There was lots more he wanted to know, too. What was it like to grow up in Etobicoke in the 1970s, when Bidini was growing up there, and how were you supposed to figure out what kind of person you were going to be? What was up with the hellacious Flyers of Philadelphia, menacing their way to Stanley Cups? And what about, at school, the bully Roscoe: what was his problem?
Part memoir, part quest, part hockey picaresque, the book that Bidini has crafted to contain his inquiries is Keon and Me: My Search for the Lost Soul of the Leafs (Viking Canada). It’s his eleventh, and it’s lovely: heartfelt and honest, funny and poignant. It’s as compelling in its portrait of a Canadian childhood as it is in examining how hockey shapes and sharpens and — all too often — confuses us. For instance: if Bidini’s favourite Leaf was indeed the greatest ever to have worn the blue and the white, why has the team so doggedly failed to recognize his stature, and what does that have to do with Toronto’s lingering case of not winning Stanley Cups?
Bidini has, of course, long been in the business of chronicling the country, with a particular emphasis on what we do when we find ourselves with hockey sticks and/or guitars in hand. He is, it has been pointed out, the only of us to be nominated for Juno, Gemini, and Genie awards, and the CBC’s national these-are-our-necessary-books contest, Canada Reads.
As a founding member of the great, late Rheostatics, Bidini journeyed around the country singing its history and legends and praises for more than 20 years, yielding eleven albums along the way. He’s in front of BidiniBand these days, with a new album, In The Rock Hall, that he’ll be taking out on the road early in the new year. As a writer he continues to contribute a weekly column to The National Post. He’s also working with Olympic cyclist and speedskater Clara Hughes on a memoir of hers.
Fifty now, he lives with his family in midtown Toronto. There was wind blowing through the neighbourhood one afternoon back in the fall, and in the sky it looked like weather was coming. Bidini arrived on his bike, wearing his hat, and over a lunch of Greek salads and vegan bacon cheeseburgers with fries, submitted to questions.
Maybe more than your other books, is this the one you’ve been writing all your life?
Yeah, probably. And waiting for a long time to write. Waiting for the right moment. And waiting for the right angle into it. I started it — the idea was almost to write a fictionalized version of my life as a Leafs fan. I invented all these characters. And I got 10,000 words into it when I just decided it was either going to take too much work or it wasn’t going to be personal enough, that way. It was kind of a comedy. And I abandoned it. I went straight back to it being more of a personal thing.
And so the structure, with your childhood paralleling Dave Keon’s remarkable career and refusal to be provoked, how did you come to that?
That was late. I’ll give you a bit of the anatomy. The book started out, I was originally going to go to northern India, to this tournament they have in the Himalayas, played by … monks …. The IHF were going to have, I believe they were going to have their first sanctioned hockey game at a rink they’d built at the foot of the Himalayas. But I could never really get confirmation that the rink was working, that the players were going to show up …. It was going to be called Eat, Pray, Leafs.
So that was going to be the original thing. It was going to be an inner journey, it was going to parallel Indian mysticism … didn’t happen. And then I was going to write Diary of A Loser, which was going to be that comedic fictionalized look at my life, and that ended up becoming the Keon thing.
The way it goes down in the book, the Keon figure emerged over this series of incidents in which his name appeared, it sort of rose, and I realized, that’s the guy.
This might be your most personal book. Was it difficult to reach back to uncover what it was like being 11 in Toronto in the 1970s?
You start trying to get that, the chrysalis of memory, the true impression of what it was like, and then ultimately you start wondering whether that’s the way it actually felt like. That’s where it really dances between fact and fiction. Non-fiction, you’re sitting in a room, it’s all very austere, trying to do it very properly, and then fiction comes in a fucking checkered suit and a loud hat, right, and starts the party. Especially when I was reconstructing stuff like my cousin’s room, or hanging out with my parents, parties at my uncle’s place. It’s like, okay, I sort of have a sense of how this was, but I can sort of colour the edges. Which is how I kind of did it.
Is there ever a worry about writing about the people close to you, especially family? Does that ever hold you back?
Usually it does, but with this one I realized I had to just …. My dad read the book, and it was good. There was a lot of stuff that he had forgotten. He was glad that he was able to revisit it through that. I did tell him this was my impression, it wasn’t going to be totally accurate.
My wife actually told me a couple of books ago, I want you to totally take me out of anything you write in the future. She was like, you’ve gone down that road enough.
Although she does have a great line in this book about Mark Messier, that he looks like Agamemnon.
You talk in the book about the joys of just simply talking hockey, whether it’s with kids on the street or, in fact, when you finally track down Keon. Is that also one of the pleasures in writing a book like this: the jawing about last night’s game that we do as Canadians?
Yeah. And I do say in the book how, I think that used to be a lot more common in our society. And I think that’s what’s kind of nice about the book, in a way, it has kind of recharged it in our time. The Leafs playing well helps, obviously.
You’ve written before about having turned away from hockey and come back to it. There’s a mention of that here. Is that still on your mind, the possible reasons for giving up on the game?
The reason I didn’t get too much into that is I think I’ve told that story more clearly before. In Tropic of Hockey I talk about how, I was in music, hard. Sports was just bigger kids who, all they did was sports, they had no interests other than that. I’m talking about 15, 16, 17. And you identify more with musicians, I did anyway, than hockey players.
