TORONTO (Jan. 20) — There were loud whispers around the Air Canada Centre Wednesday that Dave Keon — generally considered the greatest player in Toronto Maple Leafs history — has given his blessing to be added to Legends Row on the west plaza of the arena. Nothing has been confirmed by the team.
When contacted, a Maple Leafs official told me, “We can’t say anything right now. But, we’ve been hoping for awhile to add Dave to the row of statues… and to honor him with a banner ceremony.”
Among the most important figures of the dynastic Leafs in the 1960’s — four times a Stanley Cup champion between 1962 and 1967 — Keon parted bitterly with the hockey club after the 1974–75 season when owner Harold Ballard would neither sign him to a contract extension nor grant him his National Hockey League freedom. With no other recourse, Keon joined Minnesota of the World Hockey Association and didn’t come back to the NHL until 1979–80 with the Hartford Whalers. He retired in 1982 and moved to Florida.
In the ensuing years, Keon has mostly stood clear of events and commemorations held by the Maple Leafs — preferring to attend privately–organized functions. When he refused to join virtually all other living Leafs for the final NHL game at Maple Leaf Gardens on Feb. 13, 1999, it appeared he would never return to the hockey club. But, Keon did agree to attend a pre–game ceremony in February 2007 that celebrated the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Stanley Cup champions. He came back in February 2013 for a 50th anniversary salute to the 1963 Maple Leafs — widely regarded as the best of the 1960’s Cup dynasty.
Though Keon has never spoken publicly on the issue, other legendary Leafs — including Hall–of–Famer Darryl Sittler, who played with Keon from 1970 to 1975 — have explained that the tiny, clever center–man is averse to having his No. 14 jersey “honored” rather than retired. It has been customary for the Maple Leafs to elevate banners of former greats at the Air Canada Centre while keeping their uniform numbers in circulation. The Montreal Canadiens, by comparison, retire jersey numbers for all time.
Speculation around Keon is that he would not participate in such a ceremony until the club changed its policy — for him and the others already honored by the franchise. In recent years, the Leafs covertly stopped issuing legendary numbers, likely at the behest of long–time equipment manager Brian Papineau.
Keon’s No. 14 was effectively mothballed on Jan. 31, 2010 when Matt Stajan went to Calgary as part of the Dion Phaneuf trade. Garnet Exelby was the last skater (in 2010) to wear No. 7, immortalized by King Clancy and Tim Horton; Colby Armstrong, in 2011–12, the last Leaf to wear No. 9, formerly belonging to Charlie Conacher and Ted Kennedy. No one since Brad May in 2009 has been issued the No. 10 jersey of Syl Apps and George Armstrong. Nor has anyone since Michael Peca in 2007 worn No. 27, made famous and honored in the ACC rafters by Sittler and Frank Mahovlich. And, no goalie since Andrew Raycroft in 2007–08 has been issued the No. 1 jersey, in honor of Turk Broda and Johnny Bower. Additionally, it is crystal–clear that no Toronto player will ever–again wear Doug Gilmour’s No. 93 or Mats Sundin’s No. 13.
Under normal circumstances, Keon would have likely been the first honoree for Legends Row. As it were, bronze statues of Ted Kennedy, Sittler, Bower, Salming, Apps, Armstrong and Sundin have already been erected outside the ACC. Now, word is that Keon has possibly agreed to join them… and, in fact, may be in town for a pre–game ceremony before the Leafs play Montreal on Saturday night.
Again, none of this has been confirmed by the hockey club.