The Power of Memory – Dave Bidini’s “Keon and Me”

Stan Smyl - 1980-81 OPC

The Stanley Steamer – author of one of my favourite hockey memories

One of the coolest things I ever saw in a hockey game happened during the 1982 Stanley Cup Final.

The Canucks had only been a 75-point team that season. By today’s standards, they weren’t even a playoff team. In those days, though, only five of 21 teams wouldn’t see the post-season and the Canucks caught fire at the right moment, knocking off Calgary, LA and Chicago before meeting up with reality in the form of the mighty New York Islanders.  They held tough for a couple of games, but it soon became clear that the clock had struck midnight, Cinderella’s carriage was again a pumpkin and this story was to lack a happy ending.

The moment I remember came from one of the two Vancouver games.  The Canucks were being run ragged in their own zone, the Islanders toying with them like a hockey version of the Harlem Globetrotters.  Three Canucks ended up losing their sticks as they scrambled to keep up with the play. Finally, mercifully, the puck wound up on the right-wing boards in the feet of the Canucks’ Stan “the Stanley Steamer” Smyl, himself amongst the stick-challenged.

Any sane individual would have fallen on it and gotten the heck off the ice.

Steamer started a rush.

Kicking the puck from skate to skate, Smyl came out across his own blue line and approached centre.  To make things better, three Canucks jumped in with him – and between the four of them, there was the grand total of one stick.  The crowd, of course, saw this and went bananas.  It was absolutely wild.  The Islanders defenseman, maybe unsure of just what on earth he was seeing, backed off, giving up first the red line, then his own blue line.  Smyl kept advancing – kick, kick, kick, kick.

As he gained the Islanders’ zone, Smyl hoofed the puck over to centre, where the one player who actually had a stick rifled it at the net.

He didn’t score, of course.  I don’t know whether the shot even made it through.  It didn’t matter.  It was one of the best “in your face, I ain’t quittin’” moments I have ever seen.  It’s a go-to memory for any time I think of someone who just refused to give up, no matter how absurd the odds were stacked against him.  It made me a Stan Smyl fan for life.

A year or so ago, I was wandering around the internets and happened across a youtube video containing bits and pieces of Game Three or Four (again, can’t recall which and I can’t be bothered to look because it isn’t relevant at the moment) and started to watch.  Part-way through, a familiar sequence started taking shape.  The Isles were cruising, the Canucks scrambling.  Sticks started dropping.  My heart jumped. “This is it!” I thought.  After 30 years, I was finally going to see this moment again.  I watched, entranced, as the play unfolded exactly as I remembered it….

…right up to the moment the Islanders scored.  The Canucks then began recovering their equipment and skating dejectedly to the bench.

It became clear to me at that moment that what I had done for the past 30 years was to conflate two memories.  In one, the stickless Canucks were skating around like chickens sans heads.  In the other, a stickless Stan Smyl rushed the puck.  (I see this too vividly for it to be created out of whole cloth -at least I hope so).  I think they both happened, just not together.  The Smyl rush probably happened later and someone must have remarked, “Hey he has no stick again!” and my brain did the rest.  The great memory I had was of something that didn’t actually happen – at least not in the manner I thought.

For ages, I’ve been fascinated with the subject of memory, the stories that people tell and the way that they are told.  It influences the sorts of things I collect, the things I watch on TV.  It was the subject of the first half of my thesis and an influence on the second half.  It has coloured most everything I’ve written about over the past ten years or so on the net.  I’m continually looking at what we remember, how we remember it, the way we deal with it and how it influences our lives, yet I rarely devote a lot of time to the fragility of memory and the sheer number of times we get things wrong.

What happens when a memory simply isn’t true?

Dave Keon - 1974-75 OPC

Dave Keon’s last card with the Leafs – 1974-75 OPC

It’s unusual that I fall in love with a book before it has even been printed, but this is what happened with Dave Bidini’s Keon and Me.

