ONCE A LEAF
Featuring one of the more than 1,100 players, coaches and general managers who have played or worked in Toronto since 1917.
ASSISTANT COACH KEITH ACTON
BORN: April 15, 1958, in Stouffville, Ont.
Years with the Leafs: 2000-2011
Acton was not on the radar to join Pat Quinn’s staff, but inundated them with requests for an interview and wowed the general manager/coach with his enthusiasm.
“Well, I was persistent,” laughed Acton, from his office at the Boston Pizza franchise he now runs in Stouffville. “I knew there was an opening and I have to thank (assistant GM) Bill Watters, whom I kept calling and calling.
“I didn’t even know Pat, but I kept saying to Bill ‘just get me an interview, have him lend me an ear for a few minutes’. It went very well (he replaced the departing Alpo Suhonen) and I’m forever grateful.”
Persistence was indeed Acton’s pursuit as a player for more than 1,000 NHL games, a 5-foot-8 centre in a big man’s NHL of the 1980s and ‘90s.
“I was very privileged through my career to have great teachers, starting with Roger Neilson (his junior coach in Peterborough just before the Canadiens made Acton a sixth-round pick in 1978 and Neilson was hired to coach the Leafs). Montreal still had Ken Dryden, Jacques Lemaire and Scotty Bowman as coach. But I knew I wasn’t ready and it was the best for my development to be on the farm a couple of years.
“In those early camps I really looked up to Guy Lapointe, Guy Lafleur, Bob Gainey, Rejean Houle and Serge Savard. Serge was so good to me. I’d sit and ask him all kinds of questions about how the NHL worked. All those guys knew the formula for winning.”
Acton played five years there and five with the Minnesota North Stars, before winning a Stanley Cup with Edmonton in 1988, another club that oozed talent and winners with Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Jari Kurri to rub shoulder pads with in the dressing room and Glen Sather and John Muckler at the top.
“And of course there was Pat,” Acton said. “Everyone on the Leafs drew strength from him.”
In Acton’s time under Quinn and fellow assistant Rick Ley, the Leafs continued a resurgence begun under Quinn in 1998. They didn’t miss the playoffs in seven straight seasons, including a run to the ’02 Eastern final, Acton helping get the most out of Mats Sundin, Alex Mogilny, Steve Thomas and Gary Roberts.
But Acton became the bane of any rehabbing player or Black Ace, subjecting them to his gruelling post-practice sessions. Getting over an injury one season, Roberts was asked if he’d accept going to the farm for a week to get in game shape.
“I already have a seven-day conditioning stint,” he shot back. “It’s called Keith Acton.”
Acton saw the tough love as a tenet of his role.
“Some guys needed extra work and at the time, not all players were suited for it (before full summer training was embraced).
“I was younger then myself and not that far removed from playing. Every player needs to be completely dedicated. I know I had to work hard (because of his size and sometimes tenuous roster position through his career). I couldn’t have got by if I didn’t work hard.”
Acton stayed under Quinn’s successors Paul Maurice and Ron Wilson until 2011, later assisting in Columbus and Edmonton.
Through Quinn, Acton met his boss’s old friend Jim Treliving, the Boston Pizza baron, often playing golf in the same foursome, sometimes joined by Jim’s son, Brad, the future Leafs GM.
It was Acton’s eventual path to the challenging restaurant business.
“I love it, but there’s always something going on, something that needs fixing.
“There are lots of parallels between sports and business. You want to corner the market and win and put a good team together (he has 40 to 50 full and part-time employees).
“You think it’s hard to win a Stanley Cup in a 32-team league, but around here, there’s a pizza place on every corner and it takes maximum effort to stay in front.”
Acton also represents Ward 3 on Stouffville Town Council, elected in 2022 after a previous unsuccessful try for the Mayor’s chair.
“I was born and raised here, this community did so much for me, so I thought I should try and give back.
“There’s lots to the job description, first you need to be your Ward’s voice then take part in some make some hard decisions. There’s a lot of development going on around here and you have to be aware of what’s best for today, tomorrow and 30 years from now.”
FAVOURITE LEAF MEMORY
To date, no Leaf team has made it as far as the ’02 squad that Acton helped shepherd within two wins of the Cup final.
“Our teams had such high-end talent. Mats was the complete player in that area, Mogilny, Thomas, Tomas Kaberle and the talent of Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour in net as we all know how meaningful goalkeeping is.
“We had guys with so much desire and emotion, Gary Roberts, Shayne Corson, Tie Domi, Darcy Tucker and two defencemen that were saturated with sacrifice, Dmitri Yushkevich and Danny Markov.
“At that time (’02), we had a lot of injuries and Alyn McCauley and Gary were big parts of that team. They had the commitment. We were knocking on the door, but just couldn’t quite get it done.
“But I was proud to represent the team and with such great owners as Steve Stavro and Larry Tanenbaum. I grew up a Leaf fan and remember watching them win Cups. To have had the chance to work for them so long meant a lot to me.”