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Dave Keon: The best Leaf of my generation

Former Leaf great David Keon turned 70 a few days ago and there’s little doubt that his image has been tarnished over the years. Once the most popular player in a Leaf-centric town, his public and ongoing alienation from the organization that helped make him famous has taken a toll.

I’ve posted on previous occasions (January 25 story) that Keon should not be the scapegoat because the media has continued to raise his reluctance to make amends with Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. Whatever one’s point of view, despite many efforts to broker a reconciliation, it’s not happening. And not many people even care anymore.

Too, Keon’s legacy has been diminished somewhat as more and more people, including media columnists, recall instances when, as adoring kids, they were brushed off by the Leaf center when they simply asked him for an autograph. There was just such a reference in one of the Toronto newspapers this week.

Hey, that happened to me too, with Keon, though I wasn’t a kid anymore when he turned away my autograph request after a loss at the Gardens one night with a simple, “Sorry, not tonight”.

I don’t know why a guy in his situation would be unfriendly with kids or fans in general, especially when he knew he was the object of much admiration. But I wasn’t in his shoes, and if he didn’t behave like Jean Beliveau at all times, well, all I can suggest is that, like most of us, he wasn't a hero. He was just a guy (with a dedication to and a talent for playing hockey) and a flawed guy at that.

But that, for me at least, doesn’t take away from why I looked up to him, and that’s because of the kind of player that he was throughout his generally outstanding 22-year professional career.

I could probably write weekly about my memories of Keon, as could many of you who were Leaf—and Keon—fans in the ‘60s and into the 1970s.

Recently I watched Game 3 of the 1965 Stanley Cup semi-final between the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs. (We’ve included a picture of Keon above, scoring in Game 5 of the 1963 Cup finals against the Red Wings.)

The Leafs that spring were coming off three Stanley Cup victories in a row, beginning in 1962. But in the spring of ’65, they ran into a Montreal squad that had a burning desire to get back to the top of the hockey mountain. The team was built around the supreme offensive skills of players like Beliveau, Henri Richard, Ralph Backstrom and Bobby Rousseau, and the tough checking of players like Gilles Tremblay, Claude Provost and Claude Larose. They had acquired Gump Worsley from the Rangers the season before, and had an outstanding you defense corps with J.C. Tremblay, Jacques Laperierre, Ted Harris, Terry Harper and Jean-Guy Talbot.

But most importantly, they had added grit in the person of John Ferguson, who became the undisputed “tough” guy in the league and over time helped the Habs to 5 Stanley Cups between 1965 and 1971.

On this April night in 1965, the Leafs were hosting Game 3 of that semi-final series against Montreal. Watching it on television brought back memories of being 11 years old at the time, when I lived and died with the Leafs every spring in the playoffs. (Sometimes games were blacked out locally on television because we lived near Detroit and the Red Wings didn’t allow the games to be shown.)

Montreal had won the first two games at home, and this particular game went into overtime with the score tied 2-2.

Less than 10 minutes into the extra session, Keon hopped off the Leaf bench on a line change and intercepted the puck just inside the Montreal blue line. He quickly went to his signature backhand with no one between he and Worlsey and his shot along the ice beat the future Hall-of-Famer. Toronto won 3-2, to get back in the series. Though Toronto won game 4 as well, they succumbed in 6 games, losing in overtime at Maple Leaf Gardens in Game 6- ending their string of successive championships.

Dave Keon was the best Maple Leaf I ever saw. There are countless others of my generation (born in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s) who adopted Keon as their “favorite” Leaf. We came to appreciate him as the best all-around player who ever played for Toronto—in his time or since. (I wasn’t old enough to see Syl Apps or Ted Kennedy or any of the other fine Maple Leafs of earlier times, who were also among the best Leafs of all-time.)

Why was Keon “the best”? It wasn’t his size, because he was all of 5 foot 9 and maybe 160 pounds when he entered the NHL at the age of 20, in the fall of 1960. He was considered small, even for his time.

But his speed, for his time, was out of the ordinary. He was an extraordinary skater, with tremendous balance. Until Bobby Orr joined the league in 1966, Keon was in an elite group that included Henri Richard and perhaps one or two other players in terms of his foot speed. His ability to anticipate where the puck would be was out of the ordinary. His Junior coach, Fr. David Bauer, had also taught him a method of checking which allowed him to be effective without running people over. His game was about angles, takeouts and forechecking, and his tremendous work ethic made him an invaluable penalty-killer.

Interestingly, in my view, Keon was not a naturally gifted goal scorer. While he finished his professional career (NHL and WHA) with close to 500 goals over 22 seasons, he would probably have finished with 600 had he scored on even half the breakaway opportunities he secured because of his blazing speed.

