am Cole: Through 16 Olympics, 30 Stanley Cup Finals and Three Rounds at Augusta, it’s Been a Charmed life
“Coler, what the f*** are you doing quitting? Jeez, you’re not good enough to make it as a golfer. All the best, bud. Hitch.”
VANCOUVER — That text, from St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, with whom I used to play a bit of golf in Edmonton back in the 1970s, arrived in the middle of a post-game scrum when the Maple Leafs were in town a couple of Saturdays ago — and it remains my favourite thing that happened after word got out that I was retiring from the newspaper business.
Mostly, the praise from followers and readers was blush-worthy and way over the top — nothing at all like the daily feedback to my drivel, which runs about 70/30 to “You’re an idiot” — but my friend and former National Post colleague Bruce Arthur described it accurately as the Twitter echo-chamber version of a New Orleans funeral.
The sports columnists of my generation are the dinosaurs of the newspaper trade. And you know what became of the dinosaurs.
We are the last of the over-privileged scribes who’ve been sent to travel the world, cover all the big events, and spend our bosses’ money with impunity, and we’ve known for a while now that the ride couldn’t last forever.
So wherever we have gathered, lately, we’ve treated as though it might be the last time, the handshakes and hugs have lingered a second longer, and we’ve toasted the end of our golden age — telling the younger ink-stained wretches that they will never have the kind of opportunities we had.
My own tally, as near as I can figure: 16 Olympic Games, 33 Grey Cups, 30 Stanley Cup finals, 66 major golf championships, seven Ryder Cups, six Presidents Cups, nine Canadian Opens, seven World Series, 18 Super Bowls, 17 world figure skating championships.
Caddied for Jack Nicklaus, got to meet Nelson Mandela, spent my formative writing years getting up-close views of the most ridiculously gifted hockey team (the ’80s Oilers) of my time, and the greatest football club (the 1978-82 Eskimos) in CFL history.
Won the press lottery to play Augusta National three times, among the 385 golf courses I’ve batted the little white ball around, survived the World Series earthquake in San Francisco and an avalanche in the Pyrenees, been struck by lightning and lived to tell about it …
Yes, you could call that a charmed life. So I’m getting out while my luck’s still holding.
My oldest friends in the business — Allan Maki in Calgary, Jim Matheson and Terry Jones in Edmonton, Michael Farber in Montreal, Dave Perkins in Toronto, Roy MacGregor in Ottawa — are all at or near the end of our run, and the damage we did to our bodies with all the late-night deadline writing followed by bar food and beer and early-morning flights is written all over our medical charts.
Jonesy has had a mild stroke and doesn’t get around well any more, though he continues to churn out the column. Perkins nearly died of a major cardiac issue a couple of years ago. Farber, despite feverish hours in the gym “cheating death” as he calls it, has hit for the cycle — gout, a heart bypass (“Cracked me open like a chicken,” he says), plus a cancer scare and a minor stroke — and is still the sharpest thinker and the best writer I know. Maki has struggled with Parkinson’s, Matheson has kept on ticking through Crohn’s disease.
Only MacGregor has carried on like a normal healthy person, but then, he actually hikes, canoes and plays rec hockey, so there you go.
The toll of sports editors, living or dead — Barry Westgate, Jim Bray, the injury-prone Bev Wake — is equally sobering.
Knock on wood, I’ve got through it with nothing more serious than gout, which first stabbed me while walking in the Pittsburgh airport en route to Mario Lemieux’s comeback-from-cancer game.
That took me to the Maple Leafs’ trainer, who recommended ice (I screamed), while other ailments on the road — mostly bronchitis — have required the kindness of team doctors with the L.A. Kings, Calgary Flames and, notably, the Anaheim Ducks, which explains my enduring gratitude to Brian Burke, who summoned the team doc from his office to the rink to shoot me full of vitamin B-12 and antibiotics and saved my life (or so it seemed to me) prior to Game 5 of the 2007 Cup final.
Some awfully good people still inhabit the sports world, as we learned two years ago when our 14-month-old grandson, Wyatt, died suddenly and wreaths arrived at the funeral from the Ducks, Kings, Flames, Canucks and Oilers — and my amazingly generous colleagues in the hockey media, unbeknownst to me, collected thousands of dollars in Wyatt’s name for my daughter Michelle and son-in-law Steve and their now six-year-old boy, Charlie.
That awful week in Burlington, Ont., B.C. Lions boss Wally Buono called from Vancouver, Darryl Sutter from L.A., Burke from Calgary … and it reminded me of some of the strange bonds that develop in sports for no apparent reason, or for very good reasons.
Buono will always remain one of my favourite people and interviews. Sutter, I’ve known since he was 14 and his older brothers played (and I plodded) on a Junior B team in my hometown of Vegreville, Alta. The crafty Hugh Campbell and sarcastic Glen Sather helped shape the way I wrote sports, Pat Quinn and Ted Green and Ron Low were funny and unfailingly helpful, but none had the influence on me that the legendary University of Alberta Golden Bears hockey coach Clare Drake had, as a father figure and teacher of what team play was all about.
Anyway, before this becomes too maudlin and I start listing all the hundreds of terrific human beings who helped me along the way, from the U of A Gateway to the Edmonton Journal to the National Post to the Vancouver Sun, I thank those of you who have followed me for all or part of the journey, and written so many kind notes about my scribblings, and whose encouragement, and criticism, made me want to be a better writer.
I don’t know if this retirement means I quit writing, or just stop writing columns. More and more, as I listen to myself, I think I’m sounding like Grandpa Simpson shaking his fist at the clouds.
The job has taken me farther and farther away from the places I used to call home — rinks and sidelines and press boxes — and into a La-Z-Boy, where too often I’m pontificating (or searching frantically for a topic) at 5:30 in the morning so that I have time to massage the column before Eastern deadlines.
More and more aspects of the games themselves — coaches’ challenges, lockouts, concussions, doping, the Department of Player Safety — have been telling me for a while now that it’s time to go.
Also, Twitter trolls. Sports was never meant to be this angry.
It’s a young person’s game now, or younger anyway, so read Iain MacIntyre’s beautifully crafted prose, and Ed Willes’s, read Bruce Arthur’s sweeping sports-as-life soliloquies, read Scott Stinson in the National Post and Sean Fitz-Gerald in The Athletic and Sportsnet’s Mark Spector, who still likes me even though I sold him an eight-year-old ’82 Olds Ciera whose transmission promptly fell out. But by all means, read.
This job has taken me to or through 30 countries, on every continent except Antarctica, wholly or partly on the company dime.
And about that company … it was owned by the Southam family when I joined up in 1975, then became Hollinger under Conrad Black, then Canwest under the Asper family and now Postmedia, but it’s been the same newspaper chain, with the odd addition and subtraction, through 41 years of never having to go looking for work and always being treated like royalty.
Thanks for being my friends, and critics, and readers. It’s been a blast.
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