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Station: Jim Taylor

Thousands of columns and a handful of books later, Jim Taylor still loves to write. - Andrew Leong
Thousands of columns and a handful of books later, Jim Taylor still loves to write.
— image credit: Andrew Leong

It’s August, 1988. A young and clean-shaven Wayne Gretzky sits in front of a bouquet of microphones.

A moment before, Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington confirmed to the media it was with mixed emotions but sincere best wishes the Oilers were trading Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings.

It is the most documented and discussed player trade in NHL history, yet at this emotionally charged press conference, Gretzky’s first words were, “I think first of all, I want to apologize to my friend Jim Taylor, in front of everyone. He’s been more aware of this situation than probably I have.”

Jim Taylor. The kid from Vic High who turned a short gig writing about a local softball team for the Victoria Colonist into a 46-year career as a journalist for the Vancouver Sun, The Province, and the short-lived Sports Only. Taylor was the most-widely read — and funniest — sports columnist in Canada when he retired in 2001.

He applied his sardonic sense of humour to reveal the absurdities in the business of sport, entertaining sports fans and non-fans alike. He attributes his success to luck, and to athletes like figure skater Karen Magnussen, whose hard work sent him on his first offshore assignment to cover her story at the 1972 Olympic Games in Sapporo, Japan.

That assignment lead to his next: hockey’s Canada-Russia Summit Series in 1972, the event that would launch a career covering almost every significant Canadian sporting event for the next 29 years.

He was there for Paul Henderson’s historic goal. He rode in Rick Hansen’s Man in Motion support van. He filed a column 11 minutes after Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield’s ear. And he sat ringside at Gretzky’s last game in New York.

In total, Taylor has written approximately 7,500 columns, three times as many radio shows and 15 books, including Hello Sweetheart, Gimme Rewrite, his captivating memoir depicting a behind-the-scenes account of his journey as a writer. His exceptional career was recognized with this induction into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame, a lifetime achievement award from Sports Media Canada, and—likely his favourite—a membership in the CFL.

Taylor and his wife, Deborah, now live in a beautiful home on Shawnigan Lake. They moved in permanently from Vancouver last May, after Deborah was spending more and more time here. Jim said Deborah had made so many sacrifices for him during his long career, it was his turn to make the move.

His office appears to be set up just as it would have been 20 years ago, with the exception of a laptop where his Underwood typewriter used to sit. The walls are covered with his framed book covers, and pictures of him standing next to Canada’s sports stars, like Bobby Orr, Rick Hansen, Walter and Wayne Gretzky, all in their prime. On the opposite wall: a limited edition Andy Warhol print of Wayne Gretzky, which Gretzky gifted him.

It could be a display at the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, but for two differences: a cherished, signed picture of a sultry bikini-clad Cheryl Tiegs posing on wave-sprayed rocks sits at eye level in the centre of all the pictures; and next to it sits an exquisite image of a young, tan Jim, dressed in his swimming trunks, sitting on the edge of the diving board at his home swimming pool, laptop placed carefully on his bare thighs. Jim swears he told the photographer this is not how he usually works.

At 77, Jim is as sarcastic in person as he is in his writing, and his laugh is infectious. Surrounded by this tapestry of great Canadian sportsmen, he shared his thoughts on fighting in hockey, why Gretzky is still the greatest hockey player ever, and why Lance Armstrong deserves recognition.

MM: How did the book writing start?

JT: Things sort of happened. I did (B.C. Lion Jim Young’s) Dirty 30. I did (Edmonton Eskimo) Danny Kepley’s book, Inside the Dynasty, because he had Wayne’s agent and I didn’t want to piss off Wayne’s agent because I thought I might lose the Gretzky book, and I knew Danny anyway. And then we did Gretz, and then I did Rick. I didn’t want to, but I did ultimately. Then I did Igor. I’m doing a book now and it’s kind of a project. I have a friend who was born with cerebral palsy in Edmonton. He goes through life in a wheelchair looking and pushing himself backwards. He became a reporter for the Edmonton Journal.

