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Don’t blame Keon: perhaps a different perspective on the relationship between the Leafs, the media and their former captain

I’ve written previously on this site about my affection for Dave Keon, and the way he played for the Leafs from 1960 through to the end of the 1975 season.

Keon was the finest all-around Maple Leaf I’ve ever seen. He had his last outstanding year in 1972-’73, when he averaged almost a point a game. He was by far the best player for the Leafs during that difficult season for the team. (The game-action picture with this story shows Keon, at the Gardens in the early 1960s, taking a penalty shot against fellow future Hall-of-Famer Jacques Plante.)

His play tailed off at times during his last season with the club (though, ironically, he garnered a career-high in assists with the Leafs that year). But he had a strong opening round of the playoffs that spring. In that series, the Leafs beat the LA Kings in a best-of-three series, two games to one. Keon was outstanding as the Leafs surprised Rogie Vachon and the Kings, who had finished the regular season about 30 points ahead of Toronto.

In the next round against the very physical Philadelphia Flyers, the Leafs were simply not good enough. However, in Game 4 in Toronto, what turned out to be Keon’s last with the Leafs, he won a battle for the puck along the boards and set up line-mate Blaine Stoughton with a perfect pass for the first goal of the game.

The Leafs couldn’t hold the lead, but Keon had set the tone against the tough Flyers.
There have been varied and sometimes conflicting reports in ensuing years about why Keon was unhappy with the Leafs at the end of his time with the club. They evidently didn’t offer their captain a contract at the end of that season. That was insulting enough. Earlier, cantankerous owner Harold Ballard had publicly blasted Keon’s supposed lack of leadership that season. Then, in the late 1970s, years later, Ballard essentially blocked a possible Keon trade to the Islanders. (The Leafs still owned Keon’s NHL rights while he was playing in the World Hockey Association).

Whatever the actual reasons, Keon maintained no relationship with the Leafs’ management in his retirement, though I recall he played in an old-timers game of sorts at Maple Leaf Gardens in the mid-late ‘80s.

But despite various overtures from the Leafs after Ballard’s death, especially throughout the 1990s, Keon stayed away from the Gardens and various team functions. He declined to have his number “honored” and raised to the rafters. He has been quoted as saying he preferred the Montreal Canadiens approach of formally retiring the numbers of retired players who had distinguished themselves in their career.

Though Keon has come back to Leaf functions only very rarely over the years, I have always thought he has been absolutely consistent in his refusal to ‘make amends’ with the organization that mistreated him publicly after 15 years of highly distinguished service.

Many media commentators have chastised Keon for living in the past and refusing to ‘let go’. There have been numerous comments made over the years—comments that suggest Dave is now just a bitter old guy hanging on to the past. My thought is always: it’s not Keon who is calling up the media and seeking attention about why he has not forgiven the organization, or why he doesn’t attend team functions regularly. He simply answers questions when reporters contact him, if they can even get a hold of him. He’s never once sought the limelight. He’s not the one who says he is bitter; rather, it is the media painting the picture they want to paint, because, I sense—deep down—that many media folks want a story book ending, which will never happen. (Some of the media critics were likely fans of Keon when they were younger.) Again, he has never looked for the attention he got.

Keon finally came to the Air Canada Center a couple of years back when the club celebrated the 1967 Stanley Cup team. He received a nice ovation, but the truth is, virtually all of the people in the building that night probably never saw Keon play, and only know him as a Leaf of the past. If more people of my generation (who grew up actually watching Keon) had been there, we might have created an ovation that rivaled what the Rocket received in Montreal years before, when they closed down the old Forum. At least we would have known why we were cheering.

More poignant to me was that Keon (last year, I think it was, maybe two years ago) had his Junior number retired by the Toronto (now Mississauga) St. Michael’s Majors. It was a classy move by current team owner Eugene Melnyk. Keon showed up for that ceremony, without fanfare. He was gracious in his brief remarks to a small audience at the Hershey Center in Mississauga. Among others, he raised the name of the late Fr. David Bauer, who was a huge influence on David’s ability to make the transition to professional hockey in 1960-‘61.

Keon has led a largely private, quiet life in retirement. The media can portray what they want, but to me it’s senseless to blame Keon because he stands by his principles. He has quietly—and with dignity—refused to do what others (media, former teammates, some fans) would like him to do because it would make them feel better. (For an objective view of Keon, link to my recent interview with respected Montreal writer Red Fisher, which includes remarks about a number of former Leafs, including Keon.)

I, too, as a Keon-admirer, would have loved a ‘happy ending’ for the Leaf I lived and died with as a kid.

But I also admire his resolve, and support his right to privacy. I wish the media had taken the hint 20 years ago and just left him alone.

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