From The Star
It falls somewhere between things that are meaningful and things that mean nothing.
But Dave Keon is coming home to stay, and that’s a good thing.
Having Keon agree to become a fixture on Legends Row might pay off some way, somehow down the road. Toronto general manager Lou Lamoriello believes that the Leafs should be the Yankees of hockey, and team president Brendan Shanahan agrees with that, and embracing the success and the mythology of the past can probably help in that regard.
Can’t hurt, anyway. Last fall, you had dressing room stalls reserved for players like Red Kelly and Johnny Bower in training camp, and now you have this, an exorcism of a kind with Keon.
So Keon will be at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night and this time it seems all the bad feelings and anger and bitterness will disappear for good. Turk Broda and Tim Horton will join him among the new statues, but they are no longer with us and Keon is living, breathing evidence of a time when the Leafs were great.
It’s unclear if we’ll learn exactly what has kept the former Leafs captain away. He’s given different answers over the years. We do know, however, that he despised the practice of “honouring” jersey numbers but keeping them in circulation.
“What does honoring a number mean? Johnny (Bower) told me that’s the way they do things,” Keon told yours truly and Gord Stellick for the book 67: The Maple Leafs, their Sensational Victory and the End of An Empire. “I told him it was a pretty chicken-shit way to do things. I’m embarrassed for them all. I confronted (former Leaf president Ken) Dryden and said, ‘Do you think the Montreal Canadiens would just honor The Rocket’s number?’ He couldn’t give me a good answer.”
Well, quietly, Shanahan, who persuaded Keon by phone to end his exile but has never met him in person, has delivered an answer. There are still only two numbers — 5 and 6 — that are officially retired by the Leafs. Of the rest that adorn banners hanging from the rafters of the ACC, only the No. 21 worn by Borje Salming is currently in use by a Leaf, winger James van Riemsdyk.
Otherwise, the honoured numbers are all “unofficially” in retirement, although there’s been no formal announcement. Nobody’s wearing them now, nobody will wear them anytime soon. Thirteen mostly undistinguished Leafs have worn Keon’s No. 14 since he left, the last being Matt Stajan in 2010. Now, it will only be used again with Keon’s approval, and for a noteworthy player. That goes for No. 27, No. 93, No. 17 and the rest.
Whether this was the final gesture that brought back Keon, well, maybe we’ll find out, and maybe we won’t.
Now, Shanahan’s just got one last piece of unhappy history to deal with should he choose to.
The Hillman Hex.
Didn’t know about that one? Well, while Keon chose to just stay away, Larry Hillman chose to burden the Leafs with a curse. Maybe you believe in such things, maybe you don’t. Maybe you believe the Curse of the Billy Goat keeps Chicago’s Cubs from winning the World Series, maybe you don’t.
“Yes, it’s still there,” said Hillman on Friday. “It seems to have worked.”
Along with Jimmy Pappin, Hillman was one of the unsung heroes of that golden hockey spring in Toronto. He and defence partner Marcel Pronovost were a key reason why the Leafs were able to upset the powerful Chicago Blackhawks in the first round and then knock off the Habs for the Cup. During 12 post-season games, that tandem was only on the ice for one even-strength goal.
Hillman, the son of a miner from Kirkland Lake, Ont., came up through the Detroit chain and landed with the Leafs in 1960. He spent the next eight years bouncing between the NHL and the AHL Rochester Americans, something teams could do with veterans in those days. He turned 30 during that 1966-67 season, and played the best hockey of his career in the playoffs alongside Pronovost.
After that season, he hoped to parlay that into an increase on his $15,000 salary. In his own mind, he set a bottom line of $20,000. Hillman knew others were making a lot more, and knew Bobby Baun, who hadn’t played much in the ’67 final, had signed with the expansion Oakland outfit for $35,000 a season.
GM Punch Imlach, however, offered $19,000. Captain George Armstrong suggested that he sign for that amount and other players would chip in $100 each. But Hillman stood fast on principle, even after Imlach increased his offer to $19,500.
That offer, however, also came with the promise to reduce Hillman’s salary by $100 for every day he didn’t sign. Imlach even called up Al Arbour and Duane Rupp from the minors to put extra pressure on the stubborn blueliner. For 24 days the stalemate went on, costing Hillman $2,400 before he agreed to re-join the team.
It was a frustrating, humbling experience. He played 55 games for the Leafs that season before moving on to the Minnesota North Stars the next summer, but not before he laid down the Hillman Hex, vowing the team wouldn’t win another Cup after the way they’d treated him.
“I’ve left it on because they didn’t pay me the $2,400, with interest,” he said. “It would have been a lot cheaper to pay that than signing all those million-dollar players.”
It’s really more whimsy now for Hillman, who won six Stanley Cups, three Avco Cups and one Calder Cup over 25 years in pro hockey. He’s not angry any more, feels Shanahan is leading the Leafs in the right direction, and is pleased that Keon and Horton, former teammates, are being honored on Legends Row.
On the 35th anniversary of the Hex, he was asked if it was time to lift the curse, and he decided then 50 years would be a nice, round number.
So after next season, he said, it’s over. Given that the Leafs aren’t about to win a Cup before then, maybe there’s no point addressing Hillman’s decades-old grievance.
Or maybe there is, depending on how you feel about such things.
If you’re in the business of exorcising Leaf demons, there’s only one left.
Damien Cox is a broadcaster with Rogers Sportsnet and a regular contributor to Hockey Night in Canada. He spent nearly 30 years covering a variety of sports for the Star, and his column appears here Saturdays. Follow him @DamoSpin.