Penguins History: Battleship Kelly – Pittsburgh Penguins – PenguinPoop Blog

Penguins History: Battleship Kelly

In the annals of Penguins history, perhaps no player cultivated a more fearsome reputation—or earned a more colorful nickname—than left wing Bob “Battleship” Kelly.

“Kelly was the guy who took care of everybody,” former Pens teammate Rick Kehoe recalled. “He was our enforcer.”

Fighting was his stock in trade, and few players of his era did it better. As a 27-year-old rookie with St. Louis, Kelly pounded out a pair of decisions over the NHL’s reigning heavyweight champ, Dave “the Hammer” Schultz. Word spread like wildfire throughout the league.

Desperate for muscle, the Penguins acquired the 6’2” 195-pounder from St. Louis on January 17, 1974, along with Ab DeMarco and fellow tough guy Steve Durbano. He gained instant folk hero status in Pittsburgh when he took on Blues villain Barclay Plager in a big post-trade grudge match.

Civic Arena organist Vince Lascheid was quick to capitalize on Kelly’s burgeoning popularity. He piped out a lively rendition of “Anchors Aweigh” whenever the rangy winger stepped onto the ice.

Unlike many of today’s heavyweights, Kelly was far more than a one-dimensional thug. Although an average skater, he possessed a hard slap shot and put it to good use. Patrolling the port side on a line with phenom Pierre Larouche, the Fort William, Ontario native netted 27 goals in 1974-75 and 25 more the following season. During the ill-fated 1975 playoffs, Battleship arguably was the Pens’ best player, pacing the club with five goals and eight points.

He was a remarkably infrequent fighter during his three-plus years in the ‘Burgh, due in no small part to his intimidating presence. Sporting a wild shock of curly dark hair, a Fu Manchu mustache and piercing blue eyes, Kelly oozed silent menace.

“I don’t go into a game looking for a fight because I don’t have to prove myself in the league anymore,” he explained. “But if the other team wants to get rough, I will get rough too.”

Former teammate Harvey Bennett marveled at the respect opposing players afforded Kelly.

“It’s like Kelly skates with a big glass dome around him,” Bennett told the Pittsburgh Press. “Nobody wants to touch him. He can stand in the crease and not get hit. He doesn’t get any cheap shots.”

Occasionally an opposing gunslinger would test him, with dubious results. Feisty Chicago defenseman Keith Magnuson engaged Battleship in a toe-to-toe scrap and was incapacitated for four weeks. A Kelly uppercut dislodged the helmet of Toronto battler Dave “Tiger” Williams and sent it flying into the air.

When asked by Beaver County Times columnist John Clayton to explain the reason for his fistic prowess, Kelly shrugged and said, “I don’t know why I’m such a good fighter. Maybe it’s because I punch harder than most guys.”

Following two strong seasons with the Penguins, Kelly dipped to 10 goals in 1976-77. The rugged winger signed a free-agent deal with Chicago on August 17, 1977, ending his stay in the Steel City.

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  1. Kim's Gravatar Kim
    June 8, 2012 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    “Battleship” is my Dad, so i google him to see what’s out there every once in a while. When I was younger we never heard him come home and say “guess who’s butt I kicked tonight” So it’s kind of neat to watch old fIght videos and read up on him now. Thanks for putting this together.

    • Anonymous's Gravatar Anonymous
      June 9, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

      I saw your dad play when he was in Rochester. He was Great! Hardest slapshot i have ever seen, and sometimes it went where he wanted it to go. Great left uppercut as well, Those were the good ole days of hockey

      • Kim's Gravatar Kim
        June 9, 2012 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

        Yes, hockey just isn’t the same these days, granted I was two or three when we were in Rochester, but I remember going to a few games when I was older and watching him play/fight. I liked it better when they didn’t wear helmets…can you imagine that now?

        • Anonymous's Gravatar Anonymous
          June 10, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

          Nope I can’t Your fathers first fight that year was on November 17th, The Americans played Cincinnati, prior to the game Don Cherry was asked in an interview (newspaper or radio I do not remember) why your Dad had not yet had a fight that year. His answer was Cincinnati was a tough team and maybe people should come to the game. Your father and Jake Rathwell fought at center ice, then a second time in the penalty box. “Battleship” skated off the ice to a Thunderous standing ovation and the love affair between the city of Rochester and the 72/73 Americans was on. Back then the arena dad only one penalty box so anytime your dad fought the victim had to sit next to him for 5 minutes. They upgraded the rink and built a second penalty box shortly thereafter.

    • Rick Buker's Gravatar Rick Buker
      August 16, 2013 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

      Hey Kim. Sorry it’s taken me so long to post a response. Believe it or not, this is the first time I’ve seen your comments.

      I’m glad I was able to bring a little bit of your Dad’s career to light. He was a folk hero in Pittsburgh in the mid-1970s, and not just for his fighting ability. He skated on a line with Pierre Larouche— the team’s rising superstar—and really helped “Lucky Pierre” early on by shielding him from abuse and allowing him to concentrate on hockey. And, as “Anonymous” pointed out, your Dad had one heck of a slap shot. I can remember him blowing the puck past opposing goalies from just inside the blue line. He was really good in front of the net, too … nobody on the other teams wanted to move him out the crease.

      It doesn’t surprise me that your Dad didn’t talk too much about his fights. Even though he was one of the most respected —if not THE most respected—fighters in hockey in his day, as a fan you got the sense that he really didn’t relish his tough guy role all that much. But on those occasions when he decided to drop the mitts … watch out. He could really throw ‘em.


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