Bidini and me

It was an adjustment, coming as it did in the midst of an NHL season poised to sprint to a too-close-to-call finish. And there is something slightly wrong about all Canadians cheering for the same team. But our men and women did us proud, and we are grateful. Now, it’s time to return to our separate heroes and villains. Friends no more — as it should be.

It was in the spirit of that short-lived truce that I called one Dave Bidini, barely an hour after the completion of Canada’s victory over the Americans. In the absence of real NHL hockey, I had immersed myself in the prolific author and veteran musician’s latest ode to the best game you can name. I had anticipated a tough read, based on the book’s title — Keon and Me — and Bidini’s unabashed love for the Toronto Maple Leafs, for whom Keon may well have been the greatest player to don the uniform. I can’t say a book about the Leafs has ever been on my wishlist. But Bidini is an author I trust, a man passionate and knowledgeable about the game of hockey and a weaver of memorable true stories. Besides, as mentioned, we were all pulling for the same team — if only briefly.KeonandMe

Which seemed a good place to start a conversation that would ultimately turn to the Leafs’ glory days. And beyond.

“By the third period,” Bidini observed of the game we had just watched, “the States had nothing in them.”

He did not know how right he was. The States carried that nothing through three additional periods before quietly bowing out as something of a national embarrassment. Or, what would have been a national embarrassment if Americans cared about the Winter Olympics. Or hockey.

Then again, perhaps Bidini did know how right he was. The man knows hockey.

Always has, as becomes clear early in the then-and-now memoir that is Keon and Me, a book that darts effortlessly between less than rose-coloured glimpses of the author’s childhood and a persistent present-day search for the title Leaf errant. It’s a fascinating twin tale that, as predicted, proved to be a tough read. Not, as it turns out, as a result of an excess of expressed Leafs love, but a tough read due to the honesty and intimacy with which Bidini reveals vicarious on-ice heroics and personal off-ice beatings. This is no celebration of the past: Bidini focuses on a year etched in his memory as that of Keon’s bitter public farewell to a team that no longer valued his contributions, and the author’s private torment at the hands of a relentless schoolyard bully named Roscoe.

By juxtaposing those painful childhood experiences with a seemingly fruitless quest to find Keon and persuade him to once again accept an organization he continues to shun, Bidini over the course of 295 at times harrowing (and at times thrilling) pages, comes to realize his hero is not the only one in need of reconciliation with the past. Soon, the search for Keon is temporarily sidetracked by a search for Roscoe. Those memories, meanwhile, draw parallels between a refusal to fight (“the boy,” as Bidini calls his young self, taking a non-violent resistance page from Keon) and the triumph of the legendarily thuggish mid-1970s Philadelphia Flyers. But then, Bidini concedes, his beloved hometeam also had its share of goons during that ugly era — not least, then Leafs owner Harold Ballard.

As a villain, Ballard emerges in Keon and Me as every bit the larger-than-life equal of Roscoe. And, I suggested during our chat, the author’s description of Ballard as “an avaricious thug in a brown suit and ugly tie” sounds rather a lot like the also-reviled man now leading the City of Toronto.

“That’s true,” Bidini said with a laugh. “I never thought of that.” Though, he added, “Ballard was such a different age. Ballard never would have been called out the way Rob Ford is now. Really, he probably had more power than the mayor of Toronto.”

And he did not use it for good. On that, all hockey fans agree. Throughout Keon and Me, Bidini questions his continuing love for a team that invariably disappoints. Yet, I reluctantly reminded him, the Leafs of 2013-14 have so far met or exceeded expectations. And we are, you’ll remember, about to sprint to the finish line.

“It’s been fun to follow,” he enthused. “They’ve kind of bent but not broken. They’re a freewheeling team with talent. We’ll see what happens.”

For a Leafs fan, that counts as optimism — tempered by realism born of a lifetime’s worth of hockey disappointments, seemingly beginning with the departure of Dave Keon at a time when the boy needed him most.

“It was going to be a little more distant and a little less personal,” Bidini revealed of his book. “Both sections were originally going to be in the third person, but I was persuaded otherwise. And it’s a better book for it. Part of it is just coming to terms with those feelings. It’s a cliché I know to say you have to own your feelings. But it’s true. You do have to own your own misfortune. That’s how I look back on it, and that’s also been largely the story of being a Leafs fan lately.”And so, Bidini added, he has come to terms with the past. That is made clear in Keon and Me as even Roscoe is presented as a sympathetic character, an unloved child as much a victim of a harsh world as those he preyed upon. Yet, ultimately Roscoe commands little sympathy — his role in the story is, after all, to throw punches at the author so hard the boy loses control of bodily functions. Embarrassed and ashamed, he could not work up the courage to tell an adult of his torment. Until now. It was a different time for bullying, as it was a different time for hockey. Today’s bullies are arguably greater cowards, able to hide behind a cloak of online anonymity. But Roscoe’s physical and emotional abuse is no less hurtful and terrifying. With each beating, the boy refuses to fight back, reasoning that Dave Keon had not dropped the gloves. Ever. Through 14 NHL seasons.

“I remember coaches telling kids about Keon and encouraging them to learn from the way he conducted himself,” Bidini confirmed. “You know, you think about that era as men were men and there was honour in being tough. But there was honour in playing the game the way Keon did. And he was not alone; he by no means was the only player like that. That was helpful to me. That was the code that I lived by. I didn’t fight back. But I also might have decided not to fight back because I was afraid of what would have happened if I had.”

With Keon and Me, Bidini brings those terrible encounters back to life, all too vividly.

Which, of course, cannot help but instill in the reader a curiosity as to whether, somewhere in the Toronto area, Roscoe is reading or has at least been informed of Keon and Me, a book that paints him as the most villainous among a cast of villains that includes Reg Leach, Dave Schultz and of course Harold Ballard. In a sense, Keon and Me‘s revelations are the man’s way of finally fighting back for the boy. And winning.

Bidini, who chose not to confront Roscoe directly during his pursuit, has surely wondered as much.

“I didn’t end up approaching him,” he reported, “and he might not want to approach the book for the same reason. It was a long time ago and we’re adults now. He may have come to terms with it in his own way. Or maybe that whole time for him has been erased. Maybe he’s never even given it a second thought.”Regardless, Roscoe has not been in touch.

“In other books,” Bidini said, “people have found me. Somebody knows somebody who knows somebody in the book. That hasn’t happened yet with this one.”

We do meet a number of one-time hockey greats in the pages of Keon and Me, each sharing recollections of the man whose sweater, remarkably, has yet to be hoisted to the rafters at the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Most suggest Keon’s stance may have softened. After all, the bullying of Keon, too, was a long time ago. Bidini the hockey scribe is often reminded of that passing of time, noting during our conversation that an encounter with the feared Dave Schultz revealed that even the most thuggish of the Broad Street Bullies is now “just a soft, confused old man.” The Leafs, meanwhile, have become “very, very corporate,” fans at the rink replaced by “lawyers — a lot of suits.”

Yet hockey remains the game of our lives. And as our favourite teams prepare to return to action, we are primed for a great homestretch. For my part, I am grateful for the break in the action that enabled me to journey to another era — one of joy and pain — and to share in the lessons learned by the author, the boy, the man.

As for the musician, Bidini is preparing for his own playoff run; a new Bidiniband album will be released at the end of May. I hope we can talk again when that happens — about music, about hockey, and about how the real world intersects with and informs both.

Now let’s get ready for some hockey, as the, uh, Carolina Hurricanes challenge the Buffalo Sabres.

Yes, well, it’s still good to have NHL hockey back.

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