I’ve only been exposed to Dave’s writing for a year or so, being more familiar with his music.  His style is something I find directly appealing – sort of a personal whimsy wrapped around a real point and garnished with memories of personal and cultural relevance.  It’s basically a publishable version of what I’ve tried to do for years.  I now make a point of reading his articles in the Post whenever I see them.  When I heard he was coming out with a new book dealing with the exit of Dave Keon and the karmic damage this had done to the Leafs, I knew that a) it would be brilliant and b) I had to have it.

Eventually, the book became available for pre-order on amazon.  I read the little blurb describing the book.  It was tantalizing:

Hockey is the lens through which we see our lives—how we measure right and wrong, how we understand our hopes and fears. So it was for Dave Bidini in 1974, the last year Dave Keon played in Toronto. In a new grade in a new school, Bidini found himself the victim of a bully—a depredation he could understand only by thinking about what the Leafs dauntless captain went through game after game.

Throughout his twenty-two-year career, Keon was only in one hockey fight, in his last game as a Leaf on April 22, 1974. It was on this day that the eleven-year-old Bidini decided to fight back, an occasion that the writer looks back on with breathtaking courage and honesty. But while Bidini would remain a blue-blooded Leafs fan into adulthood, Keon became estranged from the franchise with which he’d won four Stanley Cups, two Lady Byngs, and the first ever Conn Smythe Trophy in 1967.

Told in two narratives—one from the point of view of the young Bidini growing up in Toronto in the early 70s and one from the perspective of the man looking for his absent hero—Keon and Me tells not only the story of a hockey icon who has haunted Toronto for decades, but of a life lived in parallel to Keon’s. It’s the story of cultural change, an account of the tribulations of the NHL’s most beloved (and most despised) franchise in the decades since Keon left under a cloud, and most of all, it is a story of growing up, with all the wisdom and sadness that imparts.

Part ode to a legendary hockey player, part memoir, Keon and Me captures what we all cherish in the game we love and the importance of the innocence we cling to long after the cheers have faded.

This is my sort of thing, of course, for reasons I’ll get into.

There was just one issue – one single thing that went clank as I read it.  The historian in me hit this and balked:

Keon was only in one hockey fight, in his last game as a Leaf on April 22, 1974.

Keon was in just one fight.  I knew this already.  It happened against Greg Sheppard of the Bruins – himself not much of a fighter.  I once saw Keon talking about it (on Don Cherry’s old Grapevine show, maybe?), explaining how once the fight was over, he didn’t really know what to do and needed to be told to get his things together and go to the penalty box.  It was a good story.  The only issue with it is that it didn’t happen in his last game as a Leaf – it was just the last regular-season game of 1973-74.  (Also, it was April 8, not April 22.)   Dave Keon’s real last game - a 1975 playoff game against the Flyers - wouldn’t come for another full season.

Uh oh.

I rationalized this.  The odds that Bidini wrote his own blurb were minimal and who knew how closely that person had read the story?  At the same time, it was upsetting.  What if this event was central to the story being told and it wasn’t actually correct?  What would it mean?

I didn’t pre-order the book.  I waited for it to come out and then I found one at the store.  I picked one up and read the dust jacket.  Clank.  It was there again.  It was the same text that amazon had, bad date and all.  I put the book back.  This was upsetting.

It took me a couple of days to order my copy.  Once it got to me, I no longer cared about the error.  I would read it and find out for myself.

A new book is a special treat.  It’s all promise and opportunity.  I savoured this one a little bit, enjoying the half-hidden image of the player who could only be Keon, but was cloaked in mystery.  I ran my fingers along the raised letters on the cover.  I then squirreled it away like a forbidden candy, reading it in three bursts, two as I put the kids to sleep and the third in a stolen moment by the lake.

