We all know the Leafs don’t “retire” numbers. They should, and when I contemplate why, I think—not surprisingly—about Dave Keon.
Organizations reveal a lot about themselves from the ‘top’. The type of ownership that a team has can impact the way a team performs. If ownership is a joke, it’s sometimes hard for management to build the right kind of team and for the players to fight through all the silliness. (The Oakland Raiders in the NFL may be an example of that in recent years, though Al Davis—while always a maverick—was widely respected for many, many years.)
In the summer of 1975, Maple Leaf owner Harold Ballard showed his disrespect for the institution he, albeit in a small way, himself had helped to build.
Ballard had been involved with the Leaf organization dating back to the early 1950s’, I believe. He was involved in helping to build some successful junior teams in the Maple Leaf system, and eventually became a part-owner of the Leafs with John Bassett Sr. and Conn Smythe’s son, Stafford, in the early 1960s.
When Stafford died (around 1970, I believe it was) Ballard worked things such that he gained control of the Gardens—and the team.
While the guy obviously had his good side and loved hockey and wanted the Leafs to win, he also had a huge ego and liked publicity even more than winning, it seemed.
For reasons I don’t fully understand (I’m sure the various books written about the Leafs over the years can shed more light on this than I can) Ballard was a cantankerous guy. He and Keon were not close.
By all accounts, in the summer of ’75 Ballard simply refused to offer Keon a contract that reflected the Leaf captain’s 15 years with the organization—most as its best all-around player and a key figure in the team’s four Stanley Cup championships in the 1960s.
This came on the heels of Ballard’s stinging public criticism of Keon as a poor leader and captain the previous season.
So, without NHL options despite a brilliant career to that point (free agency didn’t exist), Keon fled the organization for the World Hockey Association and the Minnesota Fighting Saints. He eventually ended up with the New England/Hartford Whalers where he finished his career.
Arguably Keon was already on the downslide of a marvelous career when Ballard cast him adrift. Even as a big Keon fan I could see it myself. But as recently as the 1972-’73 season Keon had been, in my view, the best Leaf player by far. He wasn’t quite as effective in his last two seasons with the club, but he still a “plus” player (taking into account his plus-minus statistics) and could still play—as demonstrated by the fact that he proceeded to play another 7 years in the WHA and then back in the NHL with Hartford.
But in classic Ballard fashion, the team owner swept away the past, and before Leaf fans knew it, the number 14, worn proudly and with honor by Keon since the 1960-’61 season, belonged to former California Seal forward Stan Weir.
Now, Weir was a perfectly nice player. He had some good moments with the Leafs in the latter 1970s. But you had to wonder why were the Leafs so quick to give Keon’s number to another player, and not even someone with a deep history in the Leaf organization?
It obviously was a statement by Ballard, a mean-spirited one at that.
Many of you may recall that long-time Leaf great Syl Apps wanted Ronnie Ellis to wear his famous number 6 back in the late ‘60s. Ellis accepted because it was an honor—the offer coming straight from a former Leaf legend. That made sense and was a classy thing to do. Apps liked the way Ellis played. However Apps had retired as a Leaf and by all accounts had been treated respectfully by then owner Conn Smythe.
But this matter of right away handing out number 14 to a new Leaf was just another slap to Keon. Amazingly, Ballard, years later, asked for so much for Keon’s rights when the Islanders wanted Keon in a trade that Dave missed returning to a good NHL team when he still had some juice left.
Can anyone imagine Henri Richard retiring in Montreal, and then the very next season, his number being worn by a player who had just joined the team from, say, the Cleveland Barons?
This is not a criticism of the individuals who have worn the number 14 over the years, including Weir. In fact, current Leaf Matt Stajan wears number 14 has often said Keon was his dad’s favorite player, and that it is an honor for him to wear Keon’s old number.
If anyone doubts whether Keon was to Toronto what Richard was to the Leafs, (maybe more, as there was no Jean Beliveau “equivalent” in Toronto in that era) ask legendary Montreal writer Red Fisher. He saw Keon play against the Habs throughout the 60s, including in the playoffs five years in a row between 1963 and 1967. I interviewed Mr. Fisher recently, and you can listen to that interview and his comments about Keon by clicking on this link…
The current Leaf regime at least “honors” certain numbers. Ballard didn’t even do that. But despite overtures made to Keon over the years—and Dave did return for the 1967 team reunion a couple of years back—in my mind the organization is still a long way from undoing the damage done by the classless way Keon was treated more than 30 years ago.
They could start by not handing out number 14 to anyone in the future.