SIMMONS: 50 years of Toronto Sun sports, a personal journey – Toronto Sun

Author of the article:

Steve Simmons

George Gross, right, and Doug Creighton were two reasons why a young Steve Simmons regularly read the Toronto Sun in it infancy, long before he entered the world of journalism.
George Gross, right, and Doug Creighton were two reasons why a young Steve Simmons regularly read the Toronto Sun in it infancy, long before he entered the world of journalism. Photo by Toronto Sub files

The yellowed newspapers sit in a box in the basement, not aging particularly well: The last edition of the Toronto Telegram ; the first edition of the Toronto Sun , from 50 years ago Monday.

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I don’t know why I was compelled to keep them as souvenirs when I was just 14 years old and beginning Grade 9. But I already had the ‘Man On The Moon’ paper and added it to my sparse collection, not knowing as a kid the direction my life would take.

I was hooked on the Sun almost from Day 1. The completeness of its sports coverage. The cheekiness of the headlines and news display. Paul Rimstead’s column became part of my daily reading. Whether he was writing it, or someone was placing a few words in a box indicating that Rimmer had too many refreshments the night before and wouldn’t be appearing in today’s edition.

His life and his characters seemed like nothing I’d read before. Just as reading the wondrous words of Trent Frayne took me to the ball park with him. Just like the passionate politics of Peter Worthington got me interested in subjects I didn’t necessarily care about. The Sun wrote about the Sun a lot in those days and it pulled me in long before journalism grabbed me. And I never missed a Ted Reeve column or a poem, even if I didn’t understand them all.

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And somehow back then, it all seemed a bit like a sitcom from afar, like Barney Miller in a newsroom instead of a police station. There was so much interaction in the early days between characters and journalists and columnists and cartoonists and celebrities and eventually the most expansive sports coverage any Canadian newspaper had seen.

The Sun was eight years old when I got my first newspaper job and my first rejection letter from founding sports editor George Gross arrived.

“I can get writers any time,” he told me on the phone. “I want desk men.”

And after the Sun had celebrated its 15th anniversary when the new sports editor, Wayne Parrish, who was three months on the job as the handpicked successor to the legendary Gross, hired me from the Calgary Herald , just a day or two after he hired Bob Elliott from the Ottawa Citizen . Parrish had money and thoughts of expanded coverage and ambition and he spent and spent some more.

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Those were the salad days of the newspaper business in Canada — and maybe around the world. With big staffs. Big money. Travel everywhere. Even as we were the little guy, the little paper that grew, always punching above our weight against the Toronto Star or The Globe and Mail and usually winning.

What a place to live and work and get sent around the world to cover sports. In my first year on the job, I was in Rome when Ben Johnson beat Carl Lewis for the first time; I was in Switzerland to cover Bill Derlago’s last stop as a professional hockey player on a team with three other ex-Leafs. And I came home just in time to see Larry Murphy pass to Wayne Gretzky who passed to Mario Lemieux for the winning goal in the greatest hockey spectacle ever seen, the 1987 Canada Cup. And not long after that, Mike Tyson knocked out Michael Spinks in 91 seconds in Atlantic City. What a whirlwind of a job — and I was just one on a rather large staff traveling everywhere.

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It is 50 years on Monday, seven owners and eight sports editors later. I’ve worked for all the owners and for seven of the eight sports editors. Doug Creighton was one of the three men who started the Sun . There’s a large framed poster of him on my downstairs wall. The against-all-odds story of the Toronto Sun startup has been told too many times. What rarely gets mentioned is what Creighton created: A newspaper run by its staff, for its staff, about its city, a place for people to be welcomed, with Christmas bonuses in cash and profit-sharing and sabbaticals and benefits that were the envy of the industry and a pride unmatched anywhere in the business. This was where you wanted to be.

When times changed and owners changed and Creighton got chopped, much of that culture went with him. That me-against-the-world philosophy. If Creighton was going to have your back, no matter the circumstances, dammit, you were going to fight for him.

Then the paper was sold and sold and sold again. And it’s not like Cheers anymore, where everybody knows your name. Especially now without an office open. With changes in advertising and retail sales, readership and digital, came cuts and casualties and, over time, an industry fighting to stay relevant and alive.

