Looking for a hero on the hockey rink
Dave Bidini recalls his youthful worship of Maple Leafs icon Dave Keon
The Leafs' Dave Keon skates for the puck against Ken Dryden of the Canadiens in the 1970s.
Photograph by: Denis Brodeur, Getty Images
Keon and Me: My Search for the Lost Soul of the Leafs
By Dave Bidini
Viking Penguin, 295 pages, $30
MONTREAL -- Wait. Come back.
I know this is a Montreal newspaper, and that choosing to spotlight a book about a Toronto Maple Leafs fan’s lifelong obsession with a Leafs icon might generously be described as tempting fate. The folk memory of hockey fans is long, after all, and this particular player was the playoff MVP the last time the Leafs and Montreal Canadiens met in the Stanley Cup final, in 1967. His anti-Habs credentials don’t end there, either. On April 9, 1964 — six months before the Beatles played in the same building, to put it in historical context — he gave arguably the single greatest performance ever by a visiting player on Forum ice when he scored all three Leafs goals in a semifinal Game Seven 3-1 victory over the Canadiens. By the terms of one of the longest and most bitter rivalries in sports, then, Dave Keon should be a certified Quebec enemy. But, like so many things about that relationship, it’s not quite so simple.
“It’s really important to remember that Dave Keon is a Quebecer,” says Dave Bidini, the fan in question, by phone from his home in downtown Toronto. “He’s Black Irish but he spoke, and speaks, fluent French. He grew up playing with French and English kids in Rouyn-Noranda. He’s a very strong symbol, because he came from French Canada and he captained the Toronto Maple Leafs. You can’t say that about very many people.”
Indeed, you can’t say it about anyone else, and with Keon and Me: My Search for the Lost Soul of the Leafs, 50-year-old writer/musician Bidini has created a fittingly unique tribute.
The book employs two alternating narratives. One is a third-person autobiographical account of growing up in working-class Etobicoke, Ont., dealing with daily intimidation from a school bully and looking to a hockey hero for a guiding example. The other is an account of the author’s present-day attempt to lure the self-exiled Keon — at arm’s length from his old team ever since his mistreatment at the hands of odious Leafs owner Harold Ballard in the mid-’70s — back into the team fold, ideally to help lift the Cupless curse that has hung over the Leafs and their fans since, yes, 1967. The result, greater than the sum of its parts, feels like the book Bidini’s career has been leading toward. It’s the best insight into being a hockey fan since Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater, but more than that, it’s a moving meditation on how much the right idol can mean in a life.
“You know how, when you’re a kid, the best thing you can think about a hero is, ‘O, man, I wish he could come over for dinner’? That was Keon for me, and it kind of still is,” Bidini said. Like another of the author’s literary subjects, Gordon Lightfoot, Keon embodies “a kind of totemic Canadian male maturity. Men of our fathers’ generation would have pointed to those guys as real men’s men.”
Part of that ineffable quality was a special brand of stoicism: in a violent game, Keon was famous for turning the other cheek, though such was the authority he exuded that he was seldom challenged. Sadly, the same couldn’t be said for Bidini as a boy. For a year or more, a student adversary named Roscoe — a hockey enemy, too, being a fan not of the Leafs or even the respected Canadiens, but of the thuggish Philadelphia Flyers — made every walk home from school a fearful odyssey. Bidini’s memories of the time revolve around “being terrorized by this guy, the same age as me but more mature. We’re talking facial hair at age 11, you know?”
One of the book’s many stark reminders of how much the world has changed since the ’70s is that what we would now call abuse was all but ignored at the time.
“Absolutely,” Bidini said. “Back then, bullying was thought of as just boys being boys. ‘Oh, they’re just horsing around’ — that was the big term. This guy would be sitting on me, punching me in the back of the head, and my eyes at grass-line level would be seeing my teachers pulling out of the school parking lot, ignoring us. They just wanted to get the f--- home; they were not interested at all. Now, when I go to the playground at my kid’s school during recess, there are always other parents around. In our day, if you saw parents at school it meant somebody had died, some terrible thing had happened.”
The question arises: From those long-leash times, have we gone too far the other way with our kids, into stifling micromanagement?
“Maybe in certain ways we have. I think it’s a trade-off. I found out a lot about who I was, and I think it did ultimately strengthen my sense of character. But it wasn’t much fun having to go through it. And it’s possible that in a poorer neighbourhood it might have been worse.”
In taking those beatings, the young Bidini looked to Keon’s distaste for fisticuffs as a beacon, and therein lies an irony. Central to the Keon legend is that he never fought, but that’s not quite true. Incredibly, in his last regular season game with the Leafs, he dropped the gloves for the first time, with Boston’s Gregg Sheppard; technically, it wasn’t a fight at all, since Keon was assessed only a two-minute minor penalty, seemingly because the referee couldn’t quite believe his eyes. It’s one of many stories in the book that provide a nuanced view into a character whose image might have been thought set in stone.
“Lives and careers like Keon’s have been so mythologized, so worked over, that any time you come across a story that sits in the shadows a bit, that hasn’t been over-told, it’s a gift,” Bidini said. “I mean, the fact that Keon was the last person to see both (former Leafs teammates) Tim Horton and Brian (Spinner) Spencer alive just blows my mind. Researching a life becomes a forensic pursuit, and sometimes you’ll get rewarded with these details that help draw the fullness of the person.”
A question that recurs throughout a reading of Keon and Me, at least in this reader’s mind, is whether kids today can have as pure a relationship with a sports figure as Bidini had with Keon.
“It’s interesting to think about where different generations find their heroes. Two years ago, for Halloween, my son, who’s now 11, went as the designer of Minecraft, the video game,” Bidini said with a laugh. “But I do think there’s something eternal about that (hero element) in sports. There are kids out there whose dream is to meet Big Papi (Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz), I’m sure. If we were sitting here today and couldn’t see that, I think that would be the death of sports, and I think that would be sad.”
It would be especially sad for Bidini, one suspects, because it would mean the Leafs’ Cupless curse would never be lifted. “Well, boo-hoo to that,” a massed chorus of Canadiens fans can almost be heard saying. But even they might discover some compassion on reading Keon and Me.
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One of the big literary evenings of the season happens Monday, Oct. 28 with the launch of McGill-Queen’s University Press’s In Translation: Honouring Sheila Fischman, edited by Sherry Simon. A tribute to the doyenne of Canadian translation, a person who has done more than any other single figure to bring French-language Quebec writing to the rest of Canada and the world at large, the book features essays from an array of luminaries including Alberto Manguel and Lise Bissonnette, as well as interviews with Fischman. Fischman and Simon will be present at the event, which takes place at Librairie Olivieri, 5219 Côte-des-Neiges Rd., at 6 p.m.
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