away, I'm out there playing against teams like Montreal and Boston," says Kelly today. "I nearly froze up on my first shift. I'm out on the ice and there's guys like Henri Richard and [Jean] Beliveau."
Kelly soon overcame his nerves. During much of his rookie and second season, he played left wing on Clarke's line. Both years, Kelly tallied 14 goals. In his second season, he added 157 penalty minutes to the mix.
"The Hound" was an instant hit with the Flyers fans and his teammates. Kelly soon became one of the team's resident pranksters – and was himself often the victim of practical jokes.
It was, in fact, a rookie Kelly who was the subject of one of the most elaborate practical jokes in Flyers' annals: the snipe hunt. The tale is still often retold by Kelly's old teammates and has been recounted in numerous hockey books.
For over a month, the veterans on the team told Kelly stories about all the fun they'd have snipe hunting. Then they claimed that rookies weren't allowed to participate.
"What's a snipe?" asked Kelly.
"They're sort of like pigeons," answered Flyers' veteran defenseman Ed Van Impe.
"Can you eat them?"
"Only the breasts. My wife cooks them in a wine sauce and are they ever delicious!" said Van Impe.
Kelly begged to come along. Van Impe said he'd consider making an exception to the no-rookies "rule."
Over the next few days, Kelly's teammates instructed him in the art of snipe hunting. Goalie Doug Favell had him practice "snipe calls" while enforcer Earl Heiskala told him that the way to hunt snipes is to beat the bushes with long poles and when the snipes fly, to shine a flashlight on them. The birds would get panicked and confused, giving the hunters a chance to catch them in fishing nets.
Of course, it was all a joke to initiate Kelly into the NHL fraternity. Van Impe arranged with friends in the Delaware County police department to come arrest Kelly for "hunting snipe without a license in a snipe preserve." They even arranged for a stern justice of the peace to scare Kelly into thinking he was going to jail. Finally, his teammates materialized in the courtroom and let him off the hook.
After the initial shock subsided, Kelly responded with his usual good humor. As he did on the ice, Kelly recovered immediately and bounced right back.
Meanwhile, the Flyers talent level and hockey fortunes began to improve. The unpopular Stasiuk was fired and replaced by Fred Shero. Talented youngsters such as Bill Barber and MacLeish cracked the lineup. By his third season, Kelly saw less time on Clarke's line and primarily played on the third and fourth line.
"My role changed under Freddie," says Kelly today. "We had guys like Billy Barber and Ross Lonsberry who could play on the scoring lines, so Freddie used me to give the guys energy."
Shero did not view taking Kelly off of Clarke's line as a demotion, even if it meant less ice time for the player. Rather, he said that forechecking and fighting were areas where Kelly could stand out.
"If Bob Kelly scores twenty goals, I'm not using him properly," said the Fog in 1973. "He's got something that's hard to come by. No coach in the world can make a guy do what Kelly does. It's not in his contract. It comes from within him."
Serious on the Ice, Fun-Loving Off Ice
While Kelly loved to have a good time off the ice, he took his role on the ice very seriously. To him, it was all part of team hockey. Kelly stepped up the aggressiveness of his game in his third season, recording 236 penalty minutes (his career high and the only time he topped the 200 penalty minutes mark in one season). He also hustled up 10 goals.
When he wasn't tussling with opponents on the ice, the Hound kept his teammates laughing off the ice. Kelly and announcer Hart kept up an ongoing friendly insult debate on airplane and bus rides. For years, Kelly endlessly teased the rotund Hart about his weight and Hart countered by ragging on Kelly's receding hairline and (greatly exaggerated) lack of hockey talent and intelligence.
Kelly's trump card was inventing nicknames for Hart, including "Gene the Dancing Machine," "The Round Mound of Sound," and "The Great Pumpkin" (for the orange blazer Hart wore on the air). Teammates Gary Dornhoefer and MacLeish served as "official judges," awarding points as they traded barbs.
Longtime Flyers beat writer Jack Chevalier, in the Broad Street Bullies, recorded the following debate on a Saturday bus trip in October 1973. With Dornhoefer and MacLeish keeping score, Kelly and Hart gave one another the business.
