Remember "Mr. Hockey" and his final appearances against the Maple Leafs.
While costumed ghouls and goblins wandered the streets of Toronto Halloween night 1979, hockey fans enjoyed tricks and treats of their own at Maple Leaf Gardens. Two hockey legends returned to the building for the first time in years, making the Leafs’ 4-2 loss to the Hartford Whalers palatable. For 51-year-old Gordie Howe, who passed away this morning, it was an early stop in his year-long farewell tour around the NHL. For 39-year-old Dave Keon, it was a return to venue he’d left under bitter circumstances.
While “Mr. Hockey” never played for the Leafs during his 32-year career, Howe served as a sporting goods adviser for Eaton’s, prompting plenty of personal appearances at the department store’s local outlets during the 1960s and 1970s. This apparently bothered Detroit Red Wings management after Howe ended a brief retirement to join his sons Mark and Marty on the World Hockey Association’s Houston Aeros in 1973. When Howe cited one of his reasons for returning to the ice as boredom with his desk job with the Red Wings—he felt like a mushroom patch, kept in a dark room until it was time to throw more manure on him—Detroit exec Jimmy Skinner complained that Howe spent too much time working for Eaton’s.
When the Whalers were added to the NHL in 1979, Howe maintained a hectic pace as the public and media fixated on the ageless wonder during his final season. “Overall, all the attention I’m getting isn’t getting to me,” he told the Globe and Mail. “It’s easier to stickhandle your way through an interview than a young, eager hockey player…I’m playing this season because it’s enjoyable going through the circuit again.”
Howe was particularly pleased about stopping in Toronto because the return of Keon to the Gardens allowed him to share the spotlight. Keon was less excited, having left Toronto unceremoniously four years earlier after a 15-year run with the Leafs. During the 1974-75 season, owner Harold Ballard consistently dumped on his team captain, accusing him of being uncooperative with the media and failing to provide leadership to younger players. When that season ended, Keon became a free agent. Ballard showed little interest in bringing him back. “Keon is free to make a deal for himself anywhere,” Ballard told the Globe and Mail’s Dick Beddoes. “You hate to see players like Keon go, but I don’t need to be hit on the head with a sledgehammer to understand reality. We need big young legs. It’s nuts to fall in love with a racehorse because sometime he has to die.”
Because rules at the time required other NHL teams to provide compensation to the Leafs for signing Keon, and suspicions Ballard was asking for too much, Keon had few options but to jump over to the WHA. After stints with the Minnesota Fighting Saints and the Indianapolis Racers, Keon joined the Whalers midway through the 1976-77 season. Keon’s bitterness over his departure from Toronto was apparent whenever the subject arose in interviews—soon after joining the Whalers, he vowed never to set foot in Maple Leaf Gardens ever again.
But his bitterness wasn’t enough to prevent Keon from playing on Halloween 1979. “I have no bad feelings towards the players,” he noted. “I’m looking forward to it, but playing against the Leafs will be different.”
The game was sweet for both veterans. “Sure somebody, somewhere, scripted the hockey game at Maple Leaf Gardens last night to embarrass Harold Ballard,” the Star’s Jim Kernaghan noted the next day. Besides Ballard’s treatment of Keon, the obnoxious owner refused to acknowledge Howe’s 1,000th professional goal on the Gardens’ message board in 1977 because he utterly loathed the WHA. Keon received three standing ovations from Toronto fans, while several fan banners welcomed him back. He responded by providing a goal and an assist in the Whalers 4-2 victory over the Leafs. “The response from fans was great,” he noted after the game, “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.”
Howe, assisted by his son Mark, sent a 30-foot wrist shot past goalie Mike Palmateer to give the Whalers their final goal of the evening. Howe claimed getting back at Ballard had nothing to do with his goal. ‘It’s just great to score one and it was particularly nice that it was Mark who tipped the puck to me,” he told the Star. “Hell, Harold’s good for the game. He yelps a lot and pays good salaries.”
Both teams moved on to the Whalers’ temporary home in Springfield, Massachusetts two nights later, where two goals from Howe helped the Whalers deliver the Leafs their fifth defeat in a row. The Star’s punny headline screamed “Those Howe-itzers again blast Leafs.”
Howe’s final game at the Gardens occurred on February 16, 1980, which the Leafs won 5-3. Howe failed to score on four shots, including one barely stopped by Toronto defenceman Borje Salming. When goalie Jiri Crha learned that in his debut game he had temporarily stopped Howe’s pursuit of his 800th NHL goal, the Leafs netminder said “this win means even more now.” In Howe’s final game against the Leafs in Hartford on April Fools’ Day 1980, he showed his eternal toughness by earning a 10-minute misconduct penalty with 37 seconds left to go in the match after knocking over a linesman while pursuing the puck.
Keon continued playing until 1982. His bitterness towards the Leafs remained in retirement, as he refused official overtures from the team for decades. “It was clear Keon had great pride in his Leafs career,” broadcasting and former Fighting Saints coach Harry Neale told writer Dave Bidini several years ago. Neale summarized, after a pause, Keon’s feelings as “heartbroken.” But Keon has appeared at Leafs events in recent years, and will be honoured alongside other team greats with a statue to be unveiled in Legends Row this October.
Additional material from Keon and Me by Dave Bidini (Toronto: Penguin, 2013); the February 7, 1974, July 10, 1975, December 3, 1977, October 31, 1979, November 1, 1979, and April 2, 1980 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the July 15, 1975, November 1, 1979, November 3, 1979, and February 17, 1980 editions of the Toronto Star.