Article by: Jim Howard
“I want to be a professional hockey player and I’m prepared to work at it all the way. I don’t believe there’s any use starting out on anything if you’re only willing to go half-way. A guy who plays hockey because that’s all he can do is wasting his time. But if you’re playing mainly because you love the game, you can get a lot of satisfaction out of it.” 19-year-old Dave Keon, from the Toronto Star, February 20, 1960.
Dave Keon joined the Toronto Maple Leafs out of training camp in October 1960. Prior to joining the Leafs, Keon spent four seasons, 1956/57 through 1959/60, playing OHA junior hockey with the St. Michael’s Majors under head coach Bob Goldham and hockey director Father David Bauer. He also played one game of OHA senior hockey with the Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen and four playoff games with the Sudbury Wolves of the Eastern Professional Hockey League, both in 1959/60.
Keon scored his first NHL goal as a Maple Leaf on October 9, 1960, his third NHL game, in a 3-3 tie with the Detroit Red Wings. His last goal as a Maple Leaf came on March 24, 1975, an empty-netter, in a 5-3 win over the California Golden Seals. In between his first and last goals, he won four Stanley Cup championships, a Conn Smythe Trophy, the Calder Trophy, two Lady Byng trophies and captained the Leafs from the 1969/70 season until the end of the 1974/75 season. He was a huge favourite of the Leafs faithful as well as one of the greatest two-way players in the history of the NHL. It was unthinkable that he would retire from hockey in anything other than a Maple Leafs sweater, but that is exactly what happened.
In a November 20, 1974 Toronto Star article written by Red Burnett, Leafs owner Harold Ballard questioned Dave Keon’s leadership abilities, saying, “Keon does not provide the leadership a team captain should.” In that same interview, Ballard also stated, “Keon’s no-trade contract would be the last of its kind around the Gardens.” When asked later if he still felt the same about Keon, Ballard replied “We could use a Bobby Clarke type, one who can fire the team up by word as well as deed.” In the same article, head coach Red Kelly said of Keon, “He has held get togethers with his teammates at his own expense and he works with the young players.” Kelly also went on to say, “He’s not scoring as much as I’d like him to but he’s setting up plays for his wingmen.” Keon finished the 1974/75 season with 43 assists which would prove to be his highest single season assists total of his NHL career up to that point. After the Leafs were eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers from the 1975 Stanley Cup playoffs, where by all accounts he was the Leafs best player, leading the Leafs with 5 assists, finishing second in points with 5, in seven playoff games, and with a contract set to expire that spring, the whispers of Keon leaving the Leafs were getting louder and louder. With no deals made prior to his contract expiring on June 1, 1975, he became a not so free agent, as any team wanting to sign him would have to compensate the Maple Leafs. The Leafs did hold some talks with Keon and a few teams, most notably the Los Angeles Kings, but with Keon’s unwillingness to sign a deal without a no-trade clause and the compensation the Leafs were asking, rumoured to be too much, a deal could not be made. Unable to get a deal done with the Leafs or any other NHL team, in August 1975 he signed a two-year contract with the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the World Hockey Association. In an August 12, 1975 Toronto Star article by Frank Orr, Keon said of signing with the WHA’s Minnesota franchise, “It’s sure going to be different wearing something other than that sweater that’s blue and white all over.” It appeared the NHL career of Dave Keon had come to an end.
WHA Instability and a New Home
Keon was drafted in the preliminary round of the 1972 WHA’s General Player Draft by the Ottawa Nationals, with whom he admittedly signed a letter of intent in July 1972, before signing a three-year deal worth a reported $125,000 annually in September of that year with the Leafs. Starting in the fall of 1975, he spent four seasons playing in the WHA with the Fighting Saints, Indianapolis Racers and the New England Whalers, playing in a total of 301 games and scoring 291 points. In Keon’s first season in the WHA, the Minnesota Fighting Saints, citing financial problems, folded on February 27, 1976. There were talks with a couple of NHL teams during this time, including the New York Islanders, but again, an agreement could not be reached that would have allowed him to come back to the NHL. The reported deal breaker was the Maple Leafs wanting a first round draft choice from the Islanders for his NHL rights. Instead, Keon stayed in the WHA, playing for the Indianapolis Racers for the remainder of that season.
