One for the Ages: Dave Keon’s 1979-80 NHL Season

By the time Dave Keon returned to the NHL for a curtain call with the Hartford Whalers, he was 39 years old. Even at 39, he was still only the third oldest player on the team behind fellow legends Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull. As the 1979-80 season progressed, Keon would turn 40 while Howe and Hull turned 52 and 41, respectively. While this would be Howe’s and Hull’s last season in the NHL, Keon would still play for two more after that. But it was the 1979-80 season which saw Keon compile a year that would be one for the ages.

Dave Keon – Previous Success in the NHL

Keon forged a career that earned him a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1986. What is important to realize is the main accolades that led to his induction took place during his primary time playing in the NHL. Keon played for the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1960-61 up through the 1974-75 season.

Dave Keon Maple Leafs
Dave Keon (14), shown here as he checks Montreal’s Bobby Rousseau, played 15 seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs. (THW Archives)

Within those years, he would win the Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year, four Stanley Cups for the Leafs, the 1967 Conn Smythe Trophy, and two Lady Byng Trophies. Keon also became widely considered the premier penalty-killer in hockey during that time. He led the NHL in shorthanded goals in 1968-69 (six) and 1970-71 (eight).

The three years that Keon played for Hartford would be icing on the cake. But, that certainly does not diminish the importance of what he accomplished during a time when the vast majority of players his age would have long been retired.

Dace Keon’s Transition From the WHA Back to the NHL

From 1975 until 1979, Keon played in the World Hockey Association. He was a member of the Minnesota Fighting Saints, Indianapolis Racers, and the New England Whalers. New England was the precursor to what would be Hartford when a WHA/NHL merger took place in 1979.

During his four seasons in the WHA, Keon still had success even in his golden years of play. He received the Paul Deneau Trophy in 1977 and 1978 in recognition of his gentlemanly play. While New England would lose in the 1978 Avco Cup final to the Jets, Keon would be second on the Whalers in playoff scoring. He posted five goals and 11 assists in 14 playoff games. He would end his WHA career with 291 points in 301 regular season games.

In June of 1979, the NHL held an expansion draft for the four teams entering the league from the WHA—the Whalers, the Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets, and the Edmonton Oilers. The Whalers were able to retain Keon’s rights on June 9th, prior to the expansion draft taking place on June 13th.

Keon’s Return the NHL With the Whalers

The 1979-80 Hartford Whalers were a colorful team, to say the least. They had the aforementioned golden oldies in Keon, Howe, and Hull. Both of “Mr. Hockey’s” sons, Mark and Marty Howe, were on the team. The Whalers had firepower too in the likes of Blaine Stoughton (tied for league lead with 56 goals) and Mike Rogers (team-leading 61 assists and 105 points). The pugilistic Nick Fotiu provided muscle, while anchoring the squad were journeymen goaltenders Al Smith and John Garrett.

Though Hull only played 12 games between regular season and playoffs combined, Hartford was able to assemble moments of “The Golden Jet” on the left, Keon at center, and Howe on the starboard side. The performance of the Whalers was good enough for a third-place finish in the Norris Division. They compiled a record of 27-34-19 and would have an opening-round playoff matchup against the Montreal Canadiens. At 40-years-old, Keon played in his final NHL playoff appearances of his career and picked up a lone assist in three games. The Canadiens would sweep the Whalers in three straight games.

Understanding the Value of Keon’s 1979-80 Season

Despite his age, the 1979-80 season was one of the finest performances of Keon’s illustrious career. Between the NHL and WHA, he played professional hockey for 22 seasons. The 52 assists that Keon generated for the Whalers in 1979-80 were his highest assist total of any of his 18 NHL seasons. They were the second-highest of his 22 pro seasons, outdone only by the 63 he generated in 1976-77 WHA season, split between the Fighting Saints and New England.

Two of his 52 assists came while partaking in his forte of playing shorthanded. Eight of them came about on the Whalers power play. Those same 52 assists were tied for 18th-highest in the entire league, alongside Rick Middleton and Borje Salming. Adding 10 goals on the year, Keon finished fourth overall in Whalers team scoring in 1979-80. Only Rogers, Stoughton and Mark Howe registered more points.

