Doggone it, the girls and boys on the beat are all barking up the same tree

I feel bad for today’s jock journos.

Not bad as in “sorry to hear that your dog just died,” but bad in the sense that the whole COVID thing has forced them into the world of Zoom, whereby they stare at a monitor and interrogate athletes/coaches from a great distance.

It’s a remote scrum and, unfortunately, the girls and boys on the beat collect the same sound bites.

Consider a Zoom chin wag with Paul Stastny the other day. The Winnipeg Jets forward informed news snoops that head coach Paul Maurice had been channeling his inner Winston Churchill, bidding to rally the troops during their most challenging and fretsome stretch of a National Hockey League crusade that had fallen off the rails.

Sir Winnie

“The one thing you guys don’t see is he’s got these Winston Churchill speeches and I don’t even know how he thinks of them,” said Stastny.

That right there, kids, is sound-bite gold.

It isn’t just a quote, it’s a column. You take it and run with it for 700-800 words. You have fun with it. You have the Jets fighting them on the beaches, fighting them on the landing grounds, fighting them on the fields, the hills and the streets. Just like Sir Winnie said of the British when Hitler was lobbing bombs at London during WWII.

Except everyone else can be, and is, doing the same thing.

I read the Stastny sound bite on Twitter, in the Winnipeg Sun, in the Drab Slab and I’m guessing it made the gab shows in Good Ol’ Hometown.

Because of the Zoom world, the one-off quote has gone the way of the 8-track.

But it never used to be that way.

Back in the day, we had post-game/post-practice scrums, but some, like myself, would listen in only because we didn’t want to miss anything significant. We’d jot down a quote or two and then, once the rabble had dispersed, we would pull a player or coach off to the side for a natter on the QT and ask a question that we hoped would lead to a verbal nugget that no one else had.

Terry Jones of the Edmonton Sun was adept at that. He’d base an entire column on a sound bite that had escaped all other ears.

I dug up some nuggets that way, as well. Examples:

Ulf Nilsson chasing Valeri Kharlamov.
  • The night the Jets became the first North American club team to paddywhack the Soviet Union national side, I sought Swedish forward Ulf Nilsson for some insight, given that he had two goals and two helpers in the 5-3 victory. I found him on a rubbing table, waiting for trainer Billy Bozak to come along and use his magic fingers to soothe Ulf’s wonky hip.

“I was proud to be a Canadian tonight,” Ulf told me.

It was an astonishing comment. Here was a Swede repeatedly beaten black-and-blue by Canadian-born ruffians who resented his very existence during his fledgling years in the World Hockey Association, yet he was “proud to be a Canadian.” There wasn’t another news snoops within earshot. The quote was mine.

  • At training camp, I slid beside Jets head coach Tommy McVie during a morning scrimmage and we both watched Morris Lukowich burst in from the left wing and snap a shot into the top corner.

“Watching that is better than having sex,” Tommy said in his big, baritone voice that sounded like it came from the bottom of an oil drum.

“Geez Tom,” I responded, “that doesn’t say much for your wife.”

“Maybe not, but she didn’t score 60 goals last season.”

No one else had that quote.

Bob Cameron
  • At another training camp in another sport, I went on the prowl for veteran punter Bob Cameron, the senior citizen of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. I located him, alone, in a small room. He was tugging at his eyebrows, first the left then the right…then the left then the right.

“What are you doing, Bob?” I asked.

“Checking out my eyebrows,” he replied. “I’ve already got old man eyebrows. I’m not old enough to have old man eyebrows. I have to trim these suckers. I need a pair of scissors. You don’t have any scissors on you, do ya?”

I scribbled a column on Bob’s eyebrows, because only I had that quirky quote.

  • I was writing for the Toronto Sun in 1982 when Jimmy Mann of the Jets sucker punched Paul Gardner, breaking his jaw in two places. Not long after that, the Jets were in the Republic of Tranna for a skirmish with the Maple Leafs, and I was sitting with a gaggle of news snoops about two dozen rows from the ice surface in Maple Leaf Gardens. The Jets were below us, going through the motions of a pre-game skate.

At one point, Jimmy wandered off on his own, stopping at the nearby boards and motioning to me. I withdrew myself from the pack of news snoops, and met him.

“There’s something everyone needs to know,” he said.

“What’s that, Jimmy?” I asked.

“I am not an animal.”

That was the big, bold, shouting headline on the front page of our sports section the next day. Neither the Globe and Mail nor the Toronto Star had that quote, but it was used in follow-up articles.

But again, unlike today’s batch of news snoops who have zero access except via Zoom, we had the advantage of going one-on-one with the athletes/coaches. Hell, we could call them at home. And that, in turn, meant the readers weren’t finding the same old, same old in each of the newspapers or on air.

I’m uncertain how it will shake down once we’re past the pandemic, but it will never be the way it was back in the day.

And that’s why I feel bad for the girls and boys on the beat. Nobody’s dog died, but they’re all barking up the same tree, and that’s most unfortunate.

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