TORONTO -- The Toronto Maple Leafs pulled 19 banners into the rafters of Air Canada Centre on Saturday and, in so doing, they took another strong step toward bridging their storied past to a promising present and future.
In a dramatic ceremony to begin their Centennial Anniversary, the Maple Leafs announced they were retiring 11 numbers -- 10 of which previously were designated honored numbers -- in an ultimate tribute to the 17 men who wore them.
The retired numbers joined the two that officially were retired: No. 6 for 1975 Hall of Fame forward Irvine "Ace" Bailey, in 1934, and No. 5 for defenseman Bill Barilko, in 1992.
Most notably retired before the Maple Leafs home opener against the Boston Bruins was the No. 14 of four-time Stanley Cup champion and former captain Dave Keon, who previously wanted no part of his number being celebrated in any way.
Keon, a 1986 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee, had long been on record as saying that the numbers of the honored Toronto legends preceding him deserved to be retired. On Saturday, the numbers of those players, those of six other Maple Leafs icons who followed Keon, and that of Keon himself, all were fully retired, taken out of circulation and never to be worn again by a Toronto player.
Including the retirement of Keon's No. 14, the previously honored numbers now retired are (the Hall of Fame induction year of those who wore them in parentheses):
No. 1: Goalies Turk Broda (1967) and Johnny Bower (1976)
No. 4: Defenseman Clarence "Hap" Day (1961) and forward Leonard "Red" Kelly (1969)
No. 7: Defensemen Frank "King" Clancy (1958) and Tim Horton (1977)
No. 9: Forwards Charlie Conacher (1961) and Ted "Teeder" Kennedy (1966)
No. 10: Forwards Syl Apps (1961) and George Armstrong (1975)
No. 13: Forward Mats Sundin (2012)
No. 14: Forward Dave Keon (1986)
No. 17: Forward Wendel Clark
No. 21: Defenseman Borje Salming (1996)
No. 27: Forwards Frank Mahovlich (1981) and Darryl Sittler (1989)
No. 93: Forward Doug Gilmour (2011).
The honored numbers theoretically remained available for use, but only Salming's No. 21 was being worn by a current player, forward James van Riemsdyk, who on Saturday switched to No. 25.
On Thursday, Keon's statue was added to those on Legends Row outside Air Canada Centre; on Friday, he was declared the No. 1 Maple Leafs player of all time, based on the vote of a 30-member panel and by fans who cast more than 300,000 ballots online.
Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said he's had the idea of retiring honored numbers since not long after he arrived in Toronto in early 2014.
"When I came here, I had to learn a lot about the organization, some of the traditions and histories," Shanahan said after the first period Saturday, sitting beside Keon and Bower. "Obviously, some of (the traditions) are of great value and mean a lot. Others, when you asked questions, people really didn't have an answer as to why we weren't (retiring numbers). I like the story of players handing numbers down to another player, but the reality is that it just wasn't happening and I don't think it was going to happen.
"Nowadays, when players come into the League, when they have a number and it's established, they don't want to change it. It was a thought process I had when [general manager] Lou [Lamoriello] came aboard. I asked him what his feelings were and he agreed (about retiring the honored numbers). We put it off a year. We thought we'd wait until this year, when it was the right time to do it.
"When I reached out to Dave last year to ask him about having his statue made, we didn't talk about it at all. But a few months later, I called him up and said, 'We'd like to retire your number and the numbers of all the honored players.'"
Keon said he was "very pleased that (management) made the decision and that retiring numbers was the right thing to do. I was happy that they asked me if I'd be OK if they retired my number. I was very pleased to hear about it."
For decades, Keon has spoken strongly on this topic, saying that honoring numbers is a shallow gesture. He once asked then Maple Leafs president Ken Dryden whether the Montreal Canadiens simply would honor the No. 9 of Maurice "Rocket" Richard, instead of retiring it, and he said that Dryden didn't have an answer for him.
"I don't know why Toronto thought (previously) that honoring numbers was the thing to do," Keon said. "All the great franchises retire numbers and honor the players who had brought glory to the franchise. I didn't think that the Leafs were any different, that this should be the tradition that they follow. … It was the farthest thing from my mind when I left this organization (that his number would one day be retired)."
Shanahan and his management team kept the secret guarded right to the end, with only a handful of people involved in the planning of the pregame retirement ceremony. Keon was aware of the initiative beforehand, but the other former players and their families, and the families representing those no longer alive, learned of it less than an hour before the ceremony itself.
"We put together a video," Shanahan said. "I thought it was a story that needed to be told -- why the team had originally retired the two sweaters (of Bailey and Barilko) that they did, and why they were honoring numbers. And then to go on to say that times have changed and that the organization feels differently now.
"At that point, we stated that all the honored numbers were going to be retired and never be worn again, and then we introduced Dave Keon into the room. It was an emotional moment for all of those men and their families and the families of the men who aren't with us anymore."
On the ice, Sittler was unable to contain his tears, and Bower, one of the most popular Maple Leafs of all time, hugged himself, a gesture he said was his way of hugging every fan in the building.
"My number will be up in the rafters forever," said Bower, wearing a navy blazer with a Maple Leafs alumni patch reading "Honour. Pride. Courage."
"This is a wonderful tribute, and to share it with my family and some of the men I played with is more than I ever could have asked for."
For Shanahan, the evening was another step toward helping use the past of the Maple Leafs to build its future.
"A lot of little steps along the way and a lot of hard work along the way," he said. "Today is just an easy day for me to be a hockey fan and a Maple Leafs fan. … It's great to see these guys with their old teammates and their old friends. It's about them."