The next season, 1976/77, the Cleveland Crusaders moved their franchise to Minnesota and took on the Fighting Saints name. Keon and several other former Minnesota players returned to play for the new Fighting Saints, but like the old Fighting Saints, citing financial problems, the team folded on January 17, 1977. Keon was then traded to New England where he finished his WHA career.
After the 1978/79 season, the NHL and WHA merged. Four teams, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Quebec and the New England Whalers, who would change their name to the Hartford Whalers, were included in the merger. Keon, whose rights were retained by Hartford prior to the Expansion Draft of June 9, 1979, finally became a true free agent. Feeling as though he could still contribute to the team and with the chance to play in the NHL again, he signed a one-year contract with the Hartford Whalers on June 20, 1979. At the age of 39, Dave Keon was back in the NHL.
Along with Keon, the 1979/80 Hartford Whalers roster also included ex-Leaf Blaine Stoughton. Stoughton, who went to the Leafs from the Penguins on September 13, 1974 in a trade that sent Rick Kehoe to Pittsburgh, occasionally played on a line with Keon while both were with the Leafs and would again play on a line at times with Keon while both played for the Hartford Whalers. For most of the first half of the 1979/80 season, Keon, Stoughton and Jordy Douglas made up a line that on most nights was a catalyst for the team. While with Hartford, Stoughton had four consecutive seasons scoring 40 or more goals, and still holds the franchise record for most goals in a season with 56.
The Whalers had another ex-Leaf, defenseman Rick Ley, an original Whaler who joined the team for the 1972 WHA season and played for the franchise until he retired due to knee injuries on September 9, 1981. Ley captained the Whalers for two NHL seasons. In a mid-season trade with Toronto, Pat Boutette joined the Whalers where he would line up with diminutive center Mike Rogers and sniper Blaine Stoughton to form the high scoring and entertaining “Stash, Dash and Bash” line.
Of note, the Whalers also featured the father/son trio of Mark, Marty and Gordie Howe. Mark and Gordie would play on the same line until the younger Howe was permanently sent back to the blue line in January 1980. Marty, Gordie’s oldest son, was sent down to the Whalers AHL affiliate in Springfield out of training camp, where he suffered a broken wrist, and would not be recalled until late in the season. The 1979/80 season was the last in which Mr. Hockey would play in the league.
In an August 11, 1979 Toronto Star article, Leafs coach Floyd Smith was asked by writer Jim Proudfoot if Keon’s “quickness had dulled by the passage of time,” Smith responded, “No flippin’ way. You won’t notice any difference in Keon at all,” adding, “there isn’t a team in the NHL Keon couldn’t help.” Proudfoot highlighted two dates on the Leafs schedule, October 31 and February 16, the two games that season which would see Keon returning to Maple Leaf Gardens.
The Whalers and Leafs first met at the Gardens on Halloween night 1979, with neither team boasting a stellar record. The Leafs were fourth in the Adams Division with a 4-4-1 record while the Whalers were last in the Norris Division at 1-4-4. In a Hartford Courant article on the day of this game, 51-year-old Gordie Howe said of Keon, “on any given night, he is the best.” Dick Duff, Leafs assistant coach and former linemate of Keon’s, stated, “He is one of the superstars of hockey. He plays when you have to play. He is at his best in the playoffs. If you have five guys like him 23-years-old, let us know, will ya?”
In that same article, Keon said of his NHL return to the Gardens, “The fans were good to me here, I just hope I can play well.”
