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Best Maple Leafs ever—by Nationality?

Now this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it was a fun mini-project to be a part of nonetheless. Let me offer a bit of background.

Earlier this month, I was asked to contribute in a small way to a Leaf-related exercise that was a little unusual.  The comprehensive and widely read Maple Leaf Hot Stove web site was undertaking a project as part of a wider effort by the “Puck Daddy” Yahoo hockey blog.  I don’t know all the details but from what I have gleaned Puck Daddy was asking writers/blogs from the thirty NHL cities to identify who they felt were the “best” all-time players from those particular franchises—by nationality.

Like other clubs, the Leafs have had their share of elite players from hockey-playing countries around the globe. While I was not part of the selection panel from MLHS, I was more than happy to write a few lines about the “Canadian-born” Leaf chosen for this honour that I would have selected anyway—longtime Leaf center Dave Keon (right).

There could certainly have been arguments for any number of other all-time Leaf greats (from Syl Apps and 'Teeder' Kennedy to Frank Mahovlich and Doug Gilmour) but someone had to be chosen, and Keon was that player. 

This kind of “decision” may have more to do with when you are at apex of your fanhood, if I can call it that.  Some real old-timers may feel King Clancy (who of course later became a Leaf coach and lifelong executive) or Babe Pratt, the high-scoring defenseman of the 1940s, were the best ever-Leafs born in Canada.  Maybe others would say Charlie Conacher, who played with Clancy in the 1930s.  (Those individuals were before my time.) 

If you were just falling in love with the Leafs in the ‘60s, maybe it was Johnny Bower or Tim Horton.  We could all add a lot more names.  But in my lifetime and in my mind, Keon was—and remains—the guy.  So I support the choice.

(I also collaborated on another short piece on Peter Ihnacak, the fine ‘80s Leaf center from Slovakia, who had a nice though much shorter and less impactful career than someone like Keon.)

If you’re interested, check out the MLHS overview, or go directly to the Yahoo site for details and the full Leaf write-up. 

"All-time" selections are always fun, but I realize that they can also trigger some emotional debate.  I’m certainly not ready to impale myself over the choice I was asked to write about, as I can see a lot of reasons to consider any number of players for the prestigious number-one slot—especially when it comes to players born in Canada, because there have been so many great “Canadian” Leafs.

Feel free to opine on the process, the selections or who you feel have been the best Leafs from the various countries listed…


  1. I have been reading along with this series on Yahoo this summer, it's been a little bit of fun to see varied opinions on team histories. I saw they posted the Leafs one today, and was pleasantly surprised to see that you had authored the part on Keon. Not an enviable task to be certain, as so many fans, young and old, may disagree for their own reasons. But you were spot on and did not leave much to argue with why he was such a great Leaf and worthy of this selection. Great job!

    1. Thanks for checking it out, Pete. No question an argument can be made for lots of different players- some pretty compelling arguments, I'm sure. But Keon was a special player, that much I know because I (like many then young Leaf supporters) saw him play so hard and so well for 15 years.

  2. This may be verging on 'Facepalm Obvious' territory, but I would wager that Nik Antropov will be known the best Leaf, nay, possibly the best NHLer to come out of Kazakhstan for many moons to come, depending on how big a fan of Evgneni Nbokov you are...

    1. Antropov has certainly been the finest Leaf from that country, Sean!

  3. Michael,

    Quite a topic. I think 20 different comments might yield 20 different choices and each would have validity.

    My choice for the best Canadian Leaf would be a dead heat between two multi cup winners; Turk Broda and Johnny Bower. Both were outstanding goalies who had vital roles in the winning of 9 Stanley Cups. I would also give honorable mention to George Armstrong and Teeder Kennedy, two great long time captains and outstanding on and off ice leaders.

    My choice for the best Swedish Leaf would be Borje Salming, one of the all-time great Leaf defensemen. An obvious honorable mention goes to Matts Sundin.

    My choice for the best American Leaf is Phil Kessel who should have a lot of years left to build on an already impressive body of work. Honorable mention to Al Iafrate and Ed Olczyk both of whom had short but productive stints with the Leafs.

    My choice for best Russian would be Dmitry Yushkevich, an underrated rugged minute eating defenseman.

    1. Those who saw them play (like yourself), Pete Cam, could not argue with your choice of Broda and Bower. (I was too young to have seen Broda, but was thrilled to have seen lots of Bower in the late '50s and all through the '60s...)

      Salming was a splendid Leaf, as was Sundin.

      I'm glad you mentioned Iafrate. So much natural talent.

      And I'm with you on Yushkevich. In hockey terms, he was a true warrior. I'd always have room for guys like he and Danny Markov on my Leaf teams. Thanks Pete.

  4. In 1972 I was 12 years old and living in Mississauga. I had 2 posters on my bedroom wall: Dave Keon and John Lennon.

    1. That speaks to how much you must have thought of Keon, Mike. Looking back, I'm pretty sure a lot of youngsters looked up to him, because of the way he carried himself and the way he played the game. Thanks for sharing that memory.

  5. When I saw Keon's picture on the Puck Daddy story, I was pleased (but not overly surprised) that you were asked to do a write up on David - an excellent and wise request from the MLHS'ers!

    Keon was my first 'favourite Leaf' though I only really came to appreciate him during the last 40% of his tenure. Being young (and on the west coast), I didn't fully understand why he left for the WHA. AND, I never saw any of his stellar play through the cup years.

    As a result, I grew up with Sittler and he became my all time favourite, though I must say that Keon was probably a better all-round player, he just didn't 'capture me' at the right time!

    Always loved the way he seemed to dance on his skates and I now appreciate how wisely he played the game!

    Dave Keon is an excellent choice from my lifetime, though I would have loved to see more of Bower and Broda, too!

    1. Sittler would have been the choice of many for this honour, InTimeFor62, particularly those from your generation (born in the early '60s)- and a worthy one, too.

      Keon's best years, in my view, were between '61 and '67, when he was such a factor for the Leafs night after night, including in the playoffs. He was especially brilliant again during the '70-'71 and '72-'73 seasons. But by and large, he was a stellar performer throughout his Leaf career. Thanks, InTimeFor62.