Leafs Finally Get It Right

TORONTO (Oct. 16) — After 23 years of stubborn irrationality, the Toronto Maple Leafs have chosen to truly honor their past. And, Dave Keon’s No. 14 banner finally hangs from a steel beam in the Air Canada Centre.

As Darryl Sittler told me at a gathering of nine Maple Leaf greats — sans Keon — on Sep. 16, 2005 (to unveil a wonderful portrait known as “Captain’s Row”), the acknowledged best player in franchise history would never return to the fold until all “honored” jersey numbers were officially retired. “Everyone thinks he’s still mad at [Harold] Ballard, but that’s not the story,” Sittler explained when I asked him privately about Keon’s intransigence. “Dave feels his jersey; mine, and all others honored should be retired, the way Montreal does it. For me, it’s not that big a deal. But, I respect Dave’s opinion on the matter. And, I don’t think he’s wrong.”

After an unceremonious departure from the Leafs in the summer of 1975 — Ballard, the oafish proprietor, would neither pay his reigning captain nor grant him release within the National Hockey League — Keon signed with Minnesota of the World Hockey Association and began a 22–year estrangement from the club. When he, most significantly, declined an invitation to the final NHL game at Maple Leaf Gardens (Feb. 13, 1999), few could understand why. Ballard had been dead for nearly nine years. Steve Stavro, Richard Peddie, Ken Dryden, Cliff Fletcher, John Ferguson Jr. and others had attempted to apparently convince Keon that Ballard’s ghost no longer persisted. As it were, Ballard had nothing to do with Keon’s stance. It was always about the Leafs’ obstinate refusal to retire jersey numbers. And, we should not be surprised — given the dignity with which he governs the team — that Brendan Shanahan finally; belatedly, put the issue to rest.

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MESSAGE POSTED ON THE ACC VIDEO–BOARD DURING A PRE–GAME CEREMONY SATURDAY NIGHT.

Keon first returned to the Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre on Feb. 17, 2007 for a ceremony honoring the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Stanley Cup team. He had previously taken part in events privately organized; those not involving Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. or Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. The Hall–of–Famer also attended a pre–game festivity at the ACC on Feb. 16, 2013 which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the 1963 champion — widely considered best of the four–Cup dynasty under George (Punch) Imlach. Keon’s presence, that night, evolved from his long and close friendship with former teammate Dick Duff.

He stuck resolutely, however, to his refusal of partaking in a banner ceremony… until the hockey club altered its illogical position on retiring jerseys. When Keon suddenly agreed to have his statue become part of Legends Row outside the ACC — and took a bow at center–ice prior to a game against Montreal on Jan. 23 of last season — it figured that something was up. Prodded as to why he accepted Shanahan’s Legends Row overture, Keon simply replied “because he asked.” What Keon didn’t say is that Shanahan had promised to retire his No. 14 jersey — and all others “honored” since 1993 — as part of an event to kick off the Maple Leafs’ centennial season. That event began with the Legends Row unveiling on Thursday; continued with revelation of the Top 100 players in franchise history on Friday (Keon was No. 1), and concluded with the new, “retired” banners being unfurled prior to the 2016–17 home opener against Boston.

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DAVE KEON ACKNOWLEDGES THE ACC CHEERS AS HIS BANNER IS RAISED ON SATURDAY NIGHT.

The Leafs kicked off a succession of banner–raising ceremonies on Oct. 7, 1993 prior to their first home game of the season, against Dallas. The No. 10  and No. 9 jerseys of legendary captains Syl Apps and Teeder Kennedy were first selected. This was done so that both men would enjoy the honor while still alive. Apps, in failing health, could not attend and was represented by his family (he died Dec. 24, 1998). Kennedy, 67, took part and lived until Aug. 14, 2009. The Leafs insisted that “honored” jerseys would remain in circulation “so that current players can wear the numbers of franchise legends.” It was a ridiculous stance — one that caused hurt feelings and somehow persisted for more than two decades.