With goaltender Mike Palmateer in net for the Leafs and John Garrett holding down the fort at the other end for the Whalers, along with many fans holding signs showing support for Keon, the game got underway. At the 8:43 mark of the second period, with the game tied at 1, Keon scored his first goal of the season and his first NHL goal in over four years to put the Whalers ahead. The goal was the result of a Hartford takeaway in the neutral zone by Bill Bennett. Keon corralled the puck and passed to a streaking Blaine Stoughton on the right wing who froze Leafs defenseman Ian Turnbull at the blue-line, easily skating by the Leafs’ defender. Goaltender Mike Palmateer skated out to the faceoff circle in an attempt to stop the streaking Stoughton, who simply skated around the diving Palmateer and fired a wrist shot that hit the side of the net. Stoughton was able to beat both Leafs’ defensemen, Greg Hotham and Ian Turnbull, who were playing the strong side with their backs turned to the front of the net and regain control of the puck behind the Toronto goal. Leafs’ forward Dan Maloney, on the weak side, likely anticipating that one of the defensemen would reach the puck first, turned away from the play and started to skate up the wing, leaving a wide-open net that Keon quickly took notice of. Neither Palmateer, who was scrambling to get back into position, nor Turnbull, who took a circuitous path around the net, had any chance of stopping Keon from easily putting a Stoughton pass into a wide-open net from just at the top of the goal crease. Stoughton and Bennett were each awarded assists on the play. At 3:06 of the third period, Blaine Stoughton scored what proved to be the game-winning goal, assisted by Keon and Gordie Roberts. Gordie Howe also scored, his third goal of the season, with an assist by his son Mark, in a 4-2 Whalers victory that saw Leafs owner Harold Ballard making a hasty retreat for the exit before the game ended. The headline in the Toronto Star sports section the next day read, “Keon’s night – and Howe!” For his efforts, Keon was awarded the game’s first star, along with several standing ovations. After the game, in a pumped-up Whalers dressing room, Keon said, “The reception was very nice, I guess I expected some sort of recognition but nothing like that.” When asked if there was a possibility of playing for the Leafs again before he retired, he responded with “no, that possibility does not exist.”
On his first goal since returning to the NHL, scored against his former team, Keon said, “You always hope it will come out this way, but it usually doesn’t. I’m just happy it did.” He then said the entire night “ ranked up there” with the greatest thrills of his career. In a phone conversation with Blaine Stoughton, I asked about this particular game, and if the team looked at this game differently because it was Keon’s first NHL game back in Toronto, “Yes, the game was talked about the day before in the room,” he answered, adding, “The team wanted him to succeed, Dave was excited to play back at the Gardens and wanted to play well, but was more concerned with playing a good 200-foot game.”
The two teams were back at it again just two night later on November 2, this time in Hartford with the Whalers coming out on top 5-3. Keon recorded an assist on defenceman Al Hangsleben’s goal at 5:02 of the third period.
The Leafs and Whalers squared off again at Maple Leaf Gardens on February 16, 1980, a 5-3 Leafs win. Keon was playing in his second game since coming back from missing three games with the Flu. In an attempt to generate some offence late in the game, Keon centered a line with Gordie Howe on his right wing.
The final game between the two teams that season was played on April 1, 1980 at the Hartford Civic Center, with the Leafs once again coming out on top, this time 5-4. For the second game in a row against the Leafs, Keon went scoreless.
In the four games played against Toronto that season, Keon had 1 goal on 11 shots and 2 assists for 3 points along with an even plus/minus rating. His 1979/80 statistics saw him score 10 goals and record a career-high 52 assists for 62 points in 76 regular season games. He also accumulated 10 penalty minutes.
The 52 assists bested his previous professional career high of 43 set in the 1974/75 NHL season while with the Maple Leafs, as well as with the New England Whalers in the 1978/79 WHA season.
Keon set a Whalers/Hurricanes franchise record by recording at least one assist in 10 consecutive games from November 17 to December 7, 1979, a record that held for a little over 32 years until Eric Staal broke it with a streak of 11 consecutive games from February 10 to March 6, 2012.
