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Bobby Orr and Dave Keon: How memoirs give depth to the sports icons we love

Bobby Orr goes into orbit after scoring the goal that won the Stanley Cup for the Boston Bruins, May 10,1970, against the St. Louis Blues at Boston Garden.


Orr: My Story

By Bobby Orr

Penguin Books Canada, 340 pages, $32.00

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Keon and Me: My Search for the Lost Soul of the Leafs

By Dave Bidini

Viking Canada, 304 pages, $30.00

For those who love sports, Christmas arrives in October, as swiftly and joyfully as a game-winning slap shot in overtime, a World Series home run, a Hail Mary completion as the clock runs down.

Hockey returns. Major League baseball playoffs are underway. Basketball begins to warm up. Football thrills across its many leagues, from the pros to college on both sides of the border.

It's also a wonderful time of year for those who love to read, and read about sports, as autumn traditionally introduces a full schedule of memoirs and assorted writings on the subject.

Orr: My Story, the long awaited autobiography from hockey legend Bobby Orr was published this week, preceded earlier this month by a smaller gem, Keon and Me: My Search for the Lost Soul of the Leafs, from Dave Bidini, the Toronto writer, musician and long-suffering Maple Leafs fan.

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Together, these books represent two ends of the sports memoir spectrum. Orr, the Hall of Fame defenceman, two-time Stanley Cup winner and focal point of the most famous photograph in sports, has a big story to tell. Bidini's narrative is more intimate, but they have much in common – lives lived in large and small ways; disappointment, fear, courage, triumph and, ultimately, love.

Sports and the books they have inspired capture our imagination in such a personal way. A great and even merely good sports memoir, like any biography, pulls back the curtain, reveals things previously unseen or unknown, feelings, intimacies rarely shown.

But it's a tough genre to get right, particularly these days, when pursuits are played out in high definition every day, every night, re-run in highlight form, dissected by analysts and commentators, hyped and shared, often by athletes themselves. Yet the way those same athletes are heard by the majority of sports fans – in sound bites and clichés – makes them seem both one-dimensional and larger than life; sports stars are at once more accessible to us and yet far less so. Always there, yet more shallowly so.

For every articulate and complex R.A. Dickey, there are scores of single-minded, unworldly sportsmen who actually aren't that interesting, possibly owing to youth, but possibly not. They just want to play, and win. It's what they tell us, time and again.

But most of what makes sports meaningful can't be found on television or Twitter or in a post-game interview. Meaning, what we take from the sports we watch and athletes we cheer is born and nurtured in the space between our lives and theirs. A sports book can provide a quiet meeting place.

These spaces are tucked in the pages of both the Orr and Bidini efforts, though each reader's interpretations of them will be different, somehow profoundly personal yet universal. Ultimately, a good sports story emerges from the intersection of physical feat and insight.

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We love reading about our athletic heroes because when the storytelling is done right, it allows us to dream and recall moments in our lives. They might be magic, or they might be desperate failures. They might be perfectly ordinary.

"It's the thread that winds through your life from childhood to adulthood," Bidini said, over lunch. "It's a romance. As you age, it's harder to keep cynicism at bay, and one of the things that sports does is leaven the cynicism."

Successful professional athletes possess unimaginable focus and determination, the ability to fail and try again, often robotically until success comes back around, then to be followed by failure, an endless loop of trying. We are awestruck by the show, the prowess, the physical achievements. We are drawn to it because it's alien to us.

Sports is largely about success, but at its most interesting it is about failure: Orr's brilliant, truncated hockey career, the way Dave Keon was treated by the Harold Ballard-era Leafs. We have felt that way too, just over different things.

Orr, who has famously resisted writing a book for many years and has declined to participate in major works written about him, said in conversation with The Globe and Mail this week that "it was just time."

"I'm getting up there," said Orr, who turns 66 in March. "I never wanted to do a book just to do one, and the readers aren't going to agree with everything in there. But I wanted to do a book that the reader gets something out of, even just one thing. It was time to reflect."

Bidini had also procrastinated, wrestling with ghosts that haunted his 11-year-old self, badly bullied but inspired to bravery by Keon, one of the Maple Leafs' most skilled and gentlemanly players. He fought just once in his career, a battle that encouraged the writer to finally stick up for himself.

"Ever since my first book in 1998, people have asked me, 'When are you going to write about the Leafs?'" he said in our interview. "I wanted it to be the right angle. I didn't want it to be romance or nostalgia. And I hadn't thought about Keon in years. There was a series of events … where he began to loom large. And because I hadn't thought about him in a long time, I could go to that place in my memory bank."

Both are stories about growing up, and each has a villain. Orr's is Alan Eagleson, the former agent convicted of fraud and embezzlement whose malfeasance, at the time, devastated the hockey star financially and emotionally. Bidini's miscreant was a schoolmate named Roscoe. Dealings with both left lasting scars.

"It was horrible returning to that time, but also euphoric – the beautiful aspects of being 11 and the unfettered belief in these heroes," Bidini said. "It's harder to find when you get older. Those figures in hockey you know less about are always the ones who are most interesting."

And while we feel we know Orr – at the very least we know well his story – the infrequency with which we've heard Orr's voice on any manner of subjects makes this a worthwhile read on its own.

Orr scored his last NHL goal 35 years ago this month. He retired a week later, done in by a knee without a shred of cartilage left, and "knowing without a doubt" he could play not one game more.

The most interesting chapters deal with the Eagleson era – a time, Orr writes, that "angered and embarrassed" him – and his expansive thoughts on the current state of the game, both relevant and revelatory.

He's tough on unrealistic parents, coaches who are in it for the wrong reasons, and his view of fighting – that it has no role in the minors but a firm place in the National Hockey League in order to protect the stars – has already fuelled controversy. But there is little doubt his voice has a place in the argument. He's one of the game's greatest elder statesmen. That he has finally opened his memories and feelings about the game is gratifying, even if they only serve to stir our own.

"I could never tell if it was interesting," Orr said. "It wasn't an easy process for me. But it was fun to think back, see old friends, some of who helped me with my memory. It was fun, going back over the stories."

Shawna Richer is the Sports editor of The Globe and Mail. She wrote a book about Sidney Crosby's rookie season in the NHL.

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