When I was a kid, everyone wanted to be Dave Keon.
I wasn’t even a fan of Keon’s Toronto Maple Leafs, but every time I gathered with my buddies to play road hockey, we always pretended to be NHL players. It was pretty much guaranteed a chorus of, “I’m Dave Keon! I’m Dave Keon!” would precede every game. The honor usually went to my pal Tim Moore because nobody in our group loved Keon or the Maple Leafs as much as he did.
Keon was the ultimate Maple Leaf and if you need proof of that, you need only check Friday’s unveiling of the Top 100 Maple Leafs of all time. Right there at the top of the list is Keon. The Top 100 is part of the organization’s celebration of its centennial season. (Full disclosure: I was part of the selection committee and Keon was my choice for No. 1.)
One of only five players to play in 1,000 games with the Maple Leafs, Keon was the NHL’s best all-round player in his prime; a solid contributor on offense and the best checker in the game.
What made the announcement so intriguing is the fact Keon was front and center at Real Sports Bar & Grill to hear it. Not so long ago Keon and the organization were at loggerheads and despite repeated efforts by various incarnations of Maple Leafs management to extend an olive branch, Keon wanted no part of it.
He bore a grudge against late owner Harold Ballard for what he perceived to be unfair treatment that ultimately led to his leaving Toronto to play in the World Hockey Association with the Minnesota Fighting Saints, Indianapolis Racers and New England Whalers. Keon eventually returned to the NHL with the Hartford Whalers.
Keon also made no bones about his dislike of the fact the Maple Leafs choose to celebrate the careers of former star players by honoring the numbers they wore on their sweaters with a banner in the rafters of Air Canada Centre rather than retiring the number like many other organizations. I wondered why the Maple Leafs didn’t just throw a Keon banner up there with the others regardless of his feelings.
Turns out that would have been a huge mistake.
Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan understands the importance of making peace with the best and most popular player in club history and has been very proactive in trying to get Keon back into the family. As the Maple Leafs continue to attempt to turn their fortunes around on the ice, baby step by baby step, making peace with Keon is a huge achievement.
Keon’s stubbornness finally paid off when, on Saturday, the Maple Leafs made the shocking announcement that all the numbers that had been honored in the past as well as Keon’s famous No. 14, would indeed be retired.
“I don’t know what Toronto thought at the time,” Keon said following the ceremony to retire his and the other numbers. “All great franchises retired numbers of players who brought glory to their franchises.”
Keon said on Friday he was humbled by being named the best player in the Maple Leafs history.
“I’m thrilled, I’m honored and I’m terribly pleased,” Keon said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”
Keon, who resides in Florida, is 76 years old. He now joins other honored members including Turk Broda, Johnny Bower, Hap Day, Red Kelly, King Clancy, Tim Horton, Charlie Conacher, Ted Kennedy, Syl Apps, George Armstrong, Mats Sundin, Wendel Clark, Borje Salming, Frank Mahovlich, Darryl Sittler and Doug Gilmour.
Sittler said when he joined the Maple Leafs in 1970 Keon was the best player and the hardest worker. He set a great example for his teammates.
Watching Keon play for the Maple Leafs was an absolute joy. In the sixties and seventies, when he was at his best, Keon was a speedster who took as much joy in preventing the opposition from scoring as he did in collecting 396 goals in 1,296 games. The Frank J. Selke Trophy, which celebrates the best defensive forward in the NHL each season, was first awarded in 1978 and went to Bob Gainey the first four times it was handed out. Had the award been around in Keon’s day, he surely would have won it multiple times.
Don’t know why, but I suddenly have a desire to play road hockey.
“I’m Dave Keon! I’m Dave Keon!”