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Retired numbers: A long-standing debate in Leafland

Earlier this week, I had some healthy exchanges via e-mail and Twitter with some thoughtful Leaf and hockey fans about retiring numbers.  (This was no doubt precipitated by the Blue Jays announcement that Roberto Alomar’s number 12 would in fact be retired by the club.  As many of you know, Alomar was a remarkably talented second basemen for the Jays—and a few other clubs—in a distinguished professional career.)

I have no idea if I’m in the minority, but I would still enjoy seeing the Maple Leafs retire a few numbers of some special players.  I realize the club policy is geared toward “honoring” numbers (Turk Broda and Johnny Bower and their number 1, etc.) but when I see what the ever-classy Montreal Canadiens have done over the years, I’d like to see the Leafs do something similar.

Who should have their numbers retired?  Well, that’s always fodder for great debate, and I can only speak for the era that I have witnessed, from the late 1950s on.  (I well recognize there were many Leaf greats, Syl Apps, ‘Teeder’ Kennedy, etc. before my time…)  For me, I look at years of service with the team, end-of-season All-Star selections, playoff performance over time, Cup wins (if any), leadership and the impact a player had on the mindset of the broader Leaf fan base over an extended period of time.

Many players from that early to mid ‘60s era would deserve consideration.  For me, Bower (right) would be a slam dunk.  Honor the number as they have, yes, but also retire it (though it’s a bit hard to do for a goalie, given that so many of them wear that number 1…)  He helped the team win those 4 Cups, though he was hurt two of the years they won it.  But he was the last man back in the 'no face mask era' and a truly great playoff goalie, and he played ‘till he was 45+.  Amazing.  Off the ice, he was one of the most beloved individuals ever to play in Toronto, to this day—just a nice and decent man.

Others like Bobby Pulford, George Armstrong and Frank Mahovlich were significant contributors to those four Cup teams, as were Tim Horton and Allan Stanley.  But if I had to pick one Leaf above all others to be so honored, it would be Dave Keon and his number 14.

I know many Leaf fans have long soured or “given up” on Keon, largely because they see him as a dour old guy, clinging to bitter memories of his treatment at the hands of long-time owner Harold Ballard.  Maybe I see things a bit differently because I know and have spoken with many ex-Leafs who played with Keon and know him well, and I just don’t see his situation that way—though I think I understand why many of even his most devoted fans no longer much care about him. (Click here to see an earlier post, a kind of Keon "defense", if you will...)

For me, he was one of the best all-around players I have ever seen, not just one of the best Leafs.  Why? Well, I saw it first hand, not just for five years or ten years, but for fifteen years, including many seasons when the team was not very good in the late '60s and the early and mid '70s.  He simply had some so many of the skills needed to play the game at the highest level.  In his prime, he was one of the fastest skaters in the game.  Now, lots of guys are fast, even now, but they don’t know how to use their speed to full advantage.  Keon did.  The way he used angles to eliminate people from the play was brilliant.  Though small, he was a supremely capable “shut-down” checker.  He played through all kinds of injuries.  His penalty killing skills were matched by very few.  In a close game, he was excellent on the face-offs that mattered.  He almost never took penalties, thus never putting his team in the position of killing dumb infractions.

While not a “natural” scorer (he missed so many break aways and did not have a wicked shot, comparably speaking), he still scored about 500 goals in his NHL/WHA career.  He was twice (amazingly, ten years apart) an end of season NHL All-Star.  He won individual awards, including playoff MVP in 1967.

You remember how Leaf fans felt about little Dougie Gilmour playing his heart out in the playoffs?  That was Keon in the 1960s.  And believe me, he was the idol of thousands of young Leaf fans across Canada for more than a decade.  (Fans at Maple Leaf Gardens cheered his name long after he had gone to the dressing room after the last game of the 1963 Cup win against Detroit, and he came out for a bow and to a standing ovation...)

Interestingly, he would have stayed with the Leafs in 1975, but Ballard did not want him, and he had to go to the WHA to continue playing (there was no free agency back then; the Leafs still restricted his NHL rights). When he came back to the NHL in his 40s, he was still an effective player.  I’ll always remember him scoring for the Harford Whalers in his return to Toronto, as the Whalers beat the Leafs. You could see his joy on hi face as he waved from the bench to one of his sons up in the stands after the goal.

Yes, he finally "came back" briefly to be part of the 1967 Cup team celebration a few years ago, and yes, many see him as a stubborn, selfish old guy who will only come back to the Leaf family for good if his number is retired, rather than simply "honored".  But his perceived “behavior” doesn’t trouble me in the least.  Not everyone can live up to the “good guy” image we, as fans, want to see endure forever in our minds, and not every ex-player can do the things his fans would like him to do to complete the perceived fairy tale ending.

Keon was very humbled and gracious when the St. Mike’s Majors retired his junior number not that long ago.

I know many will disagree, but I think the Leafs should do the same.


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