Keon as hero, and hockey hunched around a little TV

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By Rosalie MacEachern

For The News

Some of us who were children when the National Hockey League had six teams were never really able to take expansion in stride. Some have spent decades lamenting the loss of truly great rivalries while others, like me, just drifted away. 

If you were raised in a home where Saturday night was synonymous with hockey you had to declare yourself for one of the six teams by the time you could talk. Blue was my favourite colour so I was a Leafs fan. It was way more complicated for kids who preferred red.

My grandparents’ kitchen had a big round wooden table – big enough to have accommodated eight children – and above it I remember a glossy, giant-sized 1967 Toronto Maple Leafs calendar. Most players did not get a page to themselves but the soon-forgotten Britt Selby, 1965-66 rookie of the year, did. And so did Dave Keon, a by that time three-time Stanley Cup winner with the Leafs, who led them to another championship that year.

Sports columnist Dick Beddoes once mused that watching Keon skate was one of life’s purest pleasures.

Conn Smythe, who owned the Leafs from 1927 to 1961, believed you could not beat an opponent on the ice unless you could beat him out behind the rink. He once said if a player on his team ever won the Lady Byng trophy for sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct, he would fire him. In one of hockey’s great ironies, Keon, who won the Lady Byng in 1962 and 1963, also won the Conn Smythe Trophy, as the most valuable player to his team in the 1967 playoffs.

Things soured between Keon and the Leafs under the infamous Harold Ballard, arguably the most detested owner in the history of the game. To this day Keon remains estranged from the Leafs’ organization. While he epitomizes the team’s never-repeated glory days and is revered by many, there are others who think it is past time he got over what happened in the 1970s. Keon, for the most part, maintains his position and his silence.

Writer Dave Bidini was a kid in 1967, a Leafs fan, and Keon was his hero. As a boy from that era might, he modelled his behaviour after his talented and disciplined hero. When badgered by a schoolyard bully, he asked himself what Keon would do. The answer seemed simple enough. Throughout his 22-year career, Keon was in one fight, in his last game as a Leaf. As hockey fights go, it barely registered.

Decades later, a much older Bidini pulled on a ragged Leafs sweatshirt and headed down a Toronto street only to be come upon a loud, angry foursome, all sporting Leaf sweaters. Bidini, nervous of provoking them, offered commiseration over a 1-0 loss to Florida the night before. They shared a two-word assessment of their team and as they walked away Bidini saw, across the back of a sweater, a name he hadn’t thought of in years, Keon.

Keon and Me (Viking, $30 hardcover) is two stories, one of the young Bidini’s adolescent angst and the other of his relentless pursuit of the elusive, enigmatic Keon.

If you can remember whole families hunched around a single television, Victoriaville wooden hockey sticks, hockey cards that came from Mom and Pop stores instead of Wal-Mart, playoffs that finished at the end of winter and the Leafs carrying off the Stanley Cup, this book may be one of life’s purest pleasures.  

Organizations: National Hockey League, Toronto Maple Leafs, Wal-Mart

Geographic location: Toronto, Florida

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