Dave Keon, by any standard, was one of the top handful of players ever to suit up for the Leafs. His departure from the team was not handled well at all and the last few years of his career were hampered by Leaf owner Harold Ballard in a manner that was governed mostly by pointless malice. Harold messed with Dave because he could.
In the late ’80s, Leaf alumni were rarely seen around the Gardens. Harold showed little interest in the past, famously (though I’m not sure it was confirmed despite being a great story) using the old Stanley Cup banners as drop cloths. Keon’s absence from all Leaf functions wasn’t unusual because everyone not in the direct employ of Ballard was usually missing.
After Ballard’s passing, the Leafs began to reach out to their past. The banners came back. Fences were mended with Darryl Sittler and he and other Leaf vets started to become honoured guests rather than shunned reminders of a time when things weren’t completely screwed up.
Keon never returned, though. I can’t speak to all his reasons, but when asked, he never seemed to feel that the new corporate ownership was any better than the old ownership under Ballard. He didn’t like how many things were handled and he particularly didn’t like the practice of “honouring” numbers rather than retiring them.
That’s not to say he dropped off the face of the earth. He was part of a limited-edition print of all living Leaf captains because it was for a good cause and it wasn’t organized by the Leafs. When he meets with Leaf fans, all reports suggest he’s very gracious.
At the same time, he’s his own person and has decided not to have anything to do with Leaf functions unless he feels they’re done properly. He won’t come to Toronto to have his own number honoured, so #14 is missing from the rafters. He won’t take part in any Leaf-sponsored event.
In 2007, the Leafs decided to celebrate the 1967 Cup win by bringing back all living members of that team. Keon, the Conn Smythe winner as playoff MVP, was central to that team. Would he come?
He did. For the first time in 32 years, he put on the uniform and stood on Toronto ice as the fans roared. When asked why he came to this occasion, he replied that this was not about him and the organization, it was about his team and his teammates. He answered any questions openly and handled everything with dignity.
When asked whether things would be patched up with the Leafs, he said simply that this was just one day, and he’d take it from there.
We haven’t seen him since.
You can call Keon many things. You can call him principled, you can call him stubborn, but you can’t call him someone who put himself ahead of his team. That’s not how he played then, and it’s not how he plays now.