Dave Bidini has written an enthralling memoir about his hero worship of Leafs’ star from the 1970’s called Keon and Me.
It interests me not only because it’s good writing but because one of the main characters in my last novel The Western Light (set in 1959) was based on the former Detroit Red Wings player John Gallagher who was sent to a psychiatric hospital after he suffered a hockey concussion. The time in the Ontario psychiatric hospital ruined John Gallagher’s career because it meant US border guards wouldn’t let him back into the states to play NHL hockey.
Dave Bidini has set his memoir in two time periods, during the 1970’s when he was a boy, and contemporary times. Here’s what Dave has to say about his new book published by Viking.
Q: Dave Keon was a hero to a lot of young Canadian boys. What was it that made him special?
A: He was tough and fierce but he walked a line, and never fought. He played with a ton of cinematic honour, a 50’s film hero throwback. For instance, I was bullied/terrorized/ by a big kid in Grade 6 at my new school. I was 11. It was awful. I was beat up after school for six months. I was thrown to the ground, punched in the back of my head or neck, slapped, elbowed, and sat on until the bully got bored.
Sometimes my attacker would grind my face into the ground and spit in my face, too. Sometimes he’d just sit on me and do nothing. But I was determined not to fight back because one of the hallmarks of Keon’s play was that he never fought (only once, actually, at end of his career).
It wasn’t until Keon fought Greg Shepperd of Boston that I fought back against my bully. Keon’s code had made life hard for me but it was a determination not to behave like my aggressor that taught me the virtue of a belief in honour and non-violence.
Q: Keon was the Leafs’ top scorer but an old contract with Harold Ballard stalled his career. How did Keon’s hockey career end? And what impact did that have on you as a boy?
A: He was basically run out of town by Harold Ballard, owner of the Maple Leafs and humiliated in the press; his leadership was also questioned. It was sad and awful, and, as a kid, it taught me a lesson about fatality, mortality and to never take anything for granted.
Q: And how do you feel about Keon as a man?
A: My naivite seems sweet, but sad; but there’s also something beautiful in my unconditional devotion to someone I really knew nothing about.
Q: Your book includes two parts: one set in the 1970’s when you were young and admired Keon, and one written when you are an adult looking back. What section was the most difficult to write and why?
A: The kid stuff was difficult because I wanted to clearly recreate that time, but the adult stuff was difficult because I needed to be honest about my achievements, my shortcomings, and misplaced ideas about sport and life, my disappointments, and my struggles to preserve the enthusiasm and buoyancy of my youth. I didn’t want it to come across as too nostalgic either, although to deny some nostalgia would be disingenuous.
Q: Are there any parallels between our current time period and the seventies?
A: In sport, it’s completely different. in music, there’s a connection, and, in books, too. But in the 70s, school was a wholly different beast. There was no such thing as bullying, and parents were never seen at school. If you saw someone’s parents, something terrible had happened. And when you were bullied, it was just ‘boys being boys’ and if my parents had spent time at school–as I do with my kids’ schools– the bullying that happened to me never would have happened.
Q. You could say hockey is Canada’s prime popular culture. Why are hockey and players like Keon so important to us?
A: They do amazingly dramatic things on a grand stage in full view of our country in mostly winter months when we are mostly inside.