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The Internet killed the sports journalism star


 

Once upon a time, I despised the writer Eric Duhatschek. I despised him because he wrote: “People in Toronto aren’t hockey fans; they’re Leaf fans.” When I first read this, I wanted to hit him. Hard. In the stomach; maybe the ribs. Using his column’s postage stamp photo as my guide, I looked out for him whenever I travelled to Calgary. I imagined seeing him in a bar, and pouring a beer over his head, or finding him on the sidewalk, and pushing him into thorny shrubs, or watching him climb with groceries into his car, only to club him into submission with a can of stewed tomatoes.

But then I met the tall, wispy Albertan. It turned out that he was friendly, with impeccable taste in music. During our first encounter, he compared Selina Martin to Rachel Sweet, which was good enough for me. Eric also used to room with James Muritech, the late Calgary Herald music writer. James was one of the first and only journalists to review the Rheostatics’ 1987 debut album, Greatest Hits. The Hat remembers his roommate effusing over the work, then setting down to write about it. So I can’t be mad at him. And I no longer want to hit him.

Back in the day, I either wanted to hit media types or I wanted to be their friends. They had a powerful hold on young aspirers like myself, who, one day, wanted to do what they did. A lot has been lost with the shift from print and television sports media to the great digital portal, especially when it comes to a journalist’s personality, and the strong responses triggered in their readership.

When I first met Vic Rauter walking to a Blue Jays’ game with my dad in 1979—Vic hosted the CBC’s 6 o’clock dinnertime sports news segment—it was like meeting Paul McCartney. Same for Brian Williams, Jim Hunt and, later, Stephen Brunt, whom I met in Newfoundland. Those guys were heroes to me, and while I respect and admire the work of people like Jonah Keri, Keith Law, and Puck Daddy, I’d never recognize them in the street, let alone want to know them, let alone want to hit them with a can of dry goods. The Internet has sucked a lot of journalism into its cold vaccuum, despite the quality of the work, which is substantial. With Vic Rauter and Jim McKenny, they were in my home every day; they were in front of me. But Internet prose still amounts to zeroes and ones no matter how fine and pretty the writing.

More than any of these tele-sports types, the people I admired most growing up in the 80s were Mark Hebscher and Jim Tatti, who hosted Global television’s 11:30 pm half-hour sports show, Sportsline. It was the first dedicated highlight show ever, a precursor to TSN and ESPN’s double-host format and as important to sports television as CITY TV’s The New Music was to the birth of MTV and MuchMusic. The hosts were witty and smart, and they pioneered the art of the highlight narrative. Their work often overshadowed the games of which they were reporting. Onrait and O’Toole were born from their loins.

Last week, I got a chance to meet Mark Hebscher—“Hebsy”—for the first time. He invited my hockey team, the Morningstars, to play the CHCH Hamilton team in a friendly, one-game challenge-match. Landing in between Christmas and New Year’s, it was good to get out of Toronto: away from family and kids and the Leafs’ holiday swoon, which saw them struggle to kill penalties and manifest any consistent second line scoring. When we showed up at the Chedoke Twin Pads in Hamilton, we spent time studying the arena’s Hall of Fame wall monument, where players like ex-Leafs Allan Bester and Pat Quinn and Dave Andreychuk and Jim Rutherford were recognized for their work. Navigating our way to the dressing room, I came across the retired NHL zebra, Bryan Lewis, who gave me a hard time for asking directions. “I use my eyes for a living, how about you?” he said, scowling. “I use my mind,” I told him, obliquely. He pfffted and disappeared to change, only to reappear later as the person entrusted to run our game. I avoided getting penalized, and the old ref was a more jovial presence on the ice.

The game ended 4-3 Morningstars, but this isn’t the point of this story. The point is that I finally got a chance to tell Hebsy how important I thought his work was. I did this in between shifts, with the face-off moving to the opposite end of the ice. I think he was happy to hear this, and I was happy to tell him. Growing up a sports fan, he and Tatti were like gods to me. I hope that someday the twitterverse or blogosphere or digi-world will allow us to know the next generation of great writers/reporters—people like Chris Jones and Bruce Arthur and Cathal Kelly—the same way, and that sports kids will not only read them and think “Anyone can do that” but “I want to be him.”


 

The Internet killed the sports journalism star

  1. Milhouse: Hey, everybody. An old man is talking! 
    Abe: Grampa’s the name. Did you know this tree dates back to frontier times?

    According to wiki, Bidini, you are only a few years older than me and I think you are too young to be worrying about young uns’. Kids will always have heroes, how they find them might different but people will always aspire to be someone else.

    I had no idea Sportsline was so influential – I thought Chris Berman was trailblazer – and I loved the weekly Hebsy awards.

  2. First of all, I think you need to get over some anger management issues. A knee-jerk desire to hit people you don’t like can’t be healthy.

    Second, I believe your thoughts on journalism are part of a trend I don’t find very healthy, either. Specifically, it’s this focus on the journalists rather than the topics they’re covering. The vast majority of people don’t care two bits who Vic Rauter, Mark Hebscher or Jim Tatti are, and that’s as it should be. It’s like when a hockey linesman steals the show by throwing out centres from the face-off circle. No one is impressed!

    I, too, grew up staying up until past 11 p.m. to watch Sportsline. But I was a kid. As an adult, I can’t say that I admire smartass young punk journalists who make every highlight reel their chance to become the next Craig Kilborn. Get over yourselves!

    And just in passing, I believe it was Bob McCown who created Sportsline, and the last thing he wanted was for it to become nothing but a highlight show. He wanted to do features on sports personalities, issues and so on. He had to wait a few years to get to do that kind of thing on radio, didn’t he.

    • Count me in as being part of the not-so-vast minority of people who do give a crap who the sports reporter is. And it harkens back to era where Army Archerd or Walter Cronkite or even Pam Oliver delivered news, even in specialized areas like Sports or Entertainment, in such a way as to garner trust and, in most cases, a level of humanity.

      Focusing on SOLELY the news is called News Reporting. Journalism is actually about more than just News Reporting and if you folks in the “vast majority” neither understand nor appreciate that then my heart is sad.

      For it means we are pushing farther and farther away from each other. Craft becomes unappreciated and product is, in all it’s lifeless plasticity, the only thing you care about.

  3. “We won the game, but that’s not the point of this story.”

    Nice.

  4. Bidini is right (no mean feat for a Leaf fan), Hebsy and Tatti were the stone cold nuts back in the day.

  5. Aren’t sports reporting and political reporting interchangeable ?

    • libs = Leafs?

  6. I had no idea the guy who wrote the sports stuff was THAT Dave Bidini!!!

  7. That Bidini is the “stone cold nuts” of hockey playing gonzo journalists.  Imagine driving to Hamilton Mountain in thick fog to meet “Hebsy”.   I can’t.

  8. “Onrait and O’Toole were born from their loins.”

    Can’t speak for the latter, but I suspect the following were of far greater influence on the former:

    http://tsn.ca/tsn_talent/bio/?id=68

    http://tsn.ca/tsn_talent/bio/?id=10304 

    and

    http://tsn.ca/tsn_talent/bio/?id=10304 

    It’s actually quite remarkable how many national sportscasters cut their teeth in Alberta prior to “promotion”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wells_(sportscaster) 

    http://tsn.ca/tsn_talent/bio/?id=10468

    http://tsn.ca/tsn_talent/bio/?id=9702

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