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.”

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