Dave Bidini Q&A: Best and worst of ’80s hockey

Calgary Flames' Joel Otto (left) jousts with Edmonton Oilers' Steve Smith during NHL playoff action in Calgary, Apr.16, 1991. (Mike Ridewood/CP)

When he’s not writing books (Tropic of Hockey, Keon and Me: My Search for the Lost Soul of the Toronto Maple Leafs) his column in the National Post, rocking stages (Rheostatics, Bidiniband) or tweeting opinions on our game through his @hockeyesque account, Dave Bidini has been busy recruiting musicians and players for Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada.

With Halifax ready to host the Feb. 14 event, we caught up with the multi-talented artist and well-informed member of Leafs Nation to discuss road-tripping with Wendel Clark, why Leafs Nation is ready to rebuild, and how the angelic Claude Lemieux could have been a Quebecois pop star.


So… how ’bout those Leafs?
What’s there to say? People tried to engage me over the weekend, but I don’t even want to talk about it anymore. I’m going on the record as having zero opinion. Nobody really knows anything. I think the Leafs have proven that, right?

How would you compare this bad stretch to other low points you’ve endured as a longtime fan?
That’s a good question. There’s a little bit in Keon & Me where I talk about how the teams in the ’80s were awful, but there was a year the Leafs led the league in both goals scored and goals against. The Hounds – Courtnall, Clark, Leeman, Iafrate – were a wildly undisciplined, defensively porous team, but every now and then they’d beat you 11-8. And John Brophy was the coach. Was John Brophy a good coach? I don’t know, but he was insane. That’s something. And lovable in his own way.

They flamed out gloriously. And I would say the “18-wheeler” year was a spectacular failure, but this year is like… f—. It’s like a dull flame, not a supernova of failure. It’s a real dud, a slow, prolonged death.

This is an interesting window into the character of the team and the players on the team. Eric Staal shoots a puck at Dion Phaneuf. We all, in a strange way, would’ve been nourished if he had f—— gone after him or fought the bench. If ever there was a moment!

I’m totally not for Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren on this team, but maybe they would’ve done something gloriously stupid by this point and given us something to chew on. In that way, it’s worse (than other bad seasons) because it’s so dull, so sterile—as opposed to a deep infection.

Let’s be optimistic. What bright spots do you see?
I like the players. I like the 10-1-1 times. (Daniel) Winnik and (Mike) Santorelli and (Nazem) Kadri were admirable. But I think the silver lining, really, is management. Where we are now with the Leafs losing and being deeply boring for all the wrong reasons might tip the hand of Brendan Shanahan to completely tear it apart and build the team up the way those Jays teams were built in the ’80s or the present-day Raptors.

Even if it’s a journey that doesn’t result in a championship, I do think Leafs fans can’t be any less magnetized than they are now by the team. I would cheer young; I would cheer unfulfilled promised.

A teardown would be really interesting, and it would give us lots to talk about during the teardown and certainly after it. That whole thing where people say Toronto fans won’t tolerate a rebuild is total bullshit. We did see rebuilds with the Jays.

How has hockey fandom changed over the years?
My dad would’ve taken me to my first game in 1970. And the Gardens was like a church – a very sanctified place, to a fault. Church-mouse-quiet crowds. Very Presbyterian. Then you saw through the ’70s and’ 80s more profanity in the rink.

I remember a “f— you” fight when I was sitting there with my girlfriend. Some guy swore at the Leafs, and another guy stood up and chastised him for swearing. When would that ever happen today? Next thing you know, a drunk is falling on the field at SkyDome and Opening Day becomes a nightmare – because that was never a thing from ’77 till when they moved to the SkyDome.

Opening Day used to be great. Now it’s a gong show. Then you get Rob Ford and bigoted statements, P.K. Subban and racist taunts, and now the sweater toss. I do think there is a change in general. Part of it is Toronto being liberated from itself, and the good thing is you’ll get thousands of people in the street going to Yonge-Dundas Square to see a weird band.

As we’re coming out of our skin, you get what you get at stadiums but you also end up with an incredible city full of life.

“That whole thing where people say Toronto fans won’t tolerate a rebuild is total b.s.”

Ever been star-struck meeting an athlete?
I think I’ve met all my heroes, and they were all nice to me. I think most people realize they won the lottery by doing what they love to do in their lives. That speaks positively about humanity in general.

I went with Wendel (Clark) to Kelvington (Saskatchewan) last February to do a thing for Hockey Day, returning to where he grew up. CBC said to me: “You and Wendel and a cameraman, two days on the Prairies, going across Saskatchewan.”

I’d never met him before, and we did the song about him. But it didn’t take long to think, oh, I can do this. Not long after being with him, he was making jokes, and he told stories about everyone.

That was nice – to hear him so unfiltered.

When you are anxious, it can produce great stuff. Sometimes you can be too relaxed if you’re with someone you admire. I can’t be a fanboy with this Hockey Day concert. When the Rheostatics, my old band, had (drumming legend) Neil Peart from Rush come in and play on one of our records, I got the band together and said, “F—, man. If we’re dweebs about this, he’s not going to be comfortable.”

So, for the most part, we were cool – and it worked because of that.

Do you have a second favourite NHL team?
No, I don’t.

Is there a storyline or moment from this season that has stuck out to you?
I do cheer for the Alberta teams. The Leafs being bad in the ’80s, it was hard to find great hockey. I hated hockey for about 10 years, then got back really hard into it around 1984.

Watching the Battle of Alberta, it was terrifying hockey but it was so sweetly beautiful. It was everything. As a result, if the (Oilers or Flames) are ever playing, I will cheer for them.

Those Smythe Division games would start at 9:30 or 10 p.m. ET, and you’d mostly only see them in the playoffs. You’d be at a buddy’s place, you’d be on your third or fourth beer, you’d be partying, having a great time—and there’s the hockey game. And it’s f—— incredible hockey. Johnny Gaudreau scored the hat trick against the Kings this year. Small guy, comeback – that was a great little moment this year.

If you turn any player from another team into a Leaf, who would you pick?
I like Devante Smith-Pelly a lot. I would love to have a black hockey player on our team just because of what our city is. The obvious answer to that is P.K. Subban. I mean, f—. I love P.K. Subban. I like Pelly-Smith a lot. Love the way he plays, and I think he’s going to get better and better. He’s on a cool team and has great linemates. Those two dudes are amazing.

What’s your opinion on tanking?
This year they should, for sure. F—, yeah. Big time. Maybe not every year. From what we saw at the world juniors, if you can fall anywhere between one and five or one and six, I think you’re in good shape. It’s a great year to tear down. Lots of pieces to pick up. If it means an infusion of new life, new ideas, I’m all for that.

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