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But somehow the Sun sports department, with fewer bodies and fewer resources and certainly less money, has hung together and held up its place as the leader of sports coverage in Canada.

Lance Hornby has been writing mostly about hockey for the past 40 years. Frank Zicarelli, whose wrestling column was born with the Saturday Sun  in 1985, has been with the Sun 37 years. He wrote that staple piece for a decade and it became a must-read for anyone who cared about the WWE or WCW. At one time, the highest-selling edition of the Sun was a Hulk Hogan cover from Wrestlemania.

What other businesses have operated like this? Hornby with more than 40 years. Zicarelli with 37. Me with 34. And Steve Buffery, Rob Longley, Mike Ganter, John Kryk, the meat in the sandwich of our department today, all with more than 30 years at the Sun . Our veteran night editor and fantasy expert, Joel Colomby, is into his 41st year. And our kid, well, that’s hockey writer, Terry Koshan; he’s only been here 25 years, four years fewer than our sports editor, Bill Pierce.

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This is just one department. Too many old white guys, too many old bright guys.

And you can’t forget those who have been here and moved on over the years. Gross and the magical Frayne both won National Newspaper Awards in the early years of the Sun .

Later, Jean Sonmor, sister of an NHL coach, won the same award.

The recently retired Elliott is the only Canadian in the media division of the Baseball Hall of Fame and may hold that distinction for the rest of his life. He uncovered baseball alongside Ken Fidlin and the underrated duo of Bill Lankhof and Mike Rutsey, back when we had three or four people covering the Blue Jays regularly.

Our former auto racing writers, Dan Proudfoot and The Dean of Speed, the late Dean McNulty, are honoured in the Canadian Motorsports Hall of Fame. Buffery is in the Etobicoke Sports Hall of Fame, the Ontario Boxing Hall of Fame, and in the all-time funny guy Hall of Fame. My late, great, friend Jim Hunt, whose Tuesday morning musings were not to be missed, is in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. Longtime hockey writer Mike Zeisberger now does his work for nhl.com.

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Gross didn’t just win the Elmer Ferguson Award for hockey writing. He’s in just about every Hall of Fame he was eligible for. The award for sportswriter of the year in Canada is named for him. There are many remarkable stories about George, from his escape from Czechoslovakia, a story that changed every time he told it, to his learning English and winning writing awards in what wasn’t his given language.

He set the bar high for Sun sports. He wanted to cover everything. This was before my time. He pushed people hard and underpaid people, but the Sun had high school reporters, university sports beat men, writers who covered both harness racing and thoroughbred racing. They covered lake swims and regattas at Balmy Beach and the world water-skiing championship at Centre Island.

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We don’t have the space or the bodies to cover everything the way Gross, known as the Baron, wanted everything covered. Nobody does any more. As a high school student, I remember looking to the newspapers for coverage of games around the city. You got to know the names of the stars. It’s how I first learned about Leo Rautins at St. Mike’s. Those names seemed important then. We don’t know who they are any more. But I know I used to pick up a paper every day, back when they weren’t being delivered, because the Sun covered almost everything I cared about.

Gross wasn’t the Sun ’s only Elmer Ferguson winner. Frayne won. Scott Morrison won. Al Strachan won and former Sun columnist Jay Greenberg was so awarded.

And a combination of Sun and Postmedia writers, with Kryk, Scott Stinson and Vicki Hall, won a National Newspaper Award for a terrific series on concussions in youth sports.

John Iaboni was one of the original hockey writers when the Sun launched in 1971. He was just a kid at the time, still in university, and in one of the final editions of the Telegram he wrote about a 10-year-old phenom from Brantford, who was tearing up minor hockey. Kid’s name was Wayne Gretzky. First story about Gretzky ever written. Two days later, the paper closed.

One day later, the Toronto Sun was born.

This paper wasn’t supposed to last 50 days, let alone 50 years. That’s what people thought. But through all this time we’ve never stopped our commitment to sports coverage. Every other paper in the city — and so many across North America — has gone from caring about it to not caring, depending on the year or the mood. This is a sports paper. It was when George Gross began putting his staff together in 1971. It remains one, thankfully, in this crazy world of ours, today.

ssimmons@postmedia.com

twitter.com/simmonssteve

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