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culture

Dave Bidini Talks About Hockey, Canadian Identity, and Childhood Heroes

The 50-year-old writer and musician's latest book, Keon and Me, may be his most personal to date.

Dave Bidini in concert  Photo by Simon Law, from Flickr

Dave Bidini in concert. Photo by Simon Law, from Flickr.

You could call Dave Bidini the quintessential Canadian. He’s written passionately and at length about the sport of ice hockey, and he’s played guitar in the Rheostatics, one of Canada’s hardest-working bands. Heck, he even shows up for our interview in a tattered denim jacket with a “George Bell 1981” pin on the breast pocket. Plus, he sports thick, brown boots on a mild fall day.

Bidini might seem like a classic Canadian, but he doesn’t see it that way. If he were one, it would mean that, as Canadians, we’ve defined exactly who we are. And Bidini, who has been called Canada’s “poet laureate of hockey,” doesn’t believe this is the case.

“A friend of mine who writes for the New York Times said that Canadians use hockey to define themselves too often, and I think that’s true,” he says. “And at the detriment of a lot of our other enthusiasms, including art.”

Bidini’s admission may come as a surprise, given the circumstances. We’re sitting in a café inside what was once one of Canada’s most storied arenas, Maple Leaf Gardens. (Given that Bidini takes sips from a cup of Starbucks coffee he bought in the building and that there’s a full-scale exercise class, complete with pounding electronic music, happening nearby, you could say the place has lost a bit of its lustre.) What’s more, we’re talking about how deeply rooted the game of hockey has become in Canada’s national psyche. If anyone would know, it’s Bidini, whose latest book, Keon and Me (available now, from Viking Canada) examines the relationship he had with his childhood idol, one-time Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dave Keon.

The story is told both from the perspective of a boy following Keon’s every move during the 1974/75 season, and from the perspective of present-day Bidini, as he tries to find the reclusive, retired star. Keon and Me is a moving read. It sheds incredible light on the nature of fandom, and it’s told in Bidini’s now inimitable, swift style.

It’s more personal than Bidini’s past books.

“Someone said it reminded them of Field of Dreams, and I hadn’t thought about that before,” he admits. “But I guess it’s true; someone finds themselves at a crossroads, age-wise, and you also find yourself at an emotional crossroads because you want to study yourself. I was glad that I was face down, trying to force myself to look at that. Because if I didn’t do it then, I might have never done that.”

“That’s one of the great things about sports,” he continues. “Whenever you’re cheering for the team you love, you can’t help but see yourself. I was grateful for that.”

Bidini talks about sports not only with remarkable passion but with clarity, the way the most studious priest might, after accepting that there may be alternatives to religion. A bitter, curmudgeonly old sportswriter he is not: he can still approach sports with a childlike wonder, in a way men half his age (Bidini recently turned 50) simply can’t.

“I kept [Dave Keon] in this comfortable, dry place. It’s like when you have something you put in a box and then you put it away. You know you’re going to look at it someday, you don’t know when, though,” he says.

“It was good though, because when I opened that box, it still contained a lot of mystery and it allowed me to go back and revisit those emotions.”

Telling Keon’s story didn’t come easily to Bidini, though. He details the harsh awakening he had when he realized how the Leafs organization has essentially turned its back on the one-time captain, whom many believe was the greatest player ever to don the blue and white.

“They need to acknowledge Keon, they really do,” Bidini says. “They don’t even acknowledge that he exists. And he’s among the great Leafs in so many ways. And the fact that there’s that gap, that absence—it would be like the Boston Red Sox not acknowledging Ted Williams, someone who was the heart and soul of their team.”

When Bidini chooses a topic to write about, people read in great numbers. He’s the best friend many Canadians never had—the kid who’s smart and slick enough to pass you the answers to a test and not get caught, and the person who will have your back in the biggest of bar fights, wearing his allegiances with an unwavering sense of pride.

Dave Keon is his latest subject, but this book isn’t only for the Toronto Maple Leafs faithful.
“One of the things I was very conscious about was not making this a nostalgia book. I wanted it to be relevant to as many people as possible,” Bidini says.

“I wanted to tell the story so that anyone who hadn’t seen Keon play could still relate.”

