Dave Keon could be a dazzling offensive player, utilizing bursts of speed and deft moves around the net. He also had what is widely considered to be one of the best backhands in the game, a deceptive, often powerful shot that flummoxed opposing goaltenders. He used his agility to avoid opponents' hits and remained injury-free for much of his career. He also used his speed and maneuverability as a pesky penalty killer, covering a large portion of the ice and turning shorthanded situations into scoring chances for his own team. He set a league record for most goals while killing penalties with eight in the 1970-71 season, a remarkable total since the most any Toronto team had managed up to that year had been 14.
Had it not been for his mother, Toronto fans would never have had the chance to make Keon one of their all-time favorites. As a teenager in Noranda, Quebec, Keon was heavily courted by the Detroit Red Wings. His mother, however, objected to his moving so far away. He stayed in Noranda for another winter and was soon noticed by the Maple Leafs. The next year he went to St. Michael's College, as so many Leaf prospects did, and began to improve remarkably quickly. The Leafs informed him that he would be given a chance in the pro league in 1960, when he'd be 19. He was told by Bob Goldham and Father David Bauer, the St. Michael's coaches, that he could either learn how to play the defensive game - the game without the puck - in the summer or he could spend the next year in the minors working on it. He put in the extra time and effort and made the Leafs that Fall.
Keon won the Calder Trophy as the top rookie that year and was a Second Team All-Star the next. Along with Red Kelly and Bob Pulford, Keon provided the Maple Leafs with a solid stable of centers, a nucleus of talent that would play a large role in the Leafs' four Stanley Cup triumphs in the 1960s. Keon was the playoff MVP in 1967, the last year the Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup. Also in that span, he won the Lady Byng Trophy twice, in 1962 and 1963, as the NHL's most gentlemanly player. He had only two minutes in penalties each season, a remarkable total for such an effective forechecker and defensive player. At one time, Keon was the Maple Leafs' all-time leading scorer, overtaking Frank Mahovlich and George Armstrong, who had shared the record with 296 goals apiece.
Keon seemed to be always at odds with Toronto management when it came to contract negotiations but was able to smooth over differences before they interfered with his play. In 1972 the Ottawa Nationals of the World Hockey Association announced that they were going to do everything in their power to sign the productive center. Keon was trying out at the time for Team Canada, hoping for an opportunity to play against the Soviets in the Summit Series. He was kept off that team because of the possibility that he might leave the NHL. He was later convinced to remain with the Leafs by vice-president King Clancy and signed the richest contract the team had ever offered, but he did regret not playing in the 1972 series with teammates Paul Henderson and Ron Ellis.
Keon's leadership and productivity over his 15 years with the Leafs were all forgotten in the summer of 1975, at least by Harold Ballard, the cantankerous and headstrong owner of the team. He began to complain publicly about the lack of leadership Keon had shown to his younger teammates. Since Ballard was determined to rebuild the team with youth, Keon, the Leaf captain at the time, wasn't resigned. It was insult on top of injury and Keon, though a classy individual on the ice and off, has refused for years to have much to do with the team he was - and is - so strongly identified with.
He signed as a free agent with the Minnesota Fighting Saints and spent four years in the WHA with the Fighting Saints, Indianapolis Racers and New England Whalers. In 1979-80, he returned to the NHL with the Hartford Whalers. Very quietly, in the summer of 1982, Keon ended his 22-year professional career. There was no fanfare. Keon, at the time the NHL's oldest player at 42, informed Hartford director of hockey operations Larry Pleau of his decision and then declined to have a press conference, saying he'd like to end his career without formality.