THUNDER BAY – J. Bob Kelly has been a fighter all of his life.
Nearly 40 years after he hung up the blades, the former NHL tough guy once nicknamed Battleship is in a different kind of battle than he waged on the ice, taking on the toughest guys in the toughest generation of hockey players who spent the 1970s brawling their way to stardom.
“I’m trying to stay alive,” said Kelly, inducted on Saturday into the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame.
“Two years ago I weighed 128 pounds. It was cancer. I just couldn’t eat, couldn’t do anything. They finally stuck a feeding tube into me and it’s taken me two years to get up to 172 pounds.”
Now 71, Kelly – who added the ‘J’ in front of his name to distinguish himself from the Bob Kelly who played for the Flyers during the Broad Street Bully days – has fond memories of his playing days, an NHL career he wasn’t planning for when the Toronto Maple Leafs drafted him 16th overall in 1967.
The Fort William-born forward spent the next six years toiling in the minor leagues, riding the buses to places like Port Huron, Providence, Omaha and Des Moines until the St. Louis Blues gave him his big chance in 1973-74.
But it was in Pittsburgh where Kelly made his mark.
He scored 27 goals in 1974-75 and added 25 more in 1975-76, when the Penguins did the unthinkable and blew a 3-0 best-of-seven series lead to the New York Islanders.
Looking back, one of his fondest memories in the game was the first time he walked into the old Montreal Forum, the ghosts of hockey’s past leaving the wide-eyed Kelly in awe.
“I said, ‘Here I am, Bob Kelly, what am I doing here? Holy cow.’ It’s like being in a dream and waking up and saying, ‘Geez, I really am here,’” Kelly said.
Despite his scoring touch, his four years in Pittsburgh were predicated on his ability to keep the other team honest.
The Penguins of the mid-‘70s were star laden and poised for greatness, led by the likes Pierre Larouche, Jean Pronovost, Syl Apps and Rick Kehoe.
“When I got traded to Pittsburgh, my first game was in Vancouver. We beat them. The second game was in Philadelphia. We went in and we beat them. I’ll never forget the guys in the room afterward, they said they couldn’t believe the difference in the Flyers with (Steve) Durbano and myself on the ice in that game compared to previous games,” Kelly said.
“They never beat them. They were intimidated and half the time terrified to go out on the ice.”
And who could blame them, with Dave Schultz, Andre Dupont and a host of thugs, the Flyers were the toughest team on the block.
However, Kelly said he never thought Schultz, the wildest of them all, deserved his reputation.
“I never called Schultz a heavyweight because I put him on his rear end twice in two fights,” Kelly said. “It was three punches and two punches. I challenged their whole bench one time in Philadelphia. I wasn’t in a very good mood that night.”
Kelly, whose career came to end in 1979 after two seasons with Chicago, finished with 87 goals and 196 points in 425 games, numbers he never expected would earn him a spot in the Northwestern Ontario Hall of Fame.
And yet the call came.
“I saved the phone message because I had to listen to it three or four times because I wasn’t quite sure whether I believed it or not.".