And then it was the ’84 Canada Cup, driving back to my friend’s apartment on the day of the Canada-Russia semi-final, and just completely being drawn into the dramatic weight on this event. Watching it on TV. And how after Bossy scored, deflecting a shot from Paul Coffey from the point — my friend lived in this gray apartment block, and there was this explosion of joy, this great sound stirring, and it was all the apartments, everybody was watching this game. And we were in this grayscape, out near Downsview, York University, and it came alight. And that’s powerful. It reminded me of how important it is in a lot of ways.
You have to be careful, because you can get on the wrong side of that, it can become jingoistic — Stephen Harper — and used for the wrong reasons. You’ve got to be careful with it.
For all Keon’s toughness and leadership on the ice, he didn’t fight. That’s a focus here obviously, and it’s something your 11-year-old self struggles to understand. At one point you tell us the boy liked fighting —
Well, I think the boy — he gets excited by it, until he finds himself actually in it.
Right. And the boy turns away from the violence that the Flyers represent. But later, when —spoiler alert —Keon does drop his gloves, in his last game as a Leaf he fights his one fight, that releases the boy to take on the bully Roscoe at school.
Interesting, I know.
Where are you when it comes to fighting in the game now?
Over the course of writing the book, and when the book came out, I did not think it would be largely appropriated the anti-fighting forces. I didn’t think it would be this testament to the virtues of non-violence in hockey. But because it has kind of come to that, it obviously reflects where we’re at in our times in our relationship with the game.
I think, the thing with fighting in the game, we could at least see what it’s like without it. Even on a experimental basis, whether it’s in the AHL, or another league. Because one side is convinced that the game will be better without it, the other side is convinced that it will be lesser without it, everybody has a salient argument, but it’s all based on a hypothesis. That would require some sort of consensus, some sort of leadership. I don’t know whether either exists now.
I was at a KHL game in Prague, in the spring. I saw Prague play Moscow, two cities that have, for thousands of years, despised one another, and I don’t know, man. I was right behind the bench. It was a thrilling game, a regular-season game, there was no fighting. It was a tense game, but it never tipped over and became goofy. I think it can be done, I just think we have to know, one way or the other. And then we can probably put it to rest. People talk about, oh there are going to more hits from behind, hits to the head, but there are those anyway, with fighting in the game.
And really the worst thing for hockey, for people who love hockey — some of us, anyway — is that it becomes the dominant story. So instead of the impression of this fast, beautiful, graceful sport, it’s all about — it almost gives those people who are on the fence a reason to not watch it. To not even get on the ice and skate themselves.
Though I don’t know that the NHL is doing itself any favours in how the story’s being told. You have Gary Bettman, talking to Peter Mansbridge on CBC, and give or take a few shadings, he’s saying the same thing that Clarence Campbell was saying in the 1970s: leave it to us, we know what we’re doing, we’ll be the ones to decide what’s best for hockey …
Which I kind of agree with. I would never pre-suppose that I know more about the game — or that I’m really close to knowing anything about it, to be honest. Because being in that room, being on the ice, it’s a whole other reality. It really is. And one of the mistakes we make is that we assume we know too much about it. Just because you coach your kid at hockey, just because you play a couple of times a week, just because you have season’s tickets and have seen 1,000 games, does not mean that you really understand what’s going through somebody’s mind or body while they’re out there playing. So I do think it does fall to them.
But then, if so, it also then falls to those who really do understand to make the case.
I think it can be articulated from that side, but nobody has really done it well. I think this year will be interesting too, as the debate continues, because the Olympics are in the middle of it. There’s no fighting in the Olympics, you get kicked out; it’s great hockey.
One of the things that I liked that Keon said, when I asked him about fighting, were you ever tempted, he was like, All the time. But he just didn’t. He just didn’t.
Other sports, too, find a way not to fight, for all the speed and the colliding and the tempers they generate. Rugby, for example.
And at the highest level, those guys are serious men. They’re Don Cherry’s guys. But the culture of the game, the game just does not allow it, and they don’t.
Do you read hockey books when you’re not writing them? Who do you read?
People always talk about baseball literature being God when it comes to sports literature — and the new football writing is really good, too. But baseball — I love Roger Angell, Thomas Boswell, those guys, they’re amazing. But I think hockey writing was as good in its day. It’s just that, the writers who wrote those books were sportswriters. Whereas the American writers, there were more novelists writing about baseball, John Updike, Bernard Malamud, whereas it never really crossed over in Canada.
But I think the quality is there. Pal Hal is one of my favourite books of all time. I love that book. It’s so lively, the language is so interesting, the story is so well-told. Dick Beddoes is fantastic. The Trent Frayne books are great, too. There’s a lot of great stuff there.
Keon’s number 14 hasn’t been raised to the rafters at the ACC. It’s been well-documented, his stormy relationship with the team over the years, and you certainly talk about it in the book. Is it possible that you’re helping to make the momentum needed to see him honoured by the team he captained?
If anything like that results from the book, that would be fantastic. But it’s MLSE, so who knows.
Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour, Darryl Sittler. They’re not going to care if you retire the number. Well, they say, we don’t retire numbers — but they have retired numbers before, they retired Ace Bailey’s. So just do it. If you have to back it up with stats, he was the greatest Leaf who ever played. He was. There’s nobody who’s greater. The numbers prove it, the legend prove it. And it would be great. This would be a really great season to do it.
Keon and Me: My Search for the Lost Soul of the Leafs
(Viking Canada, 240 pp., $30)
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Dave Keon hockey card courtesy of hockeymedia at flickr.com.