Kelly fired the first salvo. "No airplane today, Gene. You don't need an extension for your seat belt."
"Kelly, are you still with the club?" fired back Hart.
Kelly went right back on the offensive. "So will they have a TV lens wide enough for you this time, fat boy?"
"I've got a better chance of getting on camera than you," replied Hart.
Dornhoefer interceded. "That's 2-2. Your turn, Mutt!"
"Hey Gene, what's wrong with your slacks? It looks like they're flared at the wrong end."
Hart didn't miss a beat. "I'd rather be fat than ugly like you. I can always lose weight."
Kelly then scored what MacLeish deemed a two-pointer. "Gene, you're nothing but an educated derelict."
Hart fired back, "Those are big words, Kelly, for a guy whose IQ matches his uniform number."
Kelly paused. Then he broke up everyone and won the contest.
"What's an IQ?" he asked in feigned confusion.
Dornhoefer – who loved to pose the riddle, "What do Harvard and the Hockey Hall of Fame have in common?" (Answer: "Bob Kelly can't get into either one") – promptly declared Kelly the winner because he came up with a better Bob Kelly putdown than any of Hart's.
Another often-told Kelly story had him in full Yogi Berra-esque mode. Arriving at Rexy's (the Flyers post-game hangout) in a driving rain storm, Kelly informed teammate Wayne Hillman that it was raining into his car because the window was rolled down.
"Did you close it?" asked Hillman.
"I couldn't," replied the Hound. "The door was locked."
As much as Kelly's teammates teased him and vice versa, the Flyers' camaraderie was second to none in hockey. By 1973-74, they had the talent to match.
"We were very close as a team and we'd do anything for each other and Freddie," says Kelly today. "Twenty of us came together and twenty left together. That's rare."
Every player from new team captain Bobby Clarke on down had the utmost respect for Kelly's value to the club.
"Anyone who says Kelly doesn't belong in the NHL has no idea what goes into winning hockey games," said Clarke in the mid-1970s. "Show me a team that wouldn't take Kelly in a heartbeat and I'll show you a team that doesn't want to be a winner."
While Dave "The Hammer" Schultz was the Flyers' best known and most frequent pugilist, Kelly was arguably the toughest. "He always gets in three or four punches before the other guy realizes he's in a fight," marveled Clarke. "He throws punches faster than anyone in the league."
Even the Hammer himself concurred. "In terms of pure toughness, Kelly was first on the Flyers and I was second," Schultz told prolific hockey writer Stan Fischler. "With all due respect, Kelly became the heavyweight champion of the Flyers."
The Big Prize
Statistically, Kelly had the worst season of his career in 1973-74. In 65 games, he scored just four goals and 14 points in fairly limited ice time and went pointless in the playoffs. His penalty totals dropped from 238 minutes to 130. But, as always, stats revealed little about his value to the team.
For example, one night during the 1973-74 season, the Rangers jumped out to a 3-0 lead at the Spectrum. Shero's Flyers needed every bit of energy Kelly could provide them. The Hound toppled Rangers left and right, whipped Ron Harris in a fight, and assisted on two goals, helping the team rally all the way back to earn a tie.
Kelly's battles with the Rangers continued in the playoffs. After the Flyers dispatched the Atlanta Flames in the first round, they embarked on a seven game war with the Blueshirts.
Kelly was a thorn in the Rangers' side throughout the first two games. Shero sent Kelly to "hound" Harris and drive New York to distraction with his forechecking. Rangers coach Emile Francis countered by switching Harris to another line and replacing him with rookie Jerry Butler. Kelly promptly pounded Butler. The Flyers took the first two games of the series at home.
In game three, however, Harris lined Kelly up for a hip check and put the Hound out of commission. Kelly sustained torn knee ligaments and was done for the playoffs.
Today, Kelly says that it was thrilling to watch his teammates go on to outlast the Rangers and then stun the Bruins to win the Stanley Cup. Even so, he says, "it was hard not to take part in it. There's nothing like being there in the locker room, being part of the team and [feeling] the satisfaction when you help accomplish everyone's goal to win the Stanley Cup."
