Sunday, January 12, 2014

Book Review: Keon and Me

dave keon leafs book
For decades, quite possibly the greatest player in Leafs history, Dave Keon, has been on self-imposed exile from the team. In Keon and Me: My Search for the Lost Soul of the Leafs, Dave Bidini goes searching for the Maple Leaf legend.

Bidini is the author of a number of books on sports, music, and travel, he writes a column for The National Post, and he's also a founding member of the Rheostatics, who wrote The Ballad of Wendel Clark. He also posed in the buff for Bare it for Books, a not-for-profit calendar with nude Canadian authors, in which profits are donated to Pen Canada (calendars are on sale for 50% off, by the way). He's prodigious to say the least.

The subject of Bidini's latest book has been a mysterious figure in Leafs history for decades. Although Keon doesn't have the eye-popping personal statistics like Darryl Sittler or Mats Sundin, and he doesn't evoke the same misty-eyed reverence like either Doug Gilmour or Wendel Clark, he still might be the most important figure in Leafs history. Keon was a four-time Stanley Cup winner, including the Leafs last one in 1967, and was one of the NHL's most complete two-way players in the 60s and 70s. When reading Keon and Me it's hard not to picture Jonathan Toews.

Much of the mystery surrounding Keon is due to his bitter falling out with the Leafs and later exile, which mainly stem from the shabby treatment he received from the universally awful Harold Ballard. Since departing from Toronto after the 1974-75 season, Keon has had little to do with the team. Even after retirement he has spent most of his time in Florida, and has declined almost all invitations to reunite with the team, even after Ballard's passing.

With the post-lockout Leafs performing so dreadfully, Bidini starts thinking of better times, which lead to thoughts of Keon. Before long Bidini decides to embark on the monumental task of reaching out to the former captain, even though many have tried previously with little success.

Keon and Me is not your typical sports book. Bidini weaves two stories simultaneously. One, set in the present, describes what Keon meant to the Maple Leafs and why his absence hangs ominously over the team. The second, and more important, story is set in 1974, when Bidini was a child, and expresses what Keon meant to him growing up, and how the stoic Keon helped him fight back against Bidini's schoolyard tormenter.

The stories alternate between chapters, and although the switch in perspective can be initially disorienting (Bidini describes his life growing up as if he was an outsider and refers to himself as "the boy"), by the end of book the decision is ultimately satisfying.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the book is Bidini's wonderfully descriptive wit. Bidini goes after both the evil Philadelphia Flyers and the loathsome Harold Ballard with the same humourous zeal. Writing from the boy's perspective, Bidini describes Ballard as a "lardhead with ears like hideous mushrooms and a drooping-testicles chin." There's more over-the-top insults littered throughout.

I'm a sucker for coming-of-age stories, and although the subject of the book is Keon, the story is really more of a memoir about growing up in Toronto, glossing over none of the sadness that is often such a necessary part of growing up.

You can purchase Keon and Me: My Search for the Lost Soul of the Leafs on Amazon in either hardcover or Kindle format.

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