The book is brilliant, of course,  I expected no less.  It helps that I can see a lot of myself in the young Bidini.  I was also a quieter kid that had some trouble with bullies.  I also had the experiences of social redemption through hockey.  Like Dave, I was even the one tabbed to play goal in crucial neighbourhood games.  I recognized a lot of this.  I know the feeling of facing the bully head-to-head on the sporting field and coming away with the win.  I lived the moment of fighting back.  I’ve shared the experience of seeing the tormentor years later and realizing that there’s nothing there any longer, no anger to hold on to.  These are feelings common to many of us, I suspect.

The thing that I didn’t know and the what I particularly gained from this book was the experience of Keon.  I never got to know Keon the way Bidini did and this was a revelation to me.

Sadly for me, this is how I remember Dave Keon

When I was first really getting into hockey, Dave Keon was an aging member of the Hartford Whalers.  On the first card of his that I had, he wore the expression of a man who had just had a warm turd waved under his nose.  My friends and I found this a source of great amusement.  I showed this card to my mother, who said quietly and maybe a little wistfully, “He was my favourite.”  She was a little surprised he was still playing.

For me, Keon was a player I’d learned to appreciate intellectually.  I knew that those who had watched him ranked him among the best they’d ever seen in blue and white.  It mattered a lot to me that he came back for the 40th aniversary celebrations in 2007, as it was clearly an important moment.  Yet somehow, I never really felt the emotional connection.  I never knew why I needed to love Dave Keon..  This is what this book gave to me and this is why I was so glad to read it.  I needed this book, because lately I hadn’t been feeling the Leaf magic either.  This helped bring it back to me.

Dave Keon - 1966-67 Topps

Dave Keon’s 1966-67 card – the year he’d win the Conn Smythe as Playoff MVP

It’s the knack of a great storyteller to be able to make the reader feel part of the story.  Dave Bidini’s ability here was to make the child that he was familiar to the child that I was, to make me understand his growth in the context of my own, and thus to make me appreciate the impact of the things he saw and felt that I had not.  Being able to relate to him let me relate to what he felt in a way that no straight hockey book (of which I’ve read innumerable) could do.

It’s interesting that even as the story approached its end, I had no idea whether he would actually find and meet Keon, and I wasn’t even certain that it mattered.  This seemed very much a journey that would be completed just through the effort of starting it.  All the growth and the conflict resolution happens along the way, to the point where the ultimate goal almost becomes unnecessary.  It’s kind of a variation of the confrontation with the bully, where you finally realize that he no longer has any hold on you and you gain the freedom to simply walk away.  The finality of a confrontation, even though it’s a narrative staple, wasn’t really required.  The search for Keon is simply a search for self expressed through this dream of a hockey player and I’m not dead certain you fully need the one to find the other.

Still, the one thing that nagged me was the issue of the fight.  Would it turn out to a be key moment in the story, and if so, what would it mean that it didn’t happen when the dust jacket said it did?  This was the one cloud that hung out there over the horizon for me.

As it turned out, it didn’t really matter.  Keon’s fight was always going to be used as a metaphor and it was handled just fine.  The sequence of events was less important than the fact that they happened and how they informed his thoughts and actions.  I found myself OK with this.

All the same, on the last page, once the story was done and told, Bidini made a little wink and a nod that, if not for me personally, was certainly aimed at people like me.  He said this:

Also, timelines have been slightly shuffled and names changed wherever required.  Most of the prose remains as true to non-fiction as possible, if toeing the waters of what someexperts have taken to calling “creative non-fiction.”

It wasn’t bad memory, it was artistic license.  It’s not the sequence that matters, it’s the significance, it’s what the memories mean and how they help tell the story that makes them valuable.  The person who wrote the dust jacket might not have picked up on it, but Dave Bidini certainly knew, and for this I was glad.

Good thing, because the date of the Salming/Bridgman fight was wrong, too.  Just saying.

One thought on “The Power of Memory – Dave Bidini’s “Keon and Me”

  1. Well done. Love Dave’s work – music and writing – and love your take on the new book and how our memories ‘mean’ more to us than the literal events that provoked them. Tx!

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