TORONTO – The fence has finally been mended between the Maple Leafs and their biggest legend.
Dave Keon is ending his decades-long exile from the organization by agreeing to be part of the next group of players honoured with a statue outside Air Canada Centre, the club announced Thursday. He’ll be added to “Legends Row” along with former teammate Tim Horton and Turk Broda during a ceremony that kicks off the club’s centennial season in October.
“I am very happy to have been selected with Turk Broda and Tim Horton to Legends Row,“ said Keon in a press release. “I’m looking forward to the ceremonies on Saturday.”
It promises to be a landmark moment for an organization that has often struggled to reconcile its past. A huge, symbolic gesture.
The public thawing of a frosty relationship will actually start before Saturday’s game against Montreal, when Keon and members of the Horton and Broda families are honoured at centre ice. Keon and team president Brendan Shanahan are expected to meet the media afterwards.
Shanahan has made it a priority to strengthen the team’s connection to the past – much like former general manager Cliff Fletcher did in the early '90s following the death of iron-fisted owner Harold Ballard.
“There have been hundreds of great players who have worn the Maple Leaf sweater during the team’s 99 seasons, but you would have a difficult time finding three players who are more loved, or better represent the greatness of this franchise and its history, than Dave Keon, Turk Broda and Tim Horton,” said Shanahan in a press release. “Legends Row is a tribute to the men who helped make the Toronto Maple Leafs one of the most iconic clubs in sports, but it’s also an opportunity to build a strong connection between fans of all ages with that tradition. Adding the names Keon, Broda and Horton to the monument is a thrill for everyone in the organization and generations of Leaf fans.”
The Leafs made numerous attempts to repair relations with Keon over the years, but were always met with resistance. A member of the organization’s four Stanley Cup teams in the 1960s, and the Conn Smythe winner in 1967, Keon held a grudge over the way he was treated by Toronto late in his career.
He had played 16 years for the franchise when Ballard refused to sign him to a fair contract following the 1974-75 season. To make matters worse, the stubborn owner wouldn’t grant his release either.
It forced Keon to sign with Minnesota of the World Hockey Association and, even though he would later play more NHL games with Hartford before retiring, the damage was done.
It meant Keon was the only notable omission from the closing ceremony at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1999. He declined an attempt to “honour” his No. 14 – the Leafs have only officially retired the Nos. 5 and 6 belonging to Bill Barilko and Ace Bailey, respectively – and seeing numerous players don his sweater over the years proved to be another point of contention.
He basically wanted nothing to do with the organization.
"All I've ever said is that it's a business arrangement that didn't work out,” Keon told Mike Zeisberger of the Toronto Sun in 2005. “So you move on with your life. I was a hockey player. I thought I could still play, so I had to go find a job somewhere else.”
Even as recently Dave Bidini’s 2013 book, “Keon and Me,” the 75-year-old is quoted as saying he didn’t want to be honoured by the organization: “Well, I’m just not interested.”
He’s finally had a change of heart.
With Shanahan in charge and Mike Babcock now behind the bench, there have subtly been more nods to the past showing up around the Leafs; Red Kelly, George Armstrong and Johnny Bower were given locker stalls in the team’s dressing room this season, for example. That’s a tradition Babcock borrowed from Detroit.
With huge plans afoot for the team’s centennial 2016-17 season, the past will soon be front and centre. Strengthening those ties is something Shanahan believes is critical to building the foundation for a better future.
And to properly do that, it was imperative he find a way to smooth things over with Keon.
There is arguably no other player who has worn the Leafs sweater with more distinction. After 40 years away, Keon is finally ready to be properly embraced by an organization that owes him just that.