Kelly entered the 1974-75 season eager to help his team defend its crown. "Everyone kept saying the first Cup was a fluke and we still had to prove ourselves. But we believed in ourselves," says Kelly, who had 11 goals, 29 points and 99 penalty minutes for the season.
Kelly and his teammates kept their eyes on the prize throughout the campaign and once again, had a lot of fun along the way. One of Shero's offbeat practice drills was to have his players take the puck behind the net, swing out quickly in front and try to score. The winner received a $5 prize.
Little did anyone know that the drill would pay huge dividends. With the Flyers leading the Buffalo Sabres 3 games to 2 in the Stanley Cup Finals, they entered the third period of Game 6 in a scoreless deadlock.
In the opening minute of the third period, Shero sicked the Hound on the Sabres. Kelly pounced on huge Sabres defenseman Jerry Korab behind the Buffalo net, jarring the puck free. He then swooped out in front of the net and beat Sabres' goalie Roger Crozier for his 3rd goal of the playoffs and the biggest goal of his career.
Kelly was mobbed by his teammates. As he got back to the bench, he looked at Shero and said, "Freddie, that's five bucks you owe me."
Kelly's tally was all Philly would need. A Bill Clement insurance marker gave the Flyers a 2-0 win behind Bernie Parent's shutout goaltending. The Flyers were once again the Stanley Cup champions. Today, Kelly says that he considers the second Cup "a little bit sweeter" than the first, because he was such a key contributor.
As the 1970's moved along and the Flyers were dethroned by Montreal and then started getting annually eliminated earlier in the playoffs, general manager Keith Allen began to disassemble the Broad Street Bullies. Amidst all the change, Kelly remained a constant.
Kelly enjoyed two his best seasons in 1976-77 and 1977-78. The first year, he received increased ice time and, for the first time, cracked the 20-goal barrier to go along with his 125 penalty minutes. The next, he scored 19 and was a playoff warrior, with three goals, eight points and uncounted big hits in 12 games. In particular, Kelly gave the Toronto Maple Leafs fits.
"We still had a lot of good players here," recalls Kelly. "From Mr. Snider to Keith Allen on down, there was a lot of class and honesty." By now, Kelly, along with most of his longtime teammates, considered the Philadelphia area his permanent home.
Even so, the late 1970's were a period of upheaval on the roster. Shero left the Flyers after the 1977-78 season to take on the head coaching job and the general manager post with the New York Rangers. Kelly hated to see him go.
"There was only one Freddie," he says. "His way of coaching was unique to say the least but it was great for the group of guys we had."
Shero's initial replacement Bob McCammon didn't last long behind the Flyers bench. With the Flyers struggling after three months, McCammon and Maine Mariners head coach Pat Quinn switched places and Quinn became the Flyers new head coach.
One of Quinn's first moves was to experiment with a new line combination. He put Kelly on the left wing of a line with tough center Mel Bridgman and smooth skating rookie Tom Gorence. The newly dubbed KGB line helped give the fourth-place club a badly needed shot in the arm, providing both energy and supporting offense.
"Bridgman wasn't as polished or nearly as fast as Clarkie, but he was a good solid player, very smart and tough," remembers Kelly. "And Gorence was a guy we all thought was going to become one of the young guys to kind of pick up the torch."
With Kelly, as usual, working tirelessly in the corners and creating extra room for teammates, Bridgman went on to score 24 goals and 59 points in addition to his 184 penalty minutes while Gorence scored 13 in a half season's worth of NHL games.
Although the Flyers 1978-79 campaign ended with a galling playoff loss to Shero's Rangers, Quinn was proud of the effort his team showed to dig themselves out of their early season hole before running out of steam. The season included not only the mid-season coaching change, it also saw legendary goalie Bernie Parent suffer a career-ending eye injury. Through it all, the Flyers persevered. Quinn credited Kelly as one of the team's catalysts.
"Bob Kelly is one guy I never have to worry about," said Pat Quinn shortly before the 1979-80 season. "He comes to play every night and he's a leader both on and off the ice."