And relate they have. Like Dave Keon, Dave Bidini has quietly gone about his work with his head down, influencing a generation of writers and musicians without ever actively commanding the spotlight. Even so, he has always, to borrow a hockey phrase, kept his stick on the ice. Despite his entrance into the post-50 club, a place where many men lose touch with the person they were as a child, he continues to be swept up in his interests. For Bidini, hockey is more than just a game. It’s a language he can use to communicate with the world around him.

“I’m fine with romance,” he admits. “I’ve always been fine with it. It reminds you that you’re alive.”

There will be a launch party for Keon and Me at the Royal Cinema on Friday, October 4, starting at 7:20 p.m.

Comments

  • OgtheDim

    “A friend of mine who writes for the New York Times said that Canadians use hockey to define themselves too often, and I think that’s true,”

    Then shut up about it. And don’t write about it as a defining thing all the flipping time.

    Seriously, every new season there is something about Bidini. He’s the 40 and 50 year old’s version of hip hockey that allows hockey fans to think they are not like their vinyl siding Blue drinking grandpa. Except now, they are getting closer to being a grandpa themselves.

    He might be quiet about it but the drip drip drip of his hockey hipness is grating.

    • OgtheDim

      But I do like his hats.

    • dsmithhfx

      Don Cherry is the living personification of why there is no such animal as “hip hockey”.

    • Sabocat!

      “the quintessential Canadian” doesn’t draw attention to itself.

    • ShabbaRich

      I agree completely. Our so-called hockey “obsession” has become a media construct designed to sell beer and coffee and home improvement products. And books. It is simply not borne out by the facts. For example, Leaf TV broadcasts draw 3 times more viewers than Argonauts games and 4 times more viewers than TFC games, yet the Leafs garner literally hundreds of times more media coverage than those other teams.

      There is a disconnect there. Sure, hockey is our favourite sport, but this so-called hockey obsession is a self-perpetuating myth created by tired journalists too lazy to seek out what kinds of art and culture and other diversions really light the fire of Canadians.

      • tyrannosaurus_rek

        I think it’s less a media fabrication than a holdout from pre-Trudeau-era/pre-urban-shift Canada.

        • dsmithhfx

          So sustaining this delusion decades past its sell-by would be… ?

          • tyrannosaurus_rek

            They didn’t invent the idea that Canadians love(d) hockey.

        • ShabbaRich

          Ah yes, back in the good old days, when we didn’t need Canadian Tire or Tim Hortons ads telling us how much we were supposed to love hockey. And back then, they never, ever would have reported trivialities like a hockey trade on CBC’s The National like they do now. You may be right about wanting to hold onto the past, but it’s the media doing the holding.

          • tyrannosaurus_rek

            I said nothing about intent (“wanting to hold on to the past”), just that it’s assumption people still make absent evidence to the contrary.

      • vampchick21

        So if they draw three times more viewers, then obviously they’re going to get more media mentions. Unless you have a typo in there? Otherwise I don’t really see the complaint?

        • ShabbaRich

          It’s not proportional. 3 and 4 times more viewers than the other sports, yet exponentially more coverage.

          • vampchick21

            Huh? Again, you don’t seem to be making sense. More viewers should equal more coverage, correct? Especially during the actual season? I’m just not understanding your objection, unless it’s because you aren’t a hockey fan and want more coverage for a sports team you do follow.

          • Lloyd_Davis

            I may not agree with ShabbaRich’s premise, but I have no problem understanding it: 3 or 4 times as much interest should be fed by 3 or 4 times as much coverage. Hockey fans are overserved and resources used to cover it disproportionally should be applied to other sports. One might challenge whether that assertion holds true on empirical grounds, but one need not pretend not to understand it.

          • OgtheDim

            Agreed.

            Its largely driven though by the amount of time people spend on the sport. Its been proven that Leaf talk or shows or even mentioning if a player has a cold gets people’s attention.

            That and the CBC is desperate, really really desperate, to not lose the agreement they currently have with the NHL. Which is why the reaction to the slew of pointless fights (which we didn’t get in a shortened season) has been muted from them.

            When, and I think its a when, not an if, the CBC loses that contract, expect the Corp to develop a far more critical eye about the game.

            Until then, there is not a single media conglomerate without an interest in talking about hockey and plugging it as Canadian identity.

    • bobloblawbloblawblah

      You’re absolutely right. There’s nothing hip about hockey and Bidini needs to shut up about it. He is one of the worst offenders when it comes to constantly writing about hockey. I don’t think he’d know what else to write about, though.

  • tongjun

    tinyurl.com/l3cselt