Dave Bidini, in his newest offering “Keon and Me”, imagines the triumphant return of estranged Maple Leaf Dave Keon to a Toronto sports organization and city that could use a healthy dose of sports catharsis.
Bidini, author of other hockey books such as “Tropic of Hockey” and “The Best Game You Can Name” craftily weaves together a personal memoir with a biography of the most decorated Leaf in the team’s history.
Based in the NHL’s 1974–75 season, the 11-year old Bidini encounters a school-yard bully (a Philadelphia Flyers fan, of course) and refuses to fight back—a tenet of the Dave Keon book of morality.
But as Keon plays out his final season with the Maple Leafs, and as his relationship with the owner and organization deteriorate, Keon is faced with his own bully—one that he would not back down from—and yet in the process, would place himself in personal exile that he has barely peeked out from ever since.
The boy and his hero, then, both experience at the same time a period of change and transformation, a parallel brought together in this creative piece of non-fiction.
From “Keon and Me”:
“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.”
Bidini’s aim in the book is to help fill the void in the Leafs organization and the city left by the exiled hall-of-famer. Keon’s relationship with then Leafs owner Harold Ballard has soured (and remains so) to the point where he will refuse almost all invitations and offerings from the Toronto club, that hasn’t won a championship since Keon won the Conn Smythe in 1967.
Keon would win four Stanley Cups with Toronto along with two Lady Byng trophies as the NHL’s most gentlemanly player. Keon’s ability to play virtuous hockey and take endless physical abuse while remaining a practically penalty-free player inspires the boy not to fight back against his tormentor. As the story unfolds though, he comes to realize that changes are coming for both him and his hero.
From “Keon and Me”:
“[Keon] was a superstar for not fighting back…as a boy, I’d believed that I could build a life using Keon’s principles.”
The blind love young Bidini has for his team does not allow him to see that praising Keon for pacifism becomes an excuse not to stand up for what he already knows is right. Keon’s stubbornness is simultaneously courageous and limiting as interviews with former Leafs teammates reveal that his exile is a mystery even to them.
So when Bidini’s school-age friends begin to doubt an aging Keon (who gets in his first career fight in his last regular season game in Toronto) young Bidini is forced to see things differently.
“Number 14 Honored”
What Bidini wishes to accomplish, among other things, is to see Keon’s No. 14 honoured at the Air Canada Centre by the Leafs. All the greats are already there. Ace Bailey, Bill Barilko, Darryl Sittler, Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark, and more have a place in the rafters.
Many will remember that when Cliff Fletcher took over the team in 1992, he made a point of bringing history back to the city and organization. He retired the numbers of Bailey and Barilko, deciding to honour the history of a team that was coming out of the Ballard years.
Rather than turn away, Bidini would have Toronto face its past: The good, the bad, and the shameful parts. Bidini makes peace with both the bully in his life and with the millstone that he proudly carries. Keon stood up to Ballard but ultimately turned his back on the team for his own reasons.
Keon’s is a lesson that many hockey players today could learn from: The strength of character to turn the other cheek in a game of sharks. But again, Bidini helps Keon to face his past and the results are that kind of life-affirming sports catharsis that the people of Toronto have long been waiting for.