MM: What’s his name?

JT: Cam Tate. And he’ll do anything. He was at Yuk Yuks one night. And he’s drunk.

MM: That sounds like the beginning of a terrible joke.

JT: And they have amateur night. And he says, “I can do that.” They lift him up to the stage on his chair. He gets to the national finals of Yuk Yuks. He says, when he’s describing his disease, “I call it Canada Post because my brain sends signals and God knows where they wind up.”

MM. What a character. When did you know you’d made it? Was it the press passes mounting up on your desk?

JT: I knew. That sounds awful.  But I knew I was pretty good. I knew that once I got to the Vancouver Sun, that’s a big market, and I was there, and I had the lead column. But you never think of it that way because there’s always the next story with five columns a week.

MM: I don’t even know how you had that many thoughts in your head.

JT: That’s why I got the satellite dish. Because back then, there was no blocking.

You could get the stuff back east that nobody else had.

MM: Are you still watching as much sport?

JT: I haven’t watched an NHL hockey game in 12 years.

MM: Because you’re not reporting on it?

JT: No, I don’t care. It’s too much money and there’s too many games.

MM: What about CFL?

JT: I love it.

MM: NFL?

JT: Playoffs. When you watch Peyton Manning in the playoffs he goes up to the centre and he calls the play and then he goes up and talks to the guard and asks him ‘how’s your mom?’ because he’s got 40 seconds. In the Canadian Football League, the play has to go in 20 seconds. And it’s a much better game. You don’t have all this lollygagging around. And it gets back to the playoff games. When the season starts, you know there’s going to be five playoff games: semi-finals, the two finals, and the Grey Cup. Boom. Over. You know the Stanley Cup used to be in April?

MM: We were watching the Canucks in the Stanley Cup playoffs inside, on TV, on the most beautiful day in June.

JT: I call it the Stanley Cup Finally.

MM: So what’s changed?

JT: The number of teams and games, and the number of stupid people who will pay absurd prices to get a really good Canucks seat. $300? How do you take your kids?

MM: You don’t.

JT: It was my job, and I enjoyed it, but it’s not my job anymore. I could go to any press box in the country. I don’t go because it was my office and I don’t belong there anymore. We used to sit there, we were the guys in the front row, and we’d hear all the old farts in the back discussing games in 1942. Greg Douglas and I swore we will never be them. There are people in the press box now from every little hick (outlet) and they are using their cellphones and talking. When I was there, they wouldn’t have got in because you had to have credentials. Now, if you know someone whose father was the owner of one of the sponsors...it’s a zoo.

MM: Fighting in hockey. What’s your take on it?

JT: They could end it tomorrow. All they would have to do is put in the European rule: you fight you’re out.

MM: How do the Europeans deal with it when they come here?

JT: When the Europeans first started to come over here, when the first Swedish players came, guys like Don Cherry and that would say, “Wait until I get my hands on...” And they would back away and they wouldn’t fight. And it wasn’t because they were scared. Börje Salming at one point playing for the Leafs, I guess he had enough because he just put his stick down and he just beat the living snot out of this great big goon. But it’s totally foreign to them. The Sedins don’t fight. It’s not that they’re cowardly or anything, they play the game.

MM: But you get the impression from media they are...

JT: All the idiot fringe, they say they want fighting. The league says they’re policing it and they’re not. They’re handing out suspensions but they think it’s part of the game.

MM: Is it part of the game?

JT: Doesn’t have to be. Wayne didn’t fight. Best player who ever lived, didn’t fight. Mind you he had two guys who took care of anybody who would try to fight.

MM: Is he still the best player who ever lived?

JT: I’m biased.

MM: I wondered.

JT: Well, there were five years when Wayne Gretzky won the scoring championship. He had more goals, assists and points than anybody. But if he had never scored a goal in any of those years, he would have still won the scoring championship because he had more assists than anybody else who had total points. He was amazing.

MM: Wow.

