'A determined bunch'

GEORGE GROSS

, Last Updated: 7:45 AM ET

The prodigal son returned to the Maple Leafs fold last night amidst a thunderous ovation from the sellout crowd at the Air Canada Centre.

Indeed, Dave Keon, wearing his No. 14 jersey, made his first appearance in several decades at a Maple Leafs-arranged event.

The occasion was festive as the remaining members of the most recent Stanley Cup winning Maple Leafs -- the 1967 heroes -- stepped on the ice to be saluted by adoring fans. And Keon, one of the smallish NHL centres of the 1960s -- Montreal's Henri Richard and Chicago's Stan Mikita were the others -- remembered the 1967 Stanley Cup and the underrated Toronto team well.

"Nobody gave us a chance of winning the Cup," Keon told me a few days ago. "In the first round we had to play Chicago, the team that ran away with the regular schedule. They had Glenn Hall in goal, Pierre Pilote on defence, Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Ken Wharram, Red Hay and other big guns up front.

"But we had our big guns. We had Johnny Bower and Terry Sawchuk in goal, Tim Horton on defence, Red Kelly, Frank Mahovlich up front. I remember in the key game's first period in Chicago Bower got hurt and Sawchuk took over, stopping 40 shots. Once we beat out Chicago, we realized in the dressing room that we might have a chance to beat the Canadiens, who also had their big guns, but, as I said, so did we."

Bill Wirtz, chairman of the Blackhawks who at 77 is still active in the club's office, confirmed that the Leafs shouldn't have beaten them.

"We had a star-studded team in those days," recalled Wirtz, former chairman of the NHL's Board of Governors. "We should never have lost that series in 1967. Just as we shouldn't have lost four years later against the Montreal Canadiens. But, that's hockey.

"And the Leafs beat us because they never made a mistake on defence in spite of the fact that we had the firepower up front. In fact, we fired 54 shots in one game at the Leaf goalies. Now I have one of their forwards -- Bob Pulford -- acting as our vice-president and filling the role the late Tommy Ivan used to fill."

Keon, of course, had a different explanation on that series of 40 years ago. In his typical quiet way, he explained the triumph over the 'Hawks in the first round and Habs in the final, this way:

"Sometimes you have a team loaded with superstars and, for some reason, they can't overcome that last obstacle. At another time you have a team of lesser stars but they are a determined bunch who stick up for each other and give their all. The latter team can win. Once we beat Chicago, we felt we could duplicate the feat against Montreal."

In the 1967 Stanley Cup final, Keon was the Conn Smythe winner as the most valuable player of the playoffs. He was also most valuable to his teammates in the 1962, 1963 and 1964 Stanley Cup triumphs. And Toronto fans remember No. 14 well. The 160-pound centre who was a scorer, a playmaker, a power-play specialist and a penalty-killer who also never was afraid to go into the corners with the biggest opponents.

I used to rate the players in the Stanley Cup final from 1 to 10 under the heading "Gross' Grades." Keon, Sawchuk, Marcel Pronovost and Larry Hillman rated a "9" in that final game, while Red Kelly, Tim Horton, George Armstrong and Bob Pulford earned the "8" figure.

After the triumph, Keon told me: "This Cup gave me my biggest thrill. Few people expected us to go this far. When we had the 10-game losing streak (during the regular season) many thought we wouldn't even make the playoffs. They (the critics) said we had too many old players and our rookies were not ready. But we played a style which suited all of us -- check, check, check. It paid off."

It would behoove the Leafs' young Matt Stajan to follow the example of the man whose uniform number he now wears.

GROSSLY ABBREVIATED

The legal profession and the hockey world lost one of its professionals with the passing of Bill McMurtry, who left us Monday, the victim of cancer. McMurtry, brother of Ontario's Chief Justice Roy McMurtry, was a fighter against racism and violence in hockey. He will be missed ... Steve Ryan, former vice-president of the NHL and now commissioner of Major Indoor Soccer League, is excited that entries from Monterey (Mexico), Orlando and a team owned by the New Jersey Devils will make it a nine-team loop this year. He would love to see teams from Toronto, Montreal and Halifax join the league in the future ... Liberec, Ceske Budejovice, Pardubice and Sparta Prague are the four leaders in the Czech hockey league, while Kosice, Slovan Bratislava (former team of Peter and Marian Stastny), Zvolen and Trencin, coached by former Maple Leafs defenceman Robert Svehla, are the current leaders in Slovakia.


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