A statue and a sense of reconciliation for Dave Keon and Maple Leafs

Former Toronto Maple Leafs player Dave Keon is honoured before the Maple Leafs play the Montreal Canadiens in NHL action in Toronto on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Former Toronto Maple Leafs player Dave Keon is honoured before the Maple Leafs play the Montreal Canadiens in NHL action in Toronto on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

There is a J.D. Salingeresque mystique that surrounds Dave Keon.

Considered by many to be the greatest Toronto Maple Leaf in franchise history, the 75-year-old for the most part had chosen to stay hidden away from the long gaze of a hockey crazed market where he won the Stanley Cup four times in his first seven seasons with the team.

Keon played 15 seasons for the Leafs and it started out well. He won the Calder Memorial Trophy as rookie of the year in 1960-61 and his first Stanley Cup a year later.  In 1967, Keon won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP for his effort in the last Maple Leafs championship run.  In Oct. 1969, he was named Captain. 

By the time a bitter rift with former owner Harold Ballard over a contract dispute resulted in him leaving the team in 1975 for the newly formed WHA, he had recorded 858 points, the most in franchise history.

After retiring from hockey in 1982, Keon kept his distance from not only the Maple Leafs but also the media, seldom giving interviews and even after Ballard’s passing in 1990, he rarely made appearances with the organization except for a handful of times.

 

On Thursday it was announced that the Maple Leafs would honour Keon, as well as Turk Broda and Tim Horton with their own statues on Legends Row (a monument in front of the main entrance to Air Canada Centre) in a ceremony prior to Saturday's game against the Montreal Canadiens.

And so it was a special moment – even if it wasn’t met with an appropriate rousing ovation - when Keon walked out gingerly on the blue carpet, carefully avoiding stepping on the Maple Leafs logo, ahead of the ceremonial faceoff at centre ice

So why a thaw at this juncture?

In typical Keon fashion, he didn’t reveal much when he took questions in a press conference between the first and second period.

“I talked to Brendan (Shanahan), we talked a couple of times,” he said about being notified of the honour by the Maple Leafs president.  “I told him that I was honoured to be selected and if there was anything that I could do to help the ceremonies along that I would be happy to participate and I’m here tonight.”

The true answer was made clearer in an interview Keon did with Sportsnet’s Scott Morrison which aired during the first intermission.

“I’m not really sure, maybe I’m getting a little older and I’d like to be alive when it happens,” said Keon, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1986.  “I think for my children and my grandchildren this will be something that I think is important to them.  After I am gone they will be able to go down and say their grandfather or great-grandfather played for the Leafs and he was honoured with a statue and he had a pretty good career.”

In essence, his likeness in the form of a bronze statue was what he deemed appropriate recognition befitting of his contribution to the storied franchise.  Most importantly this tribute is unique to him, in a way that  honouring his jersey – as opposed to retiring it - can’t be.

Keon has made it very clear he will not stand for his No. 14 being raised to the rafters unless it is taken out of circulation.  Currently the Maple Leafs policy does not allow for this to occur.  Only No. 5 (Bill Barilko) and No. 6 (Ace Bailey) have been officially retired by the team – honoured numbers are technically open for use.

Keon’s firm position on the matter may actually have opened the door to the possibility of the organization retiring numbers in the future.

“There will be a time and a place for Dave and I to have that discussion or really to any of the alumni,” Shanahan said.  “My door is always open and (I am) certainly ready for anybody’s input in how we can do things better and how we can makes things better for our entire alumni.”

Ballard’s often caustic relationship with alumni created a massive traditional void that only began to be rectified when Cliff Fletcher started to mend fences when he was hired as COO, president and GM in 1991.  

In all, 37 players have worn No. 14 for the Maple Leafs throught their history including two-time Stanley Cup Winner Dave Reid whose parents named him after Keon.

Interestingly, Keon never wanted the number that has been the topic of so much discussion over the past few days.

When he went to training camp in 1960 he first wore No. 8 and then No. 24, the latter of which he was hoping to keep if he made the team, but the trainer said he would get No.14

“I said "I don’t want 14,” Keon remembered expressing emphatically. “14 was the number that was given to every guy going up and down to Rochester (AHL).  If you came up for two weeks, you wore No. 14 and then you were gone again. I just thought that’s not a good sign to be wearing 14 – but it worked out.”

Keon is vital in representing the Maple Leafs' living history as it relates to their past Stanley Cup glory years.  While plenty is still left unsaid, a statue brings a sense of reconciliation and allowed a legend to be welcomed back in a fitting manner.

Follow Neil Acharya on Twitter: @Neil_Acharya