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100 Greatest Players

Dave Keon: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Led Maple Leafs to three straight Stanley Cup championships, four overall in 15 seasons with Toronto

by Stu Hackel / Special to NHL.com

It was impossible not to notice the little guy with a crew cut wearing No. 14 in blue and white. He seemed to be everywhere, doing everything a hockey player needs to do and doing it very well.

At 5-foot-9, 165 pounds, Dave Keon was usually faster than anyone else on the ice. He'd blow past defensemen like the north winds he braved growing up in Noranda, Quebec. He'd win faceoffs as if he were the only player in the circle, lay a perfect pass right on the blade of a breaking teammate and maneuver around the opponent's net with unpredictability. He would be the first man in on the forecheck, giving the puck carrier few options, and he'd kill penalties with the best of them, presenting a real threat to score while his team was shorthanded.

 

Video: Dave Keon led Toronto to three straight Cup titles

 

In the words of no less a complete player than Gordie Howe, Keon "could do it all."

Maple Leafs coach and general manager Punch Imlach, who threw around compliments like boulders, rarely hesitated when the subject was Keon, whom he called "really an amazing athlete when you see the size of him out there and then see what he can do against men much bigger." When Keon was three years into his NHL career, Imlach predicted the then-22-year-old could be one of the greatest centers of all time.

Keon's NHL career got off to a fast start; he won the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie in 1961. Keon then helped lead the Maple Leafs to the Stanley Cup in his second and third seasons, during which he was hailed as the best player in the postseason. Toronto won the Cup for the third consecutive season in 1964, and when the Maple Leafs won it again in 1967, Keon was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP after another dominant performance.

 

DAVE KEON CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats
Games: 1,296 | Goals: 396 | Assists: 590 | Points: 986

 

That was the final playoff series Toronto won with Keon. Who knows how many more teams he might have led to the Cup and what other individual honors he might have won had the franchise not gone into decline? But regardless of how good his team was, Keon never failed to give less than a full effort for the remainder of his career, which ended in 1982.

"Sitting on the bench, you'd watch Keon and you'd see how he went from here to there to here," defenseman Jim McKenny, a Toronto teammate for a decade, said in author Dave Bidini's 2013 memoir "Keon and Me: My Search for the Lost Soul of the Leafs." "Through Davey, you saw the ice as being more than just a place where a bunch of players were runnin' around. It's funny because I thought I knew the game, but I didn't know anything. Not compared to him. He was just so smart, so intense, and so committed.

"He never missed a single shift, never stopped trying no matter how long he played. He was always out against the other team's roughest guys, too, getting hacked by guys like Bobby Clarke and Billy Barber. But the tougher it got, the tougher he got. The more intense the game, the more intense he was. You just couldn't keep him down because, no matter what, he was going to keep coming at you."

Ron Ellis, a teammate for parts of 12 seasons, marveled at the ways Keon could help his team win.

"I don't think I ever saw him play a bad game," Ellis said on the "Legends of Hockey" TV series. "There was always something he could contribute to the team. If he wasn't scoring, he was shutting down the other big scorers. He was just the kind of player you needed to have to win."

Keon's mother, Laura, was a teacher, and his father, David, worked for a mining company. He reflected the attributes of both parents; his mother's intellect showed up in his off-the-charts hockey IQ, and his father's discipline was evident in his steely resolve. "I loved how he would stick his jaw out," teammate and friend Bob Baun wrote in his autobiography. "You were never certain if he was mad or if it was a kind of determination you see in a dog that won't let go of a bone."

Keon played mostly on outdoor rinks until his mid-teens, displaying excellent skating and offensive skills. A Detroit Red Wings scout invited the 15-year-old to leave Noranda for a Junior B team, but his mother discouraged him from making the move. Then the Maple Leafs got interested and spent $1,000 to sponsor his Noranda youth team. One year later, in 1956, they invited him to join their affiliated hockey program at St. Michael's College, which pleased his mother because it meant he could get an education. There Keon came under the tutelage of coach Bob Goldham and rounded out his game. He had never focused on defensive play, but by the end of his St. Michael's days, he was equally good with or without the puck.

