Sunday, 23 October 2011

John Iaboni

Memories of the Toronto Sun - John Iaboni 

There weren’t many things nicer than an autumn Saturday afternoon stroll from the University of St. Michael’s College at Bay and Wellesley, through Queen’s Park Circle and to Varsity Stadium.

On this particular Saturday, I was freelancing on high school sports/college sports/minor hockey/minor sports for the Tely and set to cover a Varsity Blues football game. I was also in my second year at St. Mike’s, putting in my time towards a B.A. while convinced I would put it in my back pocket for a career in sportswriting.

Being asked in 1967 by Bob McKinney and Neil Wilson - my high school phys-ed teachers and football coaches - to report all scores for my beloved Oakwood Collegiate, calling the sports departments of the Star and Globe, instantly got my juices flowing to become a newspaper reporter.

In May of 1968, I was going to cover Oakwood and a high school rugby tournament at Fletcher’s Field -  then exactly what it was … a farmer’s field that would grow into a great rugby facility. I’d run into Larry Millson at the Tely and since he was unable to get to that Victoria Day weekend tournament, he asked if I could also phone the scores in to the Tely. No problem, I said. 

Well, the Tely was an afternoon paper and I had to wait for the overnight desk staff to arrive. Starting from 10 p.m. and throughout the night, I called and I called and I called. No one on the desk was willing to take the scores, but I was persistent. I virtually stayed up all night, but to no avail as no one would take the scores.

On the Tuesday, I contacted Larry and told him how disappointed I was that the Tely didn’t have the scores as the Star and Globe did, but I tried. He apologized and said he wouldn’t forget me. That fall, in my Grade 12 year at Oakwood, Larry called to say he was moving on to cover the Leafs and Argos and that Rick Matsumoto was taking over the high school beat. Rick would need a couple of “kids” to help him take scores each night. Larry recommended me to be one of two (David Grossman was the other) to assist Rick in the Tely office.

So there I was, at 17, in a big-league newsroom. I was there as much as I could be and I loved it. Man, what a sports department we had … Scott Young, George Gross, Ted Reeve, Chick McGregor, Paul Dulmage, Al Sokol, Mike Armstrong, Eaton Howitt, Kaye Corbett, Lloyd Finley, Bob Pennington, along, of course, with Larry and Rick and on it went.

I was so fortunate to learn from them and to gain a lot of experience and exposure while there . . . not to mention get to know all the people in the newsroom . . . John Downing, Peter Worthington, Paul Rimstead, Frank Drea . . . 

I had numerous Page 1 stories on minor hockey and my minor hockey coverage allowed me to become the first from a major publication to write about a 10-year-old kid from Brantford named Wayne Gretzky (October 28, 1971). I even wrote a piece about an up-and-coming go-kart driver, a kid named Scott Goodyear.

But on this Saturday when I arrived at Varsity Stadium, I remember Star high school/college sports writer Jim Crerar asking me: “Well, what are you going to do now?”

I said: “I’m going to cover the Varsity game.”

Incredulous, he asked the question again and I repeated the same answer. That’s when he realized I hadn’t heard the news: John Bassett had announced that he was folding the Tely.

“You know what, Jim,” I said, “I guess I’ll just finish my schooling and become a teacher . . .  that’s what I thought I’d be doing anyway until this sports reporting came along. It’s been fun but I guess it’s over.”

Those final days of the Tely were hard and I felt I’d be OK. After all, I was 20, still in school, no family to worry about unlike so many at the Tely who had been long-time journalists, Tely lifers who now had no jobs or had to be uprooted to other locales if they wanted to stay in the newspaper business.

One day during my lunch hour at St. Mike’s, I called home and my Dad said George Gross called and wanted me to call him right away. I called him at The Tely and he got right to the point:

“Kiddo, I could move and work at the Montreal Star because Red Fisher called me, but I don’t want to go there. Doug Creighton, Don Hunt and Peter Worthington are starting a new paper called The Toronto Sun and I’m going to be the sports editor.”

My first reaction was being thrilled for George. In my years at The Tely, no one worked more hours than he did orchestrating the daily coverage, but he was never the sports editor in title. Now he would be.

“We won’t have a big sports department, me, Kaye Corbett, Ken Adachi, Eaton Howitt - and you,” he said. “So I’d like you to join us to work as many hours as you can while also going to school. What do you think?”

“George, I’m in,” I said.

Goodbye teaching, hello sportswriting. On Sunday, October 31, 1971, in that rundown old building at King and John, there were those 62 originals not knowing whether we’d last an hour, a day, a week, a month, a year or if we could build a dream out of nothing.

So until the spring of 1973, I worked my butt off putting in countless hours at two full-time preoccupations at the Sun and as a student. I remember my last year of university where I was getting more and more NHL coverage and being on the road with the Leafs doing a Saturday night game, flying out after the game, covering a Sunday game, flying back to Toronto into the wee hours of Monday morning and being at my early-morning classes. Mid-week games were the same.

I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t easy but we all believed in the Sun family. We all felt if we worked as hard as we could to come up with the scoops we’d become a force - and that’s what we did. I also believed - with George’s encouragement - in finishing school.

In May 1973, Convocation Day was the culmination of a great deal of sacrificing. The Sun was proud of me and, unbeknownst to me, even sent a photographer to take a photo of me in my graduation gown walking into Convocation Hall. 

My Mom, Dad and sister were there, as well as Brian Williams, not quite the media star he is today, but a great friend who, like me, was just starting to make a name for himself. As I sat in Convocation Hall, I looked around and, lo and behold, there was The Baron, George Gross.

Looking like a proud Papa, he was there to let me know how special my graduating in the wake of all those hours at the Sun was. And so after the presentation, we shook hands and hugged. My family and I went out for a quick dinner because I didn’t have much time.

That night, only a few hours after picking up my B.A., I was back at Varsity Stadium covering a Toronto Metros soccer game . . . and loving it. 

Hard to believe, 40 years have gone by since the Sun began and here it is for me, some 44 years of sports writing. To this day, people still think I work at the Sun and in my heart that family is so special for me. 

All of my colleagues, mentors and friends in that “original” family will forever be cherished by me. I promise and thanks to you all.


John, Andy Donato and David Cooper - a Sun Day Oners reunion
If you are a Day Oner or one of the hundreds of men and women in all departments who followed The 62 and want to share your memories of the Toronto Sun, email TSF before Nov. 1.

We want to give everyone the opportunity to mark the 40th.

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