Amid the excitement and history that was on display for the team's hope-opener Saturday night, the Maple Leafs surprised everyone, including nearly two-dozen franchise icons, by announcing a notable change in their philosophy regarding player jersey numbers. Although the organization had a longstanding policy that honoured jersey numbers instead of retiring them as many pro sports franchises do, team president Brendan Shanahan made the decision to retire all 16 previously-honoured numbers - and add one in the No. 14 of legendary centre Dave Keon.
"It was a beautiful ceremony," Shanahan said of the pre-game festivities, which brought many former Leafs to tears. "I thought that it was a story that needed to be told - why the team had originally retired the two sweaters of the players they did, and why they were honouring numbers, and then to go on to say that times have changed and the organization feels differently now. It was an emotional moment for all those men and their families, and the families of the men who aren't with us anymore."
As part of an ongoing examination of the Leafs' practices and policies that began when he came on board in 2015, Shanahan found the policy regarding honoured numbers was one that didn't have an overwhelming amount of support. He spoke to trusted management members and, after waiting a year to make the move part of Toronto's 100-years-of-existence celebrations, he informed the honoured players hours before the Leafs-Bruins game that no Leaf would ever again wear their numbers.
Adding Keon to the mix was the perfect capper to that process.
"When I came here, I had to learn a lot about the organization, and some of the traditions and histories, and obviously some of them are great value and mean a lot, and others, when you ask questions, people really didn't have an answer as to why we weren't doing it," Shanahan said.
"I like the story of players handing numbers down…to another player, but the reality is, that just wasn't happening. And I don't think it was going to happen. It was just the thought process that I had; when (GM) Lou (Lamoriello) came aboard, I asked him what his feelings were, and he agreed. We just put it off for a year because we thought we would wait until this year (when) it was the right time to do it."
Shanahan didn't broach the subject of retired jerseys when he spoke to Keon last year, but a few months later, Shanahan mentioned it to the legendary centre. And Keon was happy to see the franchise change course on that front.
"I was very pleased that they made the decision and they thought that retiring numbers was the right thing to do for the franchise," Keon said in the first intermission of Saturday's Leafs-Bruins game. "And I was happy that they asked me if I would be OK with retiring my number."
While the 16 players (or representatives for them) whose numbers had been previously-honoured stood in a circle at mid-ice at Air Canada Centre and heard the announcement, there was space for one more Leaf to join them in the circle - and that's where Keon walked out and stood, receiving a huge ovation from the crowd. It was an emotional night for all of them - superstar centre and former captain Darryl Sittler, and beloved winger and former captain Wendel Clark both welled up in tears - and Keon's admittance to the hallowed group made it an ideal way to complete the centennial celebrations that began earlier in the week, when Keon was named the greatest Leaf player in franchise history and received a life-sized bronze statue on Legends Row.
It is, Shanahan said, a way to pay homage to the Leafs' glorious past, while informing the team's current players of the rich history and inspiring them to reach new heights.
"I think there's a lot of people in this organization that have such great respect for the history and tradition, and I think the people that are running the team now - (head coach) Mike (Babcock) and Lou - really feel that it's a huge advantage for our players to hear the stories and meet the men (behind the history)," Shanahan said. "It's going to be a process throughout us trying to get where we want to be, but we feel like we're turned in the right direction and now we've just got to start moving toward that. It's going to be a lot of little steps along the way and a lot of hard work along the way."
Although Shanahan never wore a Leafs jersey during his Hockey Hall of Fame career, watching Keon and the Leafs legends receive the highest respect a team can bestow upon a player made him feel like the Toronto fan he was as a young man growing up in the city's west end.
"Today's an easy day for me to just be a hockey fan and a Maple Leaf fan," Shanahan said. "It was great to see these guys in the room and with their old teammates and old friends. It's about them."