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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.

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