I knew Keanu Reeves before he was famous. Aren’t I special?
Self-mockery aside, I was indeed fortunate to have grown up in a hip part of downtown Toronto and been immersed in a neighborhood that encouraged art and attracted creativity.
That’s how I became connected with Keanu and, ultimately, how he came to help coach my bantam house league hockey team.
Keanu, whose family also lived in Yorkville, was classmates and best buds in public school with my older brother, Andrew. They were tight – so close that Keanu was, years later, best man at my bro’s wedding – and hockey became a shared experience when they played together for North Toronto.
They decided to give back one year and co-coach my club at Don Valley. Keanu, a 'tender with a style all his own, focused on the crease. In the photo above, Keanu is sporting the yellow Wigglesworth Warriors jersey, I'm the awkward kid in the front row with the over-sized blue Cooper gloves (that I'd won as a door prize the year before) and Andrew is top row, far right, rocking the classic beard.
I don’t recall how well we did that season, but I do remember thinking Keanu had a gift. I’d seen him play a handful of games at a competitive level, and despite him not having much formal training, he stood out. He was a raw talent, acrobatic and unrefined, but he could steal wins.
The owner of a summertime goaltenders school thought the same thing and helped secure a free agent tryout for Keanu with the OHL's Windsor Spitfires. It was a huge opportunity for someone who wasn't heavily scouted.
On the verge of testing himself against some of the best teenagers in the province, Keanu respectfully declined. He followed his heart and decided was going to be an actor.
"I loved hockey, but I never wanted it to become too serious," he told me in an interview several years later. "I never said, 'I'm going to play for the Leafs.' I just had this mental picture of a dressing room, guys with steam coming off their backs. It wasn't me."
He got the chance to collide his worlds in 1986 when he was cast as the French Canadian goalie in the Rob Lowe/Patrick Swayze vehicle, Youngblood. While prepping for the on-ice scenes, he practiced with Peter Zezel and Steve Thomas, both of whom had minor roles in the flick.
"Those guys kicked my ass," Keanu recalled. "I really wanted to stop Thomas. I only wanted him to score on two of 10 penalty shots, but he scored four times."
Here's a brief clip of him in, ummm, action in Youngblood. It contains mature subject matter; viewer discretion is advised.
For a longer sampling of the film, check out this bar scene.
Regardless of your take on Youngblood, history will note that when Keanu reached a career crossroads, he made one excellent choice.