Legends Row: Keon steps closer to number retirement

Dave Keon has mended fences with the Leafs. Almost.

The 75-year-old Hall of Famer gleefully accepted his nomination to Legends Row, where he will be honoured with a statue alongside the other newest members Turk Broda and Tim Horton. Beyond that, there’s just the matter of the ceremony that Toronto fans of an entire generation have been yearning to see.

The retirement of his number 14 that he donned during his illustrious career with the Leafs. And the appropriate banner hanging from the rafters at Air Canada Centre.

More than a half-century ago, Keon single-handedly propelled his team into the Stanley Cup Final with a performance for the ages, scoring a hat trick in Game Seven against Montreal in the 1965 semis. Last Saturday, as Toronto hosted the same rival Habs, the 75-year-old Hall of Famer was humbled by all the adoration.

“I’m dumbfounded why, 40 years later, there’s this emotion to push towards me,” Keon said.

Indeed many of the fans clamouring for his rightful place alongside Bill Barilko (#5) and Ace Bailey (#6) – the only two retired sweaters in Leafs history – are too young to have seen Keon play in his prime.

Yet his legacy in the annals of the franchise is cemented. The only Leaf to ever win the Conn Smythe Trophy, accomplishing the feat in 1967, Keon won four Stanley Cups in a Toronto uniform and was the team’s all-time leader in goals (365), assists (493) and points (858) at the time that his tenure in blue and white ended.

His subsequent estrangement from the club stemmed from his feuds with then-owner Harold Ballard. The eccentric dictator most infamously blocked a trade that would have sent the disgruntled captain to the New York Islanders in 1975 for Billy Harris and a first-round pick. Eventually the Islanders filled their role of a two-way checking centre – a trait that Keon espoused – by acquiring Butch Goring as a major component of their championship dynasty.

Essentially Keon was denied a chance at adding more hardware to his already impressive resume.

His absence from the team in the ensuing years, that turned into decades, was conspicuous. It was a travesty that Keon didn’t attend the closing of Maple Leaf Gardens in 1999, akin to the emotional chasm that would have been felt had Rocket Richard not been present for the last game of the Montreal Forum.

Keon has remained steadfast in his refusal for his number to be retired, a protest based on his vehement disagreement with Leafs policy that honours numbers, but still allows them to be circulated. Bailey and Barilko are exceptions because their careers ended under tragic, unforseen circumstances.

However it’s evident over the past few years, beginning with the 40th anniversary of the ’67 Cup, that Keon has softened his stance on not attending Leafs’ functions. That particular commemoration in 2007, plus similar nostalgic celebrations, have had Keon as a participant.

The Legends Row statue is an individual honour that Keon has accepted. Does it pave the way for placing #14 where it rightfully belongs?

“We just want to focus on Legends Row,” Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said. “We have a tendency sometimes to try and get ahead of ourselves and say ‘great, but what’s the next thing?’ There’ll be a time and a place for Dave and I to have that discussion.”

An appeal to Mr. Keon: Reflecting on the glory years of the 60’s, you said upon your Legends Row nomination: “The fans thought a great deal of us. The fans were great, and treated us great, and supported all the time.”

The support hasn’t wavered in the past fifty years. Have that discussion with Shanny, soon.


Rob Del Mundo is the author of Off The Post, and is a regular columnist at TMLfans.ca

Follow TMLfans.ca on Twitter: @Rob_DelMundo