No matter which of the six teams described on the preceding pages turns out to be NHL champion this year, the victory will have been a long time in the making. Championship hockey players cannot be bought readymade on the open market. They must be plucked as green shoots from a whole forest of potential candidates and carefully nurtured to maturity during years of patient waiting. No finer example exists of the rewards that can accrue from such patient husbandry than the 21-year-old Toronto center pictured above.
David Michael Keon is without doubt one of the finest hockey players to come along in years. Built on the lean, springy lines of a dash man, he has a naturally fluid, effortless skating style, a fine shot and a flair for being at the right place at the right time. Last season Keon vaulted directly into the big time from junior hockey and became everybody's choice for NHL rookie of the year. Now, as a new season opens, he is on the threshold of major stardom. But it is no accident whatever that he is playing for Toronto. To get a Keon you must spot him as an adolescent and get his allegiance before he is 16—the minimum age at which he can be contractually bound. Since it is beyond human power to divine whether a 16-year-old will in fact become even an average journeyman major leaguer, you must search far and wide and be prepared to bet some very long shots. Canada's hockey woods are alive with bird dogs sent there to round up all the likely-looking kids they can find for the NHL teams.
Toronto's interest in Keon was generated a half dozen years ago by an urgent letter from Noranda, a bleak little mining town in northwestern Quebec. "Come get this boy," wrote Vince Thomson, Toronto's bird dog in Noranda, who is a geologist by trade. "If you don't, another team will hurt you with him someday."
Chief Scout Bob Davidson hurried to Noranda, visited Keon's parents and won them—and thus Dave—over to Toronto with one of his better persuaders. This was the offer of what amounts to a hockey scholarship to St. Michael's, a Toronto high school that is to schoolboy hockey what Notre Dame is, or at least was, to American college football.
Every big league club sponsors so-called junior teams on which the skills of its prospects are refined. Toronto happens to sponsor the St. Mike's Majors.
Up from St. Mike's, Keon batted in a goal against Detroit in the third major league game of his life and by season's end he had 20 goals, which, in baseball terms, means batting roughly .300.
"In time," said Coach Punch Imlach, who had supervised the whole process with the patience of a skilled nurseryman, "Keon may be as good as Henri Richard." Despite the Pocket Rocket's undeniable skill, this was a cautious prediction for a young man who could soar even higher.
But if Punch is not yet ready to go all-out with overconfidence, neither is young Dave, who acts as though he has yet to clinch his place on the Leafs, skating overtime in practice until the coach orders him off ice to conserve his strength. Big league hockey jobs are not easy to find, and Dave may still be haunted by the memory of a teen-age summer's work in the murky deeps of a Noranda copper mine, 2,300 feet below ground.