On May 17, 1980, saying “I feel I can contribute to the club,” Keon signed a one-year contract with the Hartford Whalers for the 1980/81 season, continuing with “You pay a high price for playing in the NHL. You have to be certain you’re prepared to keep on paying it.” Whalers coach Don Blackburn was delighted, stating that the Whalers “again have the services of one of the greatest all-time centremen in the league.”
The Whalers were scheduled to face the Leafs four times during the 1980/81 season. The teams met for the first time that season on December 23, 1980, in Toronto, with Hartford skating away with a 7-2 win. The Leafs scored two goals eight seconds apart in the first period (Bill Derlago at 1:44 and John Anderson at 1:52), then gave up seven unanswered goals to the Whalers. For the third straight game against the Leafs, Keon did not factor in the scoring.
The loss gave the Leafs a home record of 6-11-1. Frustration set in as the fans (those who stayed for the whole game) began throwing popcorn, soda and other debris on the ice. Once again, Harold Ballard was again seen leaving his bunker before the game ended. Longtime Hockey Night in Canada broadcaster Bill Hewitt remarked, “I’ve never seen anything like it here before.”
The second matchup of this season was played at Maple Leaf Gardens on January 24, 1981. This time, it was the Leafs coming out on the top of a 7-4 decision. Keon assisted on Mike Fidler’s eighth goal of the season at 18:55 of the first period. Keon’s assist was the first point he had recorded against his former team since November 2, 1979. This was the seventh straight winless game for the Whalers. In their previous 12 games, including this one, the Whalers were 1-9-2
The third meeting was played on January 30, 1981 in Hartford. The Whalers held a 4-3 lead with three minutes left to play in the game. Toronto’s Terry Martin scored at 17:12 to tie the game and 40 seconds later, Wilf Paiement scored to give the Leafs the lead. Toronto’s lead was short-lived though as just nine seconds after Toronto went ahead, Blaine Stoughton lit the lamp, snatching victory from the hands of the Leafs to salvage a 5-5 tie for Harford. There was no overtime played during this time as the NHL had rescinded overtime in 1942 due to wartime travel restrictions and did not reinstate the overtime period until the 1983/84 season.
The fourth and final game of the 1980/81 season was played at the Hartford Civic Center on March 22, 1981. This one ended in another tie, this time 3-3. Keon’s only entry on the score sheet was a two-minute holding penalty at 14:43 of the first period.
In the four games played against the Leafs during the 1980/81 season, Keon managed only an assist and 2 penalty minutes with 8 shots and a -2 plus/minus rating. In eight games played against Toronto, Keon has tallied 1 goal, 3 assists and 2 PIM with a total, so far, of 19 shots and a -2 plus/minus rating.
On March 21, 1981, he reached 100 career penalty minutes, in his 1211th NHL game, against the New York Rangers.
Keon’s stats for 1980/81 were 13 goals, 34 assists and 47 points, along with 26 minutes in penalties through 80 regular season games.
On June 3, 1981, despite talk that he had “lost a step,” “can’t win faceoffs any more” and “why would he want to play for a team that isn’t going anywhere?”, Davey Keon signed another one-year contract with the Hartford Whalers. At the press conference announcing the signing, the Hartford Courant reported Keon saying,“I didn’t think I’d be playing hockey in 1981.” Talking about his first training camp with the Leafs, he said, “They said I wasn’t big enough and strong enough. They thought I’d play a couple of years and that would be it.” He also went on to say “I felt I can still contribute to the team, as long as I can do that, I’ll play. When I can’t, I don’t want to play,” adding, “I came closer to retiring last year.”
