From The Star
For most of the crowd and the TV audience at home, the men they were honouring at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night required an explanation, an introduction, with visual aids mostly in black and white.
The late Turk Broda? When he wasn’t fighting in World War II he was tending goal for the Maple Leafs on five Stanley Cup teams. He retired in the early 1950s, about a decade before goaltenders started wearing face masks. If he were alive today, he’d be 101 years old.
The late Tim Horton? Before he gave his name to the doughnut chain that became the go-to national food and coffee stop, he was a hockey player, one of the great defencemen of his era. Unless you’re over age 40, both Horton and Broda died long before you were born.
And Dave Keon? Well, he was the Maple Leafs’ best player the last time it felt like Toronto would win the Stanley Cup every year — even longer before you were born. Keon is 75 years old now. The greatest player of the franchise’s last great era last played in 1981.
On matters of honouring the greats of their glorious and fading past, it’d be kind to say the Maple Leafs have been playing catch up for a long while now. Under previous incarnations of ownership, the organization treated former players with an indifference that sometimes morphed into gross disdain. So Saturday’s feting of Broda and Horton and Keon as the next icons to be rendered in bronze on the franchise’s Legends Row monument in October — well, it was a case of better late than never, even if it was very, very late.
In Keon’s case, that was especially true. If the Maple Leafs once carried a justly earned reputation for mistreating their stars, Keon’s was among the foundational cases.
He was the Jonathan Toews of his age, the two-way centreman at the heart of a 1960s dynasty that won four Stanley Cups, the clutch scorer who netted a famous Game 7 hat trick against the Canadiens in 1964, the Conn Smythe winner in 1967. And yet, when he reached age 35 — and coming off a season in which he’d registered a career-high 43 assists playing on a not-so-stacked squad — he was coldly cast aside by then-owner Harold Ballard.
Fans were outraged. Players, too. Darryl Sittler, less than an hour after he was named Keon’s successor as captain in 1975, opined that Keon’s departure was handled “very badly.”
And he said something else: “You don’t see that sort of stuff happening in Montreal.”
On Saturday night, with the Montreal Canadiens in town some 41 years after Keon was effectively exiled to the World Hockey Association to begin an estrangement that amounted to lingering a black mark on the organization, Keon was welcomed back with a standing ovation and a first-intermission press conference in which he expressed puzzlement about why he remains an object of a fan-base’s affection.
“I’m dumbfounded why 40 years later there’s this emotion pushed towards me,” he said. “I still don’t understand it.”
Why, Keon was asked, did he chose this moment to finally acquiesce to being honoured by the club?
“I guess the best way to sum that up is that I was notified I had been selected,” he said.
“I talked to (team president) Brendan (Shanahan). We talked a couple of times. I told him I was honoured to be selected and if there was anything that I could do to help the ceremonies along that I would be happy to participate.”
In other words: They asked him and he showed up, just like he’d shown up at the Air Canada Centre previously in 2013 and 2014 to honour the 50th anniversaries of a couple of different Stanley Cup winners. It’s easy to imagine there could have been closure on this matter years ago.
Still, Shanahan deserves credit for being the man who got it done.
“My reverence for the Toronto Maple Leafs, having grown up here . . . I want to make sure obviously that our on-ice product . . . honours our history. But I think it’s just as important that our alumni feel a part of the family,” Shanahan said. “We certainly want to be best-in-class when it comes to taking care of our alumni.”
When it comes to mastering the art of feting legends, Montreal, the ancient rival, has long been the gold standard. Nobody respects history and does ceremony like Les Habitants. If Keon had been presented at the Bell Centre as an equivalently accomplished alumnus of the bleu, blanc and rouge, the muted applause he received here Saturday would have been a far more thunderous, emotion-stirring phenomenon.
But Toronto doesn’t put out like that — not for players that last played in the early 1980s. Time healed Keon’s rift with the Leafs. Time dulled the reunion.
Still, it was a fine enough moment. Broda was represented by his daughter, Barb Tushingham, who spoke of a “great dad” who “talked hockey forever, ever, after he’d come home from a game.” Horton’s honour was accepted by his daughter, Jeri Horton-Joyce, who remembered a childhood household in which “the world was hockey. The family was second or third down the line. Nothing but hockey. During the season (the players) were pretty well gone all the time. It was hard. It wasn’t easy But it was our life.”
Keon spoke of life in Toronto in the 1960s.
“Fans thought a great deal of us,” he said.
They did, indeed. And in that respect, you could argue Keon’s reunion with the faithful had already occurred, albeit less formally, more spontaneously, many years ago. The first time Keon returned to Leafland after his exile was in 1979, when he was a 39-year-old member of the Hartford Whalers, which had joined the NHL after the WHA merger. Back then fans still hung homemade signs from the arena’s facings.
“Welcome back Davey,” one said. “We missed you,” said another.
That night at Maple Leaf Gardens, Keon scored a goal and set up the winner after he was showered in an raucous outpouring of applause and hoots and whistles.
“Nobody could recall the last time a visiting hockey player received a standing ovation such as the one Keon was treated to when he skated out,” Star hockey scribe Jim Kernaghan wrote. “Surely Somebody, Somewhere scripted (the game’s storyline) to embarrass Harold Ballard.”
For years the Leafs have embarrassed themselves both on the ice and in the pre-game ceremony, or lack thereof. Now that the worst of those days appear to be over — Keon cautioned Shanahan to have “patience” and “stick to the plan” — maybe they can even imagine a future in which the newly inducted don’t require a black-and-white introduction.