The 1979-80 season would be Kelly's last as a Flyer. He made it count. Now playing a veteran leadership role, Kelly dressed in 75 regular season games and 19 playoff contests. Although assigned primarily to checking duties, Kelly scored 15 goals. He also still knew how to lift the club's spirits with a well-timed fight or body check (122 penalty minutes). Kelly was right in the thick of the action as the Flyers set a North American professional sports record by going undefeated in 35 consecutive games. They ultimately lost in a heartbreaking six game Stanley Cup Final against the New York Islanders, who went on to win four consecutive Cups.
As the off-season rolled around, Kelly learned that he no longer fit in the Flyers plans. "Keith Allen was a very honest general manager with his players and when my time came, I was disappointed but I wasn't shocked," he recalls. "A lot of younger guys like Paul Holmgren had stepped up. I had 10 terrific years in Philly and it's pretty rare for anyone, especially players like I was to be with one team your whole career."
The Flyers traded Kelly to the lowly Washington Capitals for a third round pick in the 1982 NHL Entry Draft. Kelly focused on setting a positive example for a team accustomed to losing. He was not happy with what he saw.
"There wasn't enough talent to go around. Some of the guys on Washington – and I have to say, some of the players we had on the Caps in particular were guilty of this – wouldn't play all out or they'd suddenly get sick when we had to go into a tough building," says Kelly.
The Hound, conversely, dressed in every game for the Capitals in the 1980-81 season. Knowing only how to play full speed ahead, the Hound put up his highest penalty totals since 1972-73 (157 penalty minutes). He also had to take on an increased offensive burden and responded with his best statistical season in the NHL – 26 goals and 62 points.
The next year, however, would prove to be Kelly's last NHL season. The Caps cleaned house before the season, and hired a new coach, Bryan Murray to replace Gary Green. The club also replaced GM Max McNab with former Sabres goalie Roger Crozier (the same man against whom Kelly scored the Cup-winning goal in 1975).
Right from the start, Kelly did not appreciate Murray's abrasive style, and also clashed with Crozier. Kelly was a frequent healthy scratch and was miserable.
"Murray's style was to try to coach by intimidation. He'd tell you he'd send you to the minors or he'd bench you," says Kelly. "I'd tell him to trade me if I didn't fit in and he'd keep saying he'd get me in the lineup. But I wasn't really in his plans. Finally, I decided that I'd been around too long and been with too many good coaches and teams to stay in the situation."
After dressing in only 16 games during the 1981-82 season, Kelly asked for and received his release from Washington. Had he been so inclined, Kelly probably could have worked his way onto another NHL team and tried to get to the coveted 1,000 games played mark in the NHL.
Never much on personal stats as a motivator, Kelly retired with 837 regular season games and 101 playoff tilts to his credit. He notched 154 regular season goals and 1,454 penalty minutes without played a single game in the minor leagues.
"It was time to leave," he says. "Hockey wasn't fun anymore, and I had nothing to prove."
At Home in Philadelphia
Kelly has remained rooted to the Philadelphia area since his playing days. After his active career, he invested in the construction business, among other business ventures. He has also owned roller hockey rinks in the Delaware Valley, including "The Hound's Pound Family Fun Center" in Newark, Delaware. In the mid-1990s, Kelly, along with Dave Schultz, was involved in the short-lived Philadelphia Bulldogs of Roller Hockey International.
Today, the Hound works with the Flyers community relations department, serving as Ambassador of Hockey, promoting hockey in the Delaware Valley. He's a frequent visitor to area rinks and a regular guest on local radio shows, talking hockey and reliving some Broad Street Bully memories. Kelly is also one of the most recognizable faces on the Flyers Alumni hockey team and is still a fixture at the annual Flyers' Wives Carnival.
When he was informed that he'd be the subject of this Heroes of the Past profile, Kelly replied half-kiddingly, "You sure you mean me? I wasn't a hero, pal, I was just a plumber out there."
To a generation of Flyers fans, Bob Kelly was very much a hockey hero – a instant energy, constant hustle and a true passion for the orange and black.