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From Keon to Kadri: New kids on the block bring hope—in 1960 and today

When I post something about what I almost always recall fondly as the good old days in hockey, I often have to remind myself (because readers just might instead!) that things change with time, of course.

One thing that doesn’t change in sports is that every new season brings hope. In hockey, that means that every September, Leaf fans—cynical, optimistic and everything in between—look ahead and would at least like to think things may just get better.

There have been occasional moments when we thought a corner was being turned after the heady days that ended with our last Cup in 1967. I really believed, for example, that the 1970-71 team was on its way, with a lot of really good young talent (Bernie Parent, Dorey, Ley, Selwood, Pelyk, Glennie, Sittler, Spencer) and vets like Ellis, Henderson, Ullman and Keon. Then the WHA grabbed many of those good young players. That was the end of that.

Darryl Sittler led the next “wave” with Lanny McDonald, Salming, “Tiger” Williams and Turnbull under coach Roger Neilson. A couple of playoff appearances against Montreal ensued, but the Habs were just too tough—way too good for the Leafs. Then Punch Imlach returned to tear the team apart, feeling they weren’t good enough and that Sittler had too much “control”.

They were done for years.

A young Wendel Clark led a mild resurgence in the mid-later ‘80s, but real success was still a ways off, despite talented kids like Al Iafrate, Steve Thomas, Russ Courtnall and others.

It wasn’t until Pat Burns went behind the bench, and Doug Gilmour arrived on the scene, that the Leafs gave us real hope, witnessed by their wonderful playoff runs in 1993 and 1994. But Cliff Fletcher felt those teams needed something different to get to the next level, and off went Wendel (albeit in a great deal for Sundin). Unfortunately, the Leafs mostly floundered until Pat Quinn’s first year in TO, when he led the Leafs to the final four again in 1999.

I really thought the Leafs were going to the finals in 2002, but they were upset by the Hurricanes in the semi-finals. That hurt. Quinn then had to give up the GM’s job, and the franchise has been mired in difficulty ever since.

So in fairness it’s not really been 40+ lousy years. However, it has been a long time between sips of champagne. But again, every year, we hope.

This year a lot of that hope revolves around a player who has already been heavily scrutinized—young center Nazim Kadri. Now, I can’t profess to know his game inside out. Like many of you I saw his one outing with the Leafs last year, and his World Junior efforts. I’m sure those who follow this site, especially those who saw him play a lot in London, can provide more useful insight into the kind of player that he is—and can become.

Kadri turns 20 when the season gets underway in early October. Last year his weight at camp was listed at 167 pounds. We are told he has gained weight and strength over the summer. Wilson reiterated this week that he is confident Kadri can make the club. But since the team doesn’t have a true number-two center, it figures they’re hoping he can be that guy, despite his inexperience.

Fifty years ago, the Leafs were also a rebuilding team in the fall of 1960. Again, things change. It was a different era, of course. Six teams made up the entire NHL. The Leafs were a mix of young kids like Dick Duff and Bobby Pulford and veterans like Johnny Bower and Allan Stanley, a bit like the Leafs of today. But under Punch Imlach, they had gone to the finals twice, in 1958 and 1959. They had even acquired Red Wing star Red Kelly and turned him into a center, to help them compete against Jean Beliveau and the powerful Montreal Canadiens.

But they were still missing something. And that something came in a very small, surprise package. The player was a young 20 year-old center named Dave Keon.

Unlike today’s environment, not every hockey fan back then knew virtually every player in junior hockey. Oh, all the teams “sponsored” junior clubs, and real hard-core fans knew of kids on their way up. And Maple Leaf fans could watch the Junior Marlies and St. Mike’s play on a Sunday afternoon at Maple Leaf Gardens, to keep an eye on the incoming Leaf talent. But there was no summer training, no daily media reports or scouting reports available to fans in every corner of the hockey world.

Dave Keon
When Keon (pictured in the very early 1960s at right) showed up in September of 1960, he was not “on” the team. Yes, he had had a fine junior career at St. Mike’s, but he was small and weighed maybe 160 pounds, if that. He was 20 years old, like Kadri, and ticketed for the minors. But he was one of those guys who kept skating, working, checking tirelessly in scrimmages. When the team went on a West Coast road trip during pre-season, Keon played his way onto the team, as a third-line checking center behind Kelly and Pulford.

By the end of 1960-’61, he was the NHL Rookie of the Year. He went on to help the Leafs win four Cups, captained the team for many years, and left after 15 mostly outstanding seasons in Toronto (when he wasn’t offered a contract by Harold Ballard, the Leaf owner).

Keon never “bulked up”. That wasn’t a requirement in those days. His gift defensively was playing angles better than most everyone else.  He was also able to skate faster than 95% of the guys in the league at the time—at least in his prime.

Now, Kadri is coming into camp under very different circumstances. He is not a surprise. Everyone knows his strengths and weaknesses. Scouts have written about him for years.  His name is in the media every day, and camp hasn’t even started.

He won’t have the benefit that Keon had of being, relatively speaking, an unknown. He won't be able to go to the U.S. west coast and play a few exhibition games with nobody watching. His every move will be analyzed.

But he brings his own set of skills. He certainly has offensive talent. And he has an edge to his game.

We don’t need him to be Keon, or play like Keon. He just needs to be himself, and not be in too much of a hurry. For that, we need to depend on the organization, that they will do the right thing for his development.

Keon never spent a day in the minors (well, four games at the end of his last junior season, but that’s all). Hopefully if Kadri makes the Leafs, he’s here to stay. Otherwise, time with the Marlies would likely be time very well spent.

He doesn’t need to lead the Leafs to four Cups. But if he can be a contributor, whether this season or next, it’s all good.

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