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As we talk blogs versus “mainstream” media, remembering real Canadian sports writing giants

I best not dip my toe too deeply into the current discussion around “bloggers” versus mainstream media. I will say I never would have, many years ago, foreseen my current thinking, which is: there is little in the modern-day newspaper sports coverage/online sports editions that I need— or find particularly insightful, unique, or even well-written in many cases.

Thoughtful bloggers, whether they provide unique statistical breakdowns, a different perspective on issues or just outright funny stuff, offer what we largely don’t get from the, say, Toronto newspaper coverage of sports.

In short, most of the modern-day columnists or beat reporters should feel fortunate they have their jobs already and got them when they did years ago in a different era. Why? Well, there are any number of folks out there who, given the same opportunity, could/perhaps would do a better, more thorough and credible job. Some modern-era columnists can’t seem, for example, to bother to interview and provide direct quotes from their subjects. They provide their “opinion” only, which is fine—and presumably what they are paid to do. I just wish they did it somehow better, or in a more engaging, thoughtful or discerning manner.

That said, most of us agree that we don’t need the established media types to provide, on the other hand, the kind of in-game and post-game "quotes" that offer little of interest to fans. We all know the standard clich├ęs. We expect them and get them. That’s fine. But that’s not what we look for in game coverage. Yet, that’s often the best that newspapers often provide.

This all got me thinking about some of the columnists— real writers, in my memory— who stood out back in the “old days”. (As an aside, I interviewed legendary hockey writer Red Fisher some months back. Click here to listen to my interview with someone who has been writing sports/hockey since the ‘50s, and is a writer’s writer, someone who has “seen it all” in hockey.)

Maybe everything just seemed to be of better quality back in the day, I realize, but a number of sports writers stood out for me. The first was Jack Dulmage. I was raised in Essex County (in southwestern Ontario, across from Detroit) so I read all the Detroit sports columnists, too. Still, I preferred Dulmage’s obvious intellect. He was the Windsor Star’s main comumnist for years and years. I thought he was a particularly astute observer of the hockey scene, though he certainly, like most major columnists of his time, covered all the major sports and travelled the circuit, as it were. But he was considered one of the deans of the hockey writing world— a well-regarded "straight-arrow" who could tell a story.

Yet maybe the best hockey story-teller of my youth was Scott Young. Young (many of you will know that he is father of Canadian musician Neil Young) was a columnist with the Globe & Mail when I was a kid. My Dad didn’t bring home the Globe all the time when, but my brother-in-law gave me a copy of Young’s book, “The Leafs I Knew” in the early ‘60s. It chronicled, semi-diary style, Young’s daily coverage of the Maple Leafs as they were emerging from also-rans in the late 1950s to Cup champions in the early ‘60s. Young was a truly marvelous story-teller and could be funny and poignant at the right moments. He was as well known in those days for his novels (“Boy at Leafs camp”, etc.).  I loved his approach and the way he brought stories to life. In those days you didn’t get the “dirt” (and didn’t need to hear about it somehow) but you still felt like an insider when you read his stories.

He went on to write a current affairs column for the Globe, before returning to the sports world in the later 1970s. He quit as a matter of ethics when a fellow Globe writer used anonymous quotes to trash Punch Imlach, who had returned to take over the Leafs in the summer of 1979. It was a matter of principle for Young— and probably friendship, too, as he had co-authored a book (“Hockey is a Battle”) with Imlach.

Fellow Globe & Mail columnist Dick Beddoes was a first-rate wordsmith. Through the 1960s and into the ’70 (before, like Young before him, becoming more of a current affairs columnist), Beddoes spun daily columns on the world of sports. His vocabulary and use of language was beyond what most were seemingly capable of in the sports writing milieu of the time. A plagiarism acknowledgement ended his time at the Globe, but he later had a successful career in broadcast through the 1980s. (I remember standing once with Beddoes, who I didn’t really know, in the media room at the old Montreal Forum. We were looking at old pictures of various players, and discussed a few Leaf greats, like Dave Keon, who he often wrote about.) Beddoes was a classic writer, with a sometimes acerbic edge.

There were others, of course, who had big-names in the annals of Canadian sports writing. Jim Coleman was a long-time, well-respected syndicated columnist. Milt Dunnell of the Toronto Star wasn’t one of my personal favorites, but he was for many. If I’m not mistaken he wrote columns well into his 80s. Jim Proudfoot, also of the Star, was a thoughtful columnist in his day. George Gross was with the Toronto Sun seemingly forever. Trent Frayne I remember mostly with the Globe in the 1970s. Frayne was able to find a different single word to describe old, awful Exhibition Stadium in Toronto (where the Argos and Jays played) virtually every time he alluded to it in his columns.

But for me, the “greats” were Dulmage, Young and Beddoes. I see no one on the newspaper pages of their talent or ilk these days. I'm not saying there aren't any talented newspaper writers in the "local" sports pages.  Of course, there are some well-developed profiles and features about individuals that are very much worthwhile reading, pieces that tell us something we don't already know.  (Bob Elliot does that in some of his baseball columns in the Toronto Sun.  Others do on occasion as well on a variety of other sporting topics.)  But it's usually not, at least to me, the "name" columnists providing something unique or diffrent.

And I guess I simply don't have the same feeling as I carried for the guys I mentioned above.

I haven’t spent a cent buying a newspaper in a long time- at least not so I can read the sports pages. And until someone emerges with the qualities of the writers I just highlighted, it’s unlikely I will any time soon.

The blogospehere is far from perfect, but at least it often provides what we're not getting elsewhere.

If those of you following this site have names of "mainstream" hockey writers you feel are worth reading, or hockey-related blog sites that provide something special, send your comments along.


  1. Hey Michael, nice piece.

    I grew up reading Red Fischer daily. There will never be a hockey media guy like him.

    As the owner of an up and coming hockey blog (The Hockey Writers) I have a vested interest in the quality of blog writing. We'll have a handful of writers with NHL accreditation to get those 'real quotes' and have a few writers that write with a style that would get them kicked off a mainstream paper, not bad just quirky. (I'd put them up against most newsprint guys). I can easily see a day where my gang of writers will attract a stronger following than most newspapers, in fact I think we may already be there.
    As for myself (a typical hockey fan) my newsprint reading of hockey material is (maybe) once a month.

  2. Well said, pal. The difference is those guys showed up every day and wanted to write stories about what they saw and heard. They did not go in with a preset idea. Indeed, they often took the Red Smith idea of "look first. Then write."

    Seems to me many of today's paper columnists come in with a preset idea of what should happen. Or they come in with a bias and a desire to either be funny or smart. Either way, it is often uncomfortable reading.

    I always looked forward to reading the guys you mentioned as well as Joe Falls (in his day, very good for the Detroit Free Press) or Pete Waldmeir (a sharp observer at the Detroit News). If they took a shot at somebody, it was always professional, not personal. And they usually showed up the next day to give the aggrieved party a chance to have their say.

    I still get and read newspapers. But I enjoy them less and less every day.

  3. Purple Raider raises a very good point (and when we speak of legendary writers, Red Smith's name is certainly in the discussion). While I was focused on Canadian sports writers, I also enjoyed Falls' columns as a young man back in the '60s and '70s. I remember Waldmeir as well.

    It's not that everything was good in the old days and everything is bad today. Not at all. There are many fine sports writers today. But I think it's fair to say many of us interested in the sports world don't rely as we once did on the daily newspapers, or the beat writers of particular teams. And the columnists have a different tone and approach nowadays, which, for me, makes it hard to enjoy.