On October 17, 1981, Hartford’s head coach and general manager Larry Pleau announced that Dave Keon had been appointed the new captain of the Whalers, replacing Mike Rogers, who had been traded to the New York Rangers two weeks earlier. Pleau commented“I feel he can show the young guys how to be leaders.” In a phone conversation with Larry Pleau, he suggested that Keon played a key role on the team, “because of his intensity and mental attitude towards the game, he had the ability to make guys do things they didn’t want to but also had a way of relaxing players.” On his leadership, Pleau described Keon as “a quiet leader who didn’t speak much, but when he did the entire room took notice.” He added, “He was good with the younger players and he expected a strong work ethic, a good positive effort in practice and to be ready to play, as Dave himself approached practice the same as he would a game.” On the night it was announced he was the new captain of the Hartford Whalers, Keon scored a goal and recorded an assist in an 8-1 drubbing of the Detroit Red Wings. Keon was given two standing ovations during that game; one when the scoreboard announced him being appointed the new captain and again after scoring the first goal of the game.
Still enjoying playing the games, captain Dave Keon and the Whalers were set to play the Toronto Maple Leafs three times during the 1981/82 season.
On November 18, 1981, the Leafs and Whalers met at the Hartford Civic Center, which ended in an 8-5 victory for the Whalers. Keon scored at 6:10 of the first period to tie the game at 1, with an assist credited to Whalers goalie John Garrett. Keon was awarded an assist on former Flyer Rick MacLeish’s goal in the second period. this was Keon’s first multi-point game against the Leafs since October 31, 1979.
The second game between the two teams was on December 2, 1981, in Toronto, a 5-3 Hartford victory that saw Keon assisting on a Tom Rowe goal at 15:33 of the third period. Some fan comments published in the Toronto Star “I’m beginning to wonder about the Leafs future when they lose to a team like Hartford” and “The fans were one reason why the Leafs lost. They shouldn’t cheer for Dave Keon; he isn’t a Leaf anymore.”
The final game Keon would play for the Whalers against the Leafs was in Hartford on December 27, 1981 with the Whalers winning 7-3 to complete the season sweep. This was the first time since 1979 that the NHL Whalers swept a series against any team. Keon scored his fourth goal of the season at 12:35 of the third period with an assist going to Rob McClanahan, who had been a member of the 1980 gold medal winning U.S. Olympic hockey team. Six goals were scored in the third period to establish a franchise record for most goals scored in the third period at home. It was tied on January 11, 2007 and again on December 13, 2016. Afterwards he was asked if playing the Leafs was different than playing against any other team now, Keon responded, “They’re just another team, they played well for the first two periods tonight but once Blaine (Stoughton) scored those two quick goals in the third, we were on our way.”
In the three games played against the Toronto Maple Leafs that season, Keon scored two goals on 5 shots with two assists and a +2 plus/minus rating. He finished the 1981/82 season playing 78 games, scoring 8 goals and adding 11 assists for 19 points. He also earned 6 penalty minutes.
Dave Keon (365) and Darryl Sittler (389) are two of only four players to score more than 300 goals in the history of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Both former captains endured some curious treatment; Keon by Ballard, and Sittler by the Ballard-backed general manager Punch Imlach, before he was moved to the Philadelphia Flyers.
Dave Keon played for the Hartford Whalers from 1979/80 until the end of the 1981/82 season. During his three seasons with the NHL Whalers, he never played in less than 76 regular season games.
With Keon a member of the team, Hartford went 6-3-2 in 11 games against the Maple Leafs. In those games, he scored 3 goals and collected 5 assists. In late June 1982, Dave Keon, who was often referred to as “the perfect hockey player” quietly announced that he was retiring from hockey. He was 42 years old.
In those three NHL seasons he played with the Hartford Whalers, Dave Keon, one of the last NHL players to use a straight-blade stick, led the team in games played (234) and finished fourth in assists (97), points (128) and shots (361).
When Larry Pleau was asked, considering Keon’s age at the time, the type of game situations in which he would utilize him, he said, “Because of his experience and intelligence, he could play in any situations; killing penalties, power-play, as well as taking key faceoffs.” He finished by saying, “I consider him to be in the top 10 percent of players as far as knowledge of the game.”