Here’s a look at some of Keon’s more memorable games from the 1979-80 NHL season:

Dave Keon
Canadian hockey player Dave Keon, number 14, of the Hartford Whalers skates on the ice during a game at the Hartford Civic Arena, Hartford, Connecticut, April 1981. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

Oct. 13, 1979: The Hartford Whalers play to a 3-3 tie with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Keon picked up a secondary assist off of 6’5″ Whalers’ behemoth Bill Bennett’s game-tying goal at 14:09 of the third period. This would be Keon’s first point in his return to the NHL.

Oct. 31, 1979: On Halloween, Keon scored his first goal with the Hartford Whalers. Lo and behold, it came against his former Toronto Maple Leafs. As if it were scripted, Keon would also pick up an assist on the night on Stoughton’s fourth of the season. Hartford would skate away with a 4-2 win on Maple Leaf Gardens ice.

Nov. 11, 1979: Both Keon and Gordie Howe each scored two goals apiece as the Whalers played to a 5-5 tie with the Chicago Blackhawks. By no means was this an easy accomplishment as the 39-year-old and the 51-year-old did so against Chicago’s Hall of Fame goaltender Tony Esposito.

Dec. 15, 1979: In a 6-5 loss to the lowly Colorado Rockies, Keon assisted on three of the Whalers’ five goals. All three of his assists came in the second period and were each primary assists. The goals went to Mark Howe followed by two from Stoughton.

Jan. 2, 1980: Keon out-duels Wayne Gretzky in a 3-3 tie between the Whalers and Oilers in Edmonton. Keon picks up a goal and an assist on the night against Jim Corsi in net for the Oilers. Gretzky is kept to a lone assist on the night.

Feb. 3, 1980: Hartford’s Jordy Douglas scores four goals in a 5-3 victory over the eventual Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders. The game is played in Hartford, and Keon picks up two assists off of a pair of Douglas’ goals.

Feb. 18, 1980: Keon is terrific in a 6-4 victory over the New York Rangers at the Civic Center. He set up the Whalers first goal of the game on a tally by Ray Allison, and then scored the second goal himself. Keon would eventually set up the game-winning marker by Douglas in the third period, too.

Mar. 12, 1980: In a 4-4 tie with the Detroit Red Wings, Keon notched his tenth and final goal of the season. Douglas and Gordie Howe picked up the assists on the marker. Bobby Hull also picked up a goal and an assist on the night, in what would be “Mr. Hockey’s” final NHL game played in Detroit.

Mar. 19, 1980: The Whalers and the Montreal Canadiens played to a 5-5 tie in Hartford. Keon again puts together a three-assist night. His first two assists came on Douglas’ 28th and 29th goals of the season. 46 seconds after he assisted on Douglas’ second of the night, Keon set up Mark Howe’s 22nd goal.

Wrapping up Keon’s Time With Hartford

Keon’s final two seasons with the Whalers were the 1980-81 and 1981-82 seasons. His point production dipped during each of those years to 47 and 19 points respectively. However, he certainly was not washed up by any stretch of the imagination.

In the 1980-81 campaign, Keon increased his goal total from 10 to 13. He also played in all 80 Whalers games that year. Likewise, he would finish sixteenth in the league in voting for another Lady Byng Trophy. The oddity to that, of course, being that Keon’s 26 penalty minutes in 1980-81 were his highest amount in a season for his entire career. During the 1981-82 season, he set career lows in all offensive categories, while turning 42 years old that March. Regardless, he still managed to be ninth-overall in voting for the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward.

In those last three years of NHL play for Dave Keon, he assembled 31 goals and 97 assists for 128 points in 234 games. Certainly not bad for a player doing the bulk of that production in his 40s. Suffice it to say that Keon was an integral early star of those early Whalers NHL teams. But his 52 assists in the 1979-80 season are what make his time in Hartford most memorable and one for the ages.

– originally published in November 2017