Those later honored (and their numerals) were Johnny Bower (1), Turk Broda (1), Hap Day (4), Red Kelly (4), King Clancy (7), Tim Horton (7), Charlie Conacher (9), George Armstrong (10), Mats Sundin (13), Wendel Clark (17), Borje Salming (21), Frank Mahovlich (27), Darryl Sittler (27) and Doug Gilmour (93).

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HONORED JERSEY NUMBERS WERE LISTED, BY PLAYER, IN THE LEAFS ANNUAL MEDIA GUIDE.

Astonishingly, the criterion for the Leafs “retiring” a number involved a player “experiencing a significant tragedy while a member of the team.” This led to only two–such appointments: Irvine (Ace) Bailey, whose career as a defenseman ended at the Boston Garden in December 1933 when he was knocked unconscious (and nearly killed) by Bruins’ defenseman Eddie Shore, and Bill Barilko, who died in a plane crash in northern Ontario weeks after winning the 1951 Stanley Cup with an overtime goal at Maple Leaf Gardens against Montreal. That neither Sittler, Gilmour nor any of the other honorees met a calamitous demise while wearing a Toronto jersey lingered rather perversely. Is it any wonder that Keon kept his distance?

Shanahan deserves full credit for ending the absurdity.

Having grown up in the Toronto district of Mimico, he brought to the team an intrinsic awareness and appreciation of franchise history — blighted, though it may be, in the past half–century. There was no plausibility in maintaining circulation of honored jersey numbers; most, in fact, were unofficially retired in recent years by long–time equipment manager Brian Papineau. During Saturday’s pre–game ceremony, you could see the emotion; the gratitude and excitement on the faces of Leaf legends in the arena.

Bravo, Brendan.

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HAPPINESS AND PRIDE WERE REFLECTED IN THE FACES OF THE FORMER TORONTO MAPLE LEAF GREATS AT THE AIR CANADA CENTRE DURING THE PRE–GAME BANNER CEREMONY SATURDAY NIGHT. TOP (LEFT–TO–RIGHT): DARRYL SITTLER, GEORGE ARMSTRONG, WENDEL CLARK, FRANK MAHOVLICH. BOTTOM: BORJE SALMING, RED KELLY, DOUG GILMOUR, JOHNNY BOWER.

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KEON CARD COLLECTION

Following Dave Keon’s coronation on Friday as the top player in franchise history, I went through my collection of hockey cards and found all 13 I have of the former Leafs captain, dating to 1964:

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1964–65 TOPPS “TALL BOYS”

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1965–66 TOPPS

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1966–67 TOPPS

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1967–68 TOPPS

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1968–69 O–PEE–CHEE / 1968–69 TOPPS

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1969–70 O–PEE–CHEE / 1970–71 O–PEE–CHEE

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1971–72 O–PEE–CHEE ALL–STAR

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O–PEE–CHEE 1971–72 / 1972–73 / 1973–74

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DAVE KEON’S LAST MAPLE LEAFS HOCKEY CARD
1974–75 O–PEE–CHEE

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KEON, NOW 76, ACCEPTS INDUCTION TO LEGENDS ROW OUTSIDE AIR CANADA CENTRE ON FRIDAY.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

3 comments on “Leafs Finally Get It Right

  1. I consider myself one of Dave Keon’s biggest fans. Following this team since I was 7 (born in ’57), I fell in love with his smooth skating, tenacious checking, penalty kills, hard work ethic and led me to wear #14 throughout my sporting years myself. Our Daughter was also born on March 22 so how ironic is that, that they share the same Birthday, and she too wears #14 on her teams. I was so pleased to see the Ceremony and the announcement on the “Philosophy Change” by the Organization. Here I was Saturday night, a 59 year old man yelling at my TV, “finally”. Our Rec Room dubbed “The Shrine” (by the Big M I might add) has my collection of close to 200 Leaf pictures and one wall takes up maybe 25 of Dave Keon’s, many autographed after writing him at his Florida based home asking if he would sign them and he wrote a note back, “Don, send me the pictures. I would be happy to sign them”. It was truly an honor seeing the # 14 “finally” raised to the rafters.
    Howard, thanks for the story.

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