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October 15, 2016

Dave Keon: The Greatest Maple Leaf

Dave Keon, known as one of the greatest two-way centres in the history of the game, was an amazing athlete who spent 22 seasons in professional hockey. He appeared in an impressive total of 1,725 regular season and playoff games in both the WHA and the NHL, and in all that time he picked up only 151 penalty minutes!

Keon attended the famed St. Michael's College in Toronto prior to turning professional. When he arrived he was a scoring sensation who paid little attention to defense, but that changed by the time he graduated from the Maple Leafs training camp. Keon, under the guidance of Father David Bauer and Bob Goldham, transformed himself into the epitome of a perfect hockey player. He combined skating and stick handling gifts with superior hockey sense in all zones of the rink, both offensively and defensively. He became so good that he was the pre-eminent checking center while remaining a top offensive force.

At 5'9" and 165 pounds Keon was hardly a big man, which often made his task of shutting down the opposition's top scorer that much tougher. But Keon was tough in his own way. He was strong though slight, and mastered the art of angling opponents out of harm's way. While no one questioned Keon's heart or toughness, he always preferred to play within the rules. He won the Lady Byng as the NHL's most gentlemanly player in both 1962 and 1963. In fact he averaged only 6 minutes in penalties in each of his NHL seasons.

Keon hit the Garden ice in 1960 without spending a minute in the minors - a rare feat in those days as boss Punch Imlach was usually dead set against using unpracticed players on his veteran laden team. All eyes were focused on the speedy youngster to see if he could handle the rough stuff. By season's end he had 20 goals, a considerable sum in those days, and was named the Calder Trophy winner as the best rookie in the league that year.

Keon was a sparkplug who ignited the Maple Leafs. The following season saw Keon scored 61 points and was named to the Second All Star team in just his second year. More importantly, he began proving himself where all of the game's greats are made or broken - in the Stanley Cup playoffs Keon helped the Leafs capture their first Stanley Cup championship in 11 seasons.

The Leafs would three-peat as Stanley Cup Champions. In 1963 Keon's 7 goals and 12 points paced the Leafs. In 1964, Keon repeated a team leading 7 goals, including all three of the team's goals in the final game in the semi-final against Montreal. He then turned his attention to shutting down the Detroit Red Wings.

In a surprise championship, the Leafs captured their 4th Cup of the decade in 1967. Keon's relentless checking and premier faceoff abilities were first and foremost, and he was rewarded with the Conn Smythe Trophy as the league's most valuable playoff performer.

Shortly after the 1967 championship, the Leafs headed into transition. The team aged into decline, and a new man rose to power in Toronto in 1971 - Harold Ballard.

Ballard's clashes with players, coaches, media - pretty much everybody and anybody - are as legendary as they are infamous. Perhaps no player's battle with Ballard went as deep and long lasting as Keon's.

Keon was named as captain in 1969, but when Ballard arrived he didn't support Keon as the captain of his hockey team. Keon undoubtedly had an abrasive personality, but was extremely popular with the fans, and was understood by his teammates. As their public battles continued, the Leafs fortunes under Keon's captaincy went downward. Keon himself continued to excel, but he didn't have the supporting cast to help him.

Ballard could have traded away Keon (one common rumor had the New York Islanders very interested) but he refused by asking for the moon and the stars in return. Ballard wanted Keon right out of the NHL and when his contract was up in 1975 he left Keon with little choice but to sign with the World Hockey Association - something Keon remained bitter about years after Ballard's death.

Keon brought his intelligent game to the WHA where he played for Minnesota, Indianapolis and New England over the next four seasons before making his triumphant return to the NHL with the Hartford Whalers, who merged with the NHL once the WHA collapsed.

Keon continued to play until his retirement at the conclusion of the 1981-82 season.

Keon never forgot or forgave Harold Ballard for the way he was treated. Keon felt disrespected and unappreciated in the often public and sometimes deeply personal verbal assault Ballard waged. Keon refused to take part in any Maple Leaf functions for years after his retirement, despite his status as one of the most popular Leaf players of all time among fans.

Once Ballard passed on, the new Maple Leaf regime and particularly Cliff Fletcher looked to repair old wounds with many former players, including Keon. Although the relationship has never been fully repaired with the stubborn Keon, there has been a modest thaw in the cold war.

Perhaps all has been forgiven by 2016. As part of the Leafs centennial celebrations, Keon was named as the greatest player in Toronto Maple Leafs history.

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