Maple Leafs get it right by retiring numbers thanks to former captain Keon

Former Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Dave Keon is introduced to the crowd during a ceremony to mark the team's centenary before their home opener against the Boston Bruins, in Toronto on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)

 

Last season the announcement of a statue on Legends Row brought a tangible sense of reconciliation between Dave Keon and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

On Saturday evening, the 76-year-old was finally given his just due prior to the Leafs 4-1 win over the Boston Bruins.

Keon’s No. 14 was retired along with the jersey numbers of 16 other players who were previously honoured by the club.  An honoured number technically could be, and in many cases had been, worn by multiple players.

As it stood before Saturday, only two numbers had been officially retired, Ace Bailey’s No. 6 and Bill Barilko’s No. 5.  Both of their careers ended prematurely under tragic circumstances which evolved into a de facto criteria for the distinction.

Keon, who had always maintained that he would only accept the retirement of his number as opposed to it being honoured as appropriate respect, was the last name called to the blue circular carpet at centre ice during the pre-game ceremony.  He received a warm reception from a fan base slowly getting reacquainted with the former Leafs star after his likeness was unveiled on Thursday and he was voted the top player in franchise history on Friday.

Team president Brendan Shanahan and the rest of the Toronto brass deserve credit for making this bold decision, which ties in well with the Leafs 100th anniversary and the concept of a fresh start for a team mired in nearly 50 years of futility.  However, it was Keon’s steadfast, unwavering position that players should have their number venerated properly by permanently taking it out of circulation that led to the historic change in policy that was played out on opening night and on national TV.

For that, the franchise, fans, as well as past and present players, owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.

“I don’t know why Toronto thought at the time that honoring numbers was the thing to do, all the great franchises retired numbers and honoured the players that brought glory to their franchise,” said Keon, with Johnny Bower (who had his No. 1 retired along with Turk Broda) nodding in agreement beside him.  “I didn’t think the Leafs were any different, that should be the tradition that they follow and I was honored to have my number retired.”

A bitter contract dispute with cantankerous and controversial owner Harold Ballard resulted in Keon leaving the team in 1975 for the WHA.  In 15 seasons with the team he served as captain beginning in 1969, and led the franchise with 858 points.

Keon was known as a complete player who was offensively gifted and dogged defensively. He was named rookie of the year in 1961 and won the Stanley Cup four times in his first seven seasons.  He remains the only Leaf to have been awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

Ballard held a chokehold over the team from the early 1970’s until his death in 1990. For decades, Keon remained estranged along with other alumni.  It was not until Cliff Fletcher was hired as president and GM in 1991 that many former players began to be welcomed back into the fold.

During Fletcher’s tenure, and over subsequent regimes, numbers would be honoured, but the void in legacy created by Ballard became increasingly apparent.

Numbers were passed down, but never appeared to be done so in a fluid manner whereby management and/or the coaching staff bestowed the digit(s) of a former standout to an emerging star.

While no one has since donned Doug Gilmour’s No. 93, Mats Sundin’s No. 13 or Wendel Clark’s No. 17.  There had been some dubious examples in past years.

Aleksander Suglobov played 16 career games with the Maple Leafs over two seasons from 2006-2007 in which he didn’t register a point.  During his tenure he wore No. 19 and No. 9, the latter was honoured for Hockey Hall of Fame inductees Charlie Conacher (1930-38) and Ted Kennedy (1943-55; 56-57). 

Darryl Sittler (1970-82) and Frank Mahovlich (1957-68) rank 2nd and 7th respectively all-time in Maple Leafs scoring, both shared No. 27.  Inexplicably it became the mark of a tough guy when it was given to the late John Kordic and Dave Semenko in the 80’s. Bryan Marchment also wore it in 2003-04.

Sittler, who succeeded Keon as captain and had his tenure as a Maple Leaf end in a similar fashion when his relationship with Ballard and management deteriorated, appeared to be the most emotionally moved of all the celebrated players as he fought back tears during the proceedings.

“People didn’t really have an answer as to why we weren’t doing it,” Shanahan said.  “I like the story of players handing numbers down…the reality was it just wasn’t happening.”

Talented forward James van Riemsdyk was informed of the plan this summer and admirably agreed to give up his No. 21 for pioneering Swedish defenceman Borje Salming.

When looking back, he could not recall having to ask for Salming’s old number after he arrived via a trade from the Philadelphia Flyers in 2012.

He managed to keep his switch to No. 25 a secret, even from his parents.

Keon was the first former player to know about what was to come when he received a call from Shanahan late last season regarding their intention to retire his sweater along with the others.

The rest of the group found out during a private video presentation just prior to the on ice ceremony.

The Maple Leafs became the first organization in the NHL, NBA, or MLB to retire a number on Feb. 14, 1934 when they announced a benefit game for Bailey who had suffered a career-ending injury.  Now once again, they will appropriately honour their best thanks to Keon.

Throughout all the frosty years and during the recent thaw, Keon has held his former club to the highest standard, without compromise.  On Saturday the Maple Leafs met it and in doing so, took another step toward restoring their respectability.

Follow Neil Acharya on Twitter: @Neil_Acharya