JT: Again, total bias. There has to be, I mean, they are my friends. He and Wally are just a classic example of what can happen when you do it right. You know, you respect your parents. Wayne never went to hockey school. Never. But he still gets buckets of mail from people who want to know what hockey school he attended so they can send their boy “who is going to be in the NHL” to the same hockey school. He just laughs because he says, “At the end of hockey season, Dad would hide our skates. Go play soccer, go play football, go play baseball and I’ll tell you when hockey season starts again.” Wally still says to this day that hockey is Wayne’s third-best sport.

MM: No way.

JT: Oh yeah, because he was a really good baseball pitcher and they wanted him to go down into the system but the World Hockey Association came along and he could go then, at 17, but for baseball he would have had to wait until he was 19. And the family could use the money.

MM: He was just that athlete.

JT: And an incredible lacrosse player. Well, it’s the same game. It’s vision; make the pass. Jari Kurri says it takes a lot of faith. “I’d be out there on the power play and I’d start swinging knowing the puck was going to be there. If it isn’t I’m going to look pretty stupid.” I saw once when Jari needed his 70th goal and he had a big bonus and he wasn’t getting it. Wayne said, “Go stand in front of the net.” And Wayne went into the boards to get the puck and as he went by he switched hands on his stick and put it between his legs back onto Jari’s stick. It was telepathy.

MM: Was Wayne’s last game emotional?

JT: It was emotional for him. And after it was over, someone asked him where he was going, he said, “Bowling.” He took the kids bowling.

MM: How old was he when he quit?

JT: 38. He could have played another year and got his routine 120 points. But he had a standard in his mind as to what he thought his level should be and it wasn’t going to be there, so he quit.

MM: What do you think about the Olympics?

JT: I think they should scrap it. That’s not the curmudgeon in me; it just doesn’t make economic sense anymore, except for the IOC. I don’t know all the figures but better than 50% of the multi-billion dollar facilities built in Greece have been scrapped. And there are World Championships in every event. You ask (world record sprinter Usain) Bolt, if you could only do one, would you rather go to the Olympics or to go the Worlds where you’re going to win three events and an extra million dollars. And they’re all getting paid anyways.

I just think there’s too much money. The Olympics would be fine if you build one. Summer in Greece, and a winter someplace else. And you put a big moat around both of them and you have armed guards. You put all the athletes in and you don’t have spectators. You make it a total television event.

MM: No spectators? That’s the best part.

JT: Well, that’s where the riots are. And if you don’t let people in, when you’re worried now about, for Christ’s sake, explosive toothpaste. Australia: They built the huge stadium for the Olympics. It’s empty because it’s too big and it’s too far out of town.

MM: And, then there’s the question of what all of that has to do with amateur athletics?

JT: It was funny, when Sports Only started, I went to this publisher they brought in from Calgary. He’d been in town six weeks. I said, “There’s a kid playing basketball in Santa Clara, and they tell me that he is gonna be the next big thing. He’s from B.C., he fits our mandate.” And he said, “No, my contacts tell me...” I said, “You don’t have any contacts.” He said, “The one we should be watching is Lawrence Moten of “our” Vancouver Grizzlies.” Our Vancouver Grizzlies. I said, “I’ll bet you $1,000 right now that Lawrence Moten does not play more than two years.” But he said, “Well, you have to write a column about Lawrence Moten.” I said, “No, I don’t.”

I felt sorry for the guy because he was the publisher of record; I was the face. One day, he was giving it to everybody and he got to me and I said, “If you say one word to me I’ll go back to The Province and I’ll shut down this pop stand right now.” I said, “If you think I’m bluffing, let’s pick up the phone.” They fired him about two weeks later.

MM: Lance Armstrong?

JT: Anybody who wasn’t terminally stupid knew that he had to be juiced.

MM: And yet in your book you say he deserved the accolades he’s received.

JT: And he did. He won. The accolades he deserves are for what he did for the Cancer Foundation. I mean, you can’t fake that. But racing is so crooked, I mean it’s so