In an email, David Keon said of his time in Hartford “I had a great experience playing in Hartford. I enjoyed the city. I loved playing for the Whalers and I greatly appreciated the support the community gave the team. I have nothing but great memories of my time there.”
1960-61 – Calder Memorial Trophy, NHL Rookie of the Year
1961/62 – Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, NHL Most Gentlemanly Player
1962/63 – Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, NHL Most Gentlemanly Player
1966/67 – Conn Smythe Trophy, NHL Playoff MVP
1976/77 – Paul Deneau Trophy, WHA Most Gentlemanly Player
1977/78 – Paul Deneau Trophy, WHA Most Gentlemanly Player
In 1986, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
In December 2008, St. Michaels College retired his number nine jersey.
On January 23, 2016, Dave Keon, goaltender Turk Broda and defenseman Tim Horton were added to the Maple Leafs Legends Row.
On Oct 15, 2016, he was among 16 players to finally have their numbers retired by the Toronto Maple Leafs as they celebrated their 100th anniversary. He was also selected as the number one greatest Maple Leaf of all time and was included on the list of the 100 greatest NHL players of all time. It appears his decades’ long rift with the Maple Leafs has finally and happily come to an end. Dave Keon is back home where he belongs - with the Toronto Maple Leafs!
There are words that are consistently used in books and magazine articles to describe Dave Keon on and off the ice: intensity, work ethic and professionalism. This was still the case some 35 years after his retirement in conversations the author had with Larry Pleau and Blaine Stoughton. Virtually every answer to questions posed of them used those same descriptions either directly or indirectly woven into their responses.
One of the last questions asked of Mr. Pleau was the player he would compare to Dave Keon today. Boston Bruins centre Patrice Bergeron was mentioned based on his two-way play and faceoff excellence. Pleau agreed, emphatically saying that “off the top of my head, quickly, that would be a very good comparison,” adding “a player who can play anywhere.”
“Off the ice he would spend time teaching how to prepare and carry yourself, how to be a professional.” – Blaine Stoughton, in a phone conversation on May 25, 2017
“He was a strong influence on Ron Francis” – Larry Pleau, from a phone conversation on May 25, 2017.
“Anybody who says Keon could not help any team in this league is crazy, He makes a science of the game.” – Larry Pleau. from the Hartford Courant, October 31, 1979.
“It’s interesting because when I was 18, my roommate in the NHL was Dave Keon and Dave was pretty good to me in the first few years, teaching me the ropes and stuff.” Ron Francis, from a 2009 NHL.com article “Francis lends a voice of experience to Hurricanes” by Mike G. Morreale
Thanks to SIHR’s Roger Godin for pointing me in the right direction to getting in touch with one of the individuals in this article and also to Debbie Sittler, Manager, Player Appearances & Special Events at www.nhlalumni.org for helping me to get in touch with another individual featured in this article.
Thank you to Larry Pleau and Blaine Stoughton, who both returned my calls and agreed to give this non-journalist some insights into this particular subject. Their patience while I stumbled through my first ever interviews is greatly appreciated.
Thank You to David Keon for providing me with a quote for use in this article.
David Keon email from June 13, 2017
Blaine Stoughton phone interview on May 25, 2017
Larry Pleau phone interview on May 25, 2017
The Toronto Star archives
The Hartford Courant archives
Hockey Hall of Fame – www.hhof.com
The complete World Hockey Association, 10E – Scott Surgent
Hockey Summary Project – flyershistory.com
1980/81 Hartford Whalers Yearbook and Official Guide
1981/82 Hartford Whalers Yearbook and Official Guide
1982/83 Hartford Whalers Yearbook and Official Guide
Carolina Hurricanes 2016/17 media guide.
Toronto Maple Leafs 2016/17 media guide.