Saturday, January 23, 2016

History of the Dave Keon vs. Toronto Maple Leafs mess

Call it the messiest divorce in Toronto sports.

Both sides enjoyed the good times, drifted apart, turned nasty on each other and many innocent parties were affected by the fallout.

Full reconciliation is finally at hand for Dave Keon and the Maple Leafs. But what started this 40-year feud between the player some call the greatest Leaf ever and the team that once lionized its stars?

There were really multiple elements to the break-up, which began immediately following Toronto’s last Stanley Cup. As the club is constantly reminded, that was 1967, when Keon was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP for eight points in 12 games and a vital two-way role in upsetting Chicago and then Montreal in the finals.

In a matter of weeks, the poorly prepared Leafs were gutted by NHL expansion and the sale-for-profit of their great farm teams. As Keon inherited the captaincy from George Armstrong, he was now working for erratic, tight-fisted Harold Ballard.

In the mid-’70s, the World Hockey Association was on the rise and tossing around big salaries.

Ballard’s hatred of the rival league meant he wouldn’t match dollars and soon stars such as Team Canada ’72 hero Paul Henderson were jumping ship.

“I didn’t think there was any way we were going to win the Cup as long as Ballard was in Toronto,” Henderson once said. “He didn’t want anyone bigger than him and it killed that franchise.”

Keon’s turn to butt heads with Ballard came around the summer of 1975. The franchise scoring leader with 858 points, four Cups and a trophy case that included the Calder and Lady Byng, wanted a salary worthy of someone who gave the prime 15 years of his career to one team.

“From all I’m told, he really wanted to stay,” said Bill Watters, who’d become a high profile agent in the 1980s and Leaf assistant general manager. “It wasn’t an unreasonable contract request from Dave, nothing preposterous in terms of money. I don’t know why Harold (low-balled). Perhaps he was getting advice from someone else.”

Old guard owners and GMs at the time in Boston, Chicago and Detroit were certainly showing a united front, with icons such as Bobby Hull moving on from the Blackhawks.

“Eventually, Dave must have said, ‘To hell with all this,’” Watters said.

Keon wanted to remain in the NHL. But if Ballard couldn’t re-sign him, no one could. Trade enquiries for Keon, still an effective skater and playmaker in his late 30s, were met with outrageous price tags. Even after Keon departed for the Minnesota Fighting Saints in ’75, one of three WHA stops, other clubs sought his NHL rights from Ballard.

The most intriguing would’ve been from the budding New York Islanders, who sought Keon as a checking centre to complete a lineup bound for four Cups in the early ’80s. That role went to Butch Goring.

Such slights against Keon “stung him to the core” said former teammate Brian Conacher.

Keep in mind, too, that Keon had a very moody side to him. As respected a player he was, teammates didn’t push the wrong buttons.

THE ’80s
The ’80s saw Keon move to Florida to get involved in real estate. As one of the worst decades in team history unfolded, Leaf fans urged him to come back in some capacity. But he was blunt in rejecting such notions to the point where many said “Good riddance.”

By then, a new scab had been torn off.

Keon, whose No. 14 can still be found on the backs of senior hockey players across Canada, was insulted the Leafs kept it in circulation. He was also upset that others, such as George Armstrong’s No. 10 and Teeder Kennedy’s No. 9 were also passed down to some players Keon and his ilk thought unworthy.

There was no hope Ballard would change the policy while alive, but the subsequent regimes didn’t either.

“You could see Dave’s point, but that policy was in place going back to Conn Smythe,” said Bob Stellick, former Leaf public relations and business operations director. “Conn’s rule was numbers weren’t to be retired unless it was a catastrophic event, the death of Bill Barilko (No. 5) and the hit that ended the career of Ace Bailey (No. 6). All that happened long before Dave Keon and Harold.”

After Ballard passed in 1990, Leafs alumni had the idea of keeping the numbers in use and having players wear a patch to honour their predecessor. So, for example, Bill Berg when he wore No. 10 would wear a patch to commemorate Armstrong.

Keon attended an alumni lunch at the urging of teammates Billy Harris and Frank Mahovlich. The patch didn’t fly, but efforts to thaw relations with Keon continued.

“I kept asking him, guys such as Andy Bathgate kept asking him,” said goalie Johnny Bower. “He had differing opinions and stuck to them. So you have to admire him for that. We always hoped the more pressure we put on, the more he’d reconsider.”

In 1991, new club president Cliff Fletcher was quick to bring Sittler and Armstrong back as ambassador and scout, respectively, and began working on Keon. Fletcher’s Florida home wasn’t far from Keon’s and at one stage of talks, Fletcher thought Keon would take a scouting/consultant role and attend Lightning and Panther games. But that fell apart.

It’s not to say Keon didn’t love gathering with teammates for events. He unexpectedly took ex-GM John Ferguson Jr. up on an invite to come back to the ACC in 2007 for the 40th Cup anniversary.

There were also 50-year salutes for the early ’60s titles. But they were all one-and-done, leaving older fans wanting more and youngsters wondering who the man in the black-and-white Cup parade video was. Keon would get polite applause more than a heartfelt ovation.

Perhaps that changes now that the club is trying to tighten bonds with the past in its 100th anniversary.

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