TORONTO (Jan. 22) — Some years from now, the Brendan Shanahan regime will be distinguished by its pursuit of the Stanley Cup. In the interim — and if you’re inclined to gamble — plunk down a few pesos on the Toronto Maple Leafs president, for he’s been a revelation since joining the club on Apr. 11, 2014.
Shanahan’s latest triumph is Dave Keon. For more than four decades, friends and ex–teammates have tried to broker a reconciliation between the hockey club and, arguably, its best–ever player. Virtually all attempts have failed. Though nearly 16 years have passed since the closing of Maple Leaf Gardens — the Hall–of–Fame center growing in age from 59 to 75 — Keon’s snubbing of the franchise in the days and weeks leading to Feb. 13, 1999 appeared to cast finality on the relationship. In spite of appeals and overtures from such fellow Maple Leaf legends as George Armstrong, Darryl Sittler, Bob Baun and Ron Ellis, Keon stood firm in his conviction to skip perhaps the most meaningful ceremony in Toronto hockey annals. While practically all surviving Leafs dating to the November 1931 inauguration of the Gardens participated in a memorial televised throughout Canada, Keon obstinately remained at his Florida home.
“I felt that was our last attempt; I didn’t think we’d see him again at a club–organized event,” opined Ellis, the gentlemanly winger who played with Keon from 1964 to 1975. “I’m exceptionally pleased to be wrong.”
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS PRESIDENT BRENDAN SHANAHAN.
Ellis spoke those words to me in a radio interview at The FAN (now Sportsnet)–590 on Feb. 16, 2007. One night later, prior to a Leafs game against the Edmonton Oilers, he joined Keon and the other surviving members of the 1967 Stanley Cup champions in a 40th anniversary observance at the ACC. It was anticipated that Keon — making his first appearance at a club–organized event — would bring down the house and be feted with a Rocket Richard–like ovation of ten minutes or longer. But, Toronto hockey fans were savvy. They recognized that Keon had scorned them on numerous occasions. As such, the ex–captain received a fairly tepid welcome; patrons reserving their thunder for Johnny Bower, who never stopped dedicated himself to the club and its followers, thus becoming the most beloved figure in team history.
During an intermission of the Maple Leafs–Oilers game, Keon — visibly trembling amid an enormous throng of media — spoke hesitantly about his return. I remember thinking “this is a one–time appearance; there’s no way his estrangement has ended.” It turned out I was half–right. Keon’s withdrawal was intact, save for a celebration in February 2013 marking the 50th anniversary of the 1963 Stanley Cup team. He once again appeared at the ACC for a pre–game commemoration of the club widely considered the best of the championship dynasty. He then went home to Florida and continued to maintain a healthy distance.
We have learned since Thursday that Shanahan took it upon himself to bring Keon back into the fold; to obtain his blessing for a perch on Legends Row. Precisely what Shanahan said to Keon is a mystery and will likely remain so — unless the former captain chooses to expand on the subject. Perhaps it was nothing specific. Maybe Shanahan won Keon over with his renowned persistence and sincerity. Maybe he assured Keon that jerseys “honored” by the hockey club will be officially “retired” as part of the Maple Leafs Centennial commemoration next season. Or, possibly Keon — soon to be 76 — has simply mellowed.
LEGENDS RE–UNITE: DAVE KEON (14) REACHES ACROSS EX–TEAMMATE FRANK MAHOVLICH TO SHAKE HANDS WITH JOHNNY BOWER AT AIR CANADA CENTRE ON FEB. 17, 2007. KEON RETURNED FOR A PRE–GAME CEREMONY HONORING THE 40th ANNIVERSARY OF THE 1967 STANLEY CUP CHAMPION.
Whatever the case, Shanahan got it done. Just as he convinced the Board of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (controlled by fierce communications rivals Bell and Rogers) that the Leafs could no longer go the quick–fix route in building a contender; as he did when talking chief bird–dog Mark Hunter away from the Hunter family’s domain in London of the Ontario Hockey League; as he did when helping to convince Mike Babcock that Toronto should be his preferred coaching destination; as he did when freeing Lou Lamoriello from an untenable circumstance in New Jersey… and, we may soon discover, as he did the NHL in helping to bring next year’s Bridgestone Winter Classic to BMO Field at the Canadian National Exhibition.
There is coincidence and irony in the date of Shanahan’s hiring my MLSE. Apr. 11, 2014 was the 24th anniversary of Harold Ballard’s death in 1990. Keon, for many good reasons, long–abhorred the specter of Ballard, who dealt with him indifferently and callously in 1975 — refusing to grant the all–time Leaf a contract extension or his NHL release. It prompted Keon to join Minnesota of the World Hockey Association. When Keon returned to the NHL four years later in Hartford Whalers’ green, he was accorded a long and warm ovation prior to an Oct. 31, 1979 game at Maple Leaf Gardens. When he scored on Toronto goalie Mike Palmateer, the crowd rose again. Ballard looked on forlornly from his famed bunker.
I was in the Gardens that night, and I’ll never forget the emotion.
Just as I can assure Maple Leaf fans today that the hockey club is in very good hands.
Bravo, Brendan Shanahan.