He was invited to Maple Leafs training camp in September 1960 at age 20; the invitation came although Imlach frowned upon juniors jumping directly to the big club and had him ticketed for the American Hockey League. But Keon played so well in scrimmages and preseason games that, as Imlach later said, "There was no way he could be kept off the team."

Toronto had traded for Red Kelly late in the 1959-60 season, so the addition of Keon gave the Maple Leafs two excellent two-way centers. That allowed Toronto to compete against the NHL's top teams and helped launch a dynasty.

Keon centered a line with Dick Duff and captain George Armstrong as a rookie, and his skill and effort quickly made him a fan favorite. With 20 goals in 1960-61, he began a streak of six consecutive 20-goal seasons. In 1961-62 he was named to the NHL Second All-Star Team and won the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship. Like Kelly, he played a hard, clean game; Keon won the Lady Byng again in 1964 and was frequently among the top vote-getters for the trophy during his first 11 NHL seasons.

But team honors always mattered most, and Keon had a knack for scoring big goals at big moments during the Maple Leafs' glory years. On March 20, 1963, he scored the game-tying goal against the Montreal Canadiens that allowed Toronto to finish in first place for the first time since 1947-48. He followed that by leading Toronto with 12 points (seven goals) in the playoffs and helping the Maple Leafs win their second consecutive championship, scoring two goals in the Cup-clinching Game 5 victory against the Detroit Red Wings. NHL President Clarence Campbell had already presented Armstrong with the Cup and the Leafs had left the ice to start celebrating in their dressing room with champagne and cigars, but the fans at Maple Leaf Gardens began chanting, "We want Keon!" He returned for a curtain call to a thunderous ovation.

At the start of the following season, Imlach wrote in Hockey Illustrated that he "wouldn't trade Davey for anyone in the NHL, including Gordie Howe, Stan Mikita or Henri Richard … and I wouldn't take a million dollars for him either."

Keon led Toronto with seven playoff goals in 1964, helping the Maple Leafs win the Cup for the third straight season. Three of those goals came in Toronto's 3-1 victory against the Canadiens in Game 7 of the semifinals.

Then came 1967 and his bravura performance that helped Toronto shut down Montreal's powerful offense, led by center Jean Beliveau. Despite scoring one goal and finishing with two points in six games in the Stanley Cup Final, Keon earned the Conn Smythe Trophy for his work away from the puck. When Bryan Watson, who was traded to the Canadiens for the next season, asked his Montreal teammates why they had lost to the Maple Leafs in the 1967 Final, they told him, "Keon. He was everywhere at the end. He wouldn't let us move."

Though the 1967 championship was the aging dynasty's last hurrah, Keon continued his stellar play. He was named captain in 1969 after Armstrong retired and averaged 27.5 goals per season from 1968-75. He scored 30 or more goals three times during that span, finishing with a NHL career-high 38 in 1970-71 and 37 in 1972-73.

But the Maple Leafs had dropped out of the NHL's elite and Keon was at odds with management, especially owner Harold Ballard, who blasted Keon in the press. When his contract expired in 1975 and Ballard showed little interest in offering him a new one, Keon left for the World Hockey Association, leaving Toronto after 15 seasons as the leading scorer in franchise history (858 points). He also left behind a legion of fans.

Those fans welcomed him back to Toronto as a visiting player in 1979 after his team, the Hartford Whalers, entered the NHL from the WHA that year. Keon couldn't hide his joy on Oct. 31, 1979, after he drew several standing ovations and had a goal and an assist in Hartford's 4-2 victory at Maple Leaf Gardens. "The response from fans was great," he said. "This ranks up there with some of the biggest thrills of my life. It's the kind of thing you hope for, but doesn't always happen."

(Keon would get another big thrill in October 2016, when his No. 14 was retired by the Maple Leafs and he was voted the No. 1 player in franchise history.)

He had an NHL career-high 52 assists in 1979-80, when he turned 40, and Whalers coach Don Blackburn said, "He's been our best player this season, without a doubt."

When Howe, his Hartford teammate, retired after that season at age 52, Keon became the oldest player in the NHL. He skated two more seasons with the Whalers before retiring at age 42.

Keon remained an effective player until the end, and the words Imlach wrote in his autobiography about him still resonate decades later: "He played with bulldog tenacity. That's the only way he knew how to play the game. What more could you ask?"

 

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