Review: Keon and Me by Dave Bidini

“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” ― Winston Churchill

17906378Time has a way of romanticizing its heroes.

Heroes become legends, legends become myths, and myths become larger-than-life paragons of virtue. In Canada, as sad as this sounds, we vehemently worship the only heroes we know: hockey players. From Howe to Richard to Orr to Gretzky to Lemieux to Crosby, we (beyond) idealize these men, we fetishize them. We build them up into godlike figures that (often) bear very little resemblance to the actual men just a generation or two later. Dave Bidini’s latest book, Keon and Me, is just the latest in a long line of hyperbolic hockey hullabaloo.

Dave Keon spent 15 years with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He led the team to four Stanley Cups in the 1960s, including its last Cup ever, in 1967 (during which he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP). He was one of the league’s most skilled, yet gentlemanly, players. And he was author Dave Bidini’s childhood hero.

After the 1974-75 season, Keon was embroiled in a nonsensical contract dispute with the World’s Worst Human®, Leafs’ owner Harold Ballard. Keon never re-signed, and left the NHL in favour of the upstart WHA. In the years since, Keon has all but retired from public life, having appeared as a Leaf only once, in 2007 for the 40th anniversary of their last Cup. To this day, Keon remains in self-exile, having never forgiven Ballard, and the Leafs, for casting him aside after a decade and a half of impeccable service.

Keon and Me is Bidini’s quest to hunt down the long lost heart of the Leafs. The book is much more than that, though.

It’s told in dual narratives: Bidini as an adult during his search for Keon, and Bidini looking back on his childhood as a diehard Keon Leafs fan. Bidini’s hunt for Keon kept me interested, but his awkward third-person re-telling of his past (in which he only refers to himself as “the boy” and “the kid”) seemed to be a half-baked attempt at leveraging society’s obsession with bullying.

As a child, Bidini admired Keon’s commitment to morality—e.g. he only fought once as a Leaf—and, thus, suffered beatings at the hands of bullying Philadelphia Flyers fans. It came off extremely heavy-handed, and attributed to Keon an almost deity-level of self-control and virtue.

Keon was a gentleman, that much can’t be denied. But was he the epitome of proper conduct in the sport? Hardly. In his 15 seasons in the league he won the Lady Byng Trophy—given to the league’s most gentlemanly player—twice. In history, nine men have won the award at least three times. Four have won it four times. Gretzky won it five times. Hell, Frank Boucher won it seven times in eight years back in the 20s. Only four men have won the league MVP and the Lady Byng in the same season. But not Keon. Hell, he never even won the MVP.

I’m not taking anything away from Keon. He was great. He’s a Hall of Famer. Famed broadcaster Harry Neale said that “if you were down by a goal, he was the player you most wanted out on the ice to score. If you were up by a goal, he was the player you most wanted out on the ice to protect the lead. He played a very tough, fierce game, but an honourable game.”

However, Bidini’s unabashed hero worship seems like it’s trying to sell a story that just isn’t all that compelling. The premise of the book is extremely thin, and the payoff isn’t even worth the 300 pages it takes to get there.

Despite what other reviews have said, I don’t think this book transcends hockey fans. I don’t even think it transcends hockey fans in the 1970s. I’m a huge hockey nerd, and even I couldn’t get into Bidini’s search for “the lost soul” of the Leafs. It’s entirely possible I’m simply a generation too late for this story, but if that’s the case, then it’s proof that it doesn’t have enough meat on the bone.

*          *          *          *          *

KEON AND ME BY DAVE BIDINI

Published in 2013 by Viking Canada. The hardcover is 304 pages.

Dave Bidini is a Canadian musician and writer. He was a founding member of the rock band Rheostatics, and currently performs with Bidiniband. He’s the author of 12 books. He loves hockey so much he wrote a weird play about it: Five Hole: Tales of Hockey Erotica.

He is the only Canadian to have been nominated for all three of Canada’s main entertainment awards: the Gemini Award for television work, the Genie Awards for film work and the Juno Awards for music.

Favourite passage: “The team was my albatross and millstone, a heavy thing slumped across my shoulders that I was required, somehow by birth, to carry…while this didn’t hold me back from leading a good life, it didn’t make it better.”

Recommended if you liked Orr: My Story by Bobby Orr, Essex County by Jeff Lemire, A Great Game: The Forgotten Leafs and the Rise of Professional Hockey by Stephen Harper.

*I read Keon and Me as part of Penguin Canada’s Daily December Delights campaign. I received a copy in exchange for an honest review. 

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