Monday, August 08, 2016

Washington Capitals: If Players Were Presidents -- Bob Kelly

Zachary Taylor served just 492 days as America’s 12th President.  Before that he served more than 40 years in the United States Army, from New Orleans to Green Bay and in battle from the War of 1812 to the Mexican-American War in the 1840’s.  A warrior who saw action in some of the most significant engagements in early American history who then served his last days in Washington in abbreviated civilian service does not immediately bring to mind a connection with hockey.  Ah, but that’s not to say there isn’t such a connection.  And there is a Washington Capitals of years gone by who does come to mind.  Bob Kelly.

Taylor was born in Virginia but was raised in Kentucky and did not have the benefit of much formal education.  He did, however, receive his commission as an officer in the United States Army at the age of 24, and just a few years later was earning a reputation as a skilled officer in the War of 1812.  He achieved command of his own after the war and was eventually promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1819 at the age of 34.  In 1837, he received the brigadier general star and commanded troops in the Second Seminole War, out of which he would earn the nickname, “Old Rough and Ready,” a product of his willingness to share hardships of field duty with his troops.

The reputation he earned as a commander led to Taylor being sent to Louisiana in 1844 to protect the Republic of Texas from attack from Mexico in advance of its annexation by the United States.  A year later he was in Texas in anticipation of conflict.  After hostilities broke out, Taylor was involved in some of the most important battles of the Mexican-American War: Palo Alto, Monterrey, Buena Vista.  His successes that contributed to victory made him a favorite in some quarters to stand as a presidential candidate.  Self-identified as a member of the Whig party, his was an appeal crossed party and regional lines.  His war record had appeal in the North, while his ownership of slaves had appeal in the South.  His war record cemented his status as a credible national candidate, and he ran for President under the Whig banner in 1848.

The election of 1848 was not a military conflict, but it was a hard-fought one nonetheless.  He won a three-way race, defeating Democrat Lewis Cass and Free Soil candidate (and former President) Martin Van Buren.  Taylor won 47 percent of the national vote to 43 percent for Cass and 10 percent for Van Buren.  Taylor capture 163 electoral votes to 127 for Cass (146 needed to win).

It was a short-lived victory for Taylor.  At an Independence Day celebration at the Washington Monument (then under construction) he consumed some of the foods and beverages offered.  Shortly thereafter he began complaining of digestive problems, eventually diagnosed with “cholera morbus” (what today might be called gastroenteritis, unrelated to “cholera”).  Despite treatment, the fever he contracted worsened, and he died on July 9, 1850, not quite 500 days into his Presidency.

Bob Kelly was something of a warrior in his own right.  A pugnacious player in junior hockey (245 penalty minutes in 107 games over two seasons with the Oshawa Generals), he was taken by the Philadelphia Flyers in the third round of the 1970 amateur draft.  Kelly’s style fit right in with a club whose philosophy was evolving into one that would earn the club the nickname, “Broad Steet Bullies.”  He joined the club in the 1969-1970 season and, by his standards before and after that season, played rather sedately (70 penalty minutes in 76 games). 

That changed the next season.  With Fred Shero taking over behind the Flyer bench for the 1971-1972 season, the evolution of “Flyer Hockey” was underway.  Kelly finished third in penalty minutes on the club that season and was fifth in points for a club that was yet to have much success in terms of wins (26).  But the marker was put down, and two seasons later, Kelly and the Flyers were Stanley Cup champions.  In that regular season, Kelly was one of seven Flyers to log more than 100 penalty minutes, a league high. 

Kelly and the Flyers repeated as Stanley Cup champions, the 1974-1975 season being one in which the Flyers increased their team penalty minutes by more than 12 percent.  The odd thing about that was that the club had only six players with more than 100 penalty minutes in the regular season, but Kelly and Ross Lonsberry could have made it eight had they just managed one more penalty (each finished with 99 minutes).

Kelly was not a player to let up in the postseason, either.  In 101 career postseason games with the Flyers, he recorded 172 minutes in penalties.  In the nine playoff seasons he participate in with Philadelphia, only Dave Schultz (363) and Andre Dupont (306) had more postseason penalty minutes. 

By the time Kelly completed his tenth season in Philadelphia in 1979-1980, he ranked third in club history in total career regular season penalty minutes (1,285), behind only Schultz (1,386) and Dupont (1,505).  He richly deserved the nickname, “Houndog.”  However, despite scoring more goals (15) than his career season average and recording more assists (20), and still being under 30 years of age, he was traded to the Capitals for a third-round pick in the 1982 draft.

Despite coming to a club with far less success in its brief history than the Flyers, Kelly posted career highs in goals (26), assists (36), and points (62) in the 1980-1981 season in Washington.  The personal success would not last.  The start of the following season saw his playing time drastically reduced as the Caps went to a younger lineup.  After appearing in 16 games (no goals, four points), the Caps and Kelly came to an agreement to terminate Kelly’s contract.  And with that, Kelly retired from the NHL.

Zachary Taylor enjoyed a long career as a soldier, one that by military standards was quite successful.  The man known as “Old Rough and Ready” then came to Washington and succumbed to a digestive ailment, not the sort of end one would have envisioned for one of his history.  Bob Kelly was one of the most famously ornery of the Broad Street Bullies over a ten year career in Philadelphia.  "Houndog" then came to Washington and yielded to a youth movement in just his second season here, not the sort of end one might have expected for a player who was still only 31 years old.  In those respects, Zachary Taylor and Bob Kelly share a certain common history that links them in this tour through the Presidents and Capitals history.