Early in his career, he played with Leaf captain George Armstrong for the most part, with Dickie Duff on the other side. Then it was Armstrong and Don McKenney (briefly) and an assortment of wingers from the mid-‘60s onward. In his later years with the Leafs, he did not play with top-caliber wingers, but still managed to put up offensive numbers. Gary Monahan and Billy MacMillan had career years with Keon as their center in 1970-’71. Indeed, Keon had a remarkable 1970-’71 season, just when it looked as though his career might have leveled off. He averaged a point a game and set a then record for most short-handed goals in a single season.

He played hurt the following year, but had a brilliant year in 1972-’73. Ultimately, he was run out of town by Leaf owner Harold Ballard after the 1975 season. Ballard had openly questioned Keon’s leadership and did not offer him a contract. (Ballard was also the one who allowed a potentially solid young Leaf team to erode, when many left for the World Hockey Association in the early 1970s.)

Nonetheless, Keon continued to play for several years in the WHA, and then finished his career when Hartford joined the NHL in 1979-80 and he retired after the ’82 season. (He missed a chance to return to the NHL sooner, because Ballard demanded too much for Keon’s rights when the Islanders were looking for a veteran center in the late ‘70s to help get them over the top.)

Keon was a disciple of Bert Olmstead, the hard-as-nails former Montreal forward who joined the Leafs in the late ‘50s and helped them with the Stanley Cup in the spring of 1962. Keon was evidently seen by some teammates in later years as Olmstead-like, distant, and was not liked by all, it seems. But it would be difficult to question his passion, and his success. When the Leafs won 4 Cups in the 1960s, he was not alone in making a difference, of course. A team with Bower, Horton, Stanley, Baun, Brewer, Pulford, Kelly and many others won because they were a tough team to play against most nights over many seasons. Everyone on each of those teams, including the lesser-known “role” players, contributed to the overall success of the club.

But Keon was there in good times and bad. I recall listening to a Leaf game near the end of the 1972-’73 season. It was a bad year for the Leafs, in part because of the aforementioned loss of several young players like Jim Dorey (traded earlier to the Rangers), Brad Selwood, Rick Ley and Jim Harrison, not to mention future Hall-of-Fame goalie Bernie Parent—to the WHA. Legendary broadcaster Foster Hewitt was still doing some of the radio games, and after another big night for Keon, remarked, “I don’t know where this Leaf team would be without Keon…”

That was my feeling throughout his career. When they were good in the early and mid-‘60s, for me, he was the difference in getting them over the top. When they were not so good in the late ‘60s and through to the mid-’70s, he helped make them worth watching most nights.

Some specific memories of Keon, beyond what I’ve mentioned above?

Scoring 20 goals in his first NHL season as a 20-year-old and winning the Calder trophy that year. Winning the Lady Byng the next two seasons. Scoring the goal that clinched first overall in March of 1963 against Montreal. A hat trick against the Habs in Game 4 of the 1964 semi-finals. His overall excellence in the 1967 playoffs. His comeback season in 1968-69. His fabulous year in 1970-71, playing with two inexperienced wingers—and still being named the end-of-season second-team NHL All-Star. A wonderful 1972-’73 season. Scoring a hat trick against the Penguins after being “called out” by Harold Ballard in his last season with Toronto. Fighting for a puck along the board against the rugged Flyers in game 4 of the 1975 quarter-finals, and setting up Blaine Stoughton for the first goal of the game.

It turned out to be Keon’s last game in Maple Leaf uniform.

I remember following him as best I could while he worked quietly in the WHA. I also recall that he scored in his first game back in Toronto with the Hartford Whalers against the Leafs. He retired quietly, without any fanfare, press conference or public pronouncements.

For all his apparent personal imperfections, he left hockey as he played. With dignity.

I never knew Keon, and never had the opportunity to meet him. I have worked professionally over the years with some of his former teammates, and those I know spoke very highly of him. (Jim Dorey also spoke about Keon in my recent interview with him. Click on the Dorey audio interview to hear more.) Most described him as a tremendously stubborn individual, which probably helped make him a Hall-of-Fame player.

The Leafs refuse to formally retire numbers, and if anyone should have had his number retired (and there are others, too, like Armstrong, Bower and others before them), it is Keon.

Back in the mid-‘70s, before he left the Leafs, the team had a particularly rough road trip to Los Angeles and Oakland. A Globe & Mail reporter wrote a story about Keon being disorderly on the plane trip back to Toronto. It was unusual in those days for such things to be openly reported by the writers who followed the team, but times were changing and the sometimes-cozy 'off-the-record' relationships that had existed for so many years did not always apply in the post-Watergate era. Such stories, and Ballard’s public criticism of Keon, no doubt played a role in the deteriorating relationship between Keon and the organization in his last days with the Leafs.

That said, for me, and for many like me who grew up a Leaf fan and saw Keon as the epitome of what a hockey player should be, it was not enough to diminish him in our estimation. He was a peerless team player, who helped make good Leaf teams champions—and bad Leaf teams tolerable.

1 comment:

  1. Great article on the Leafs' greatest player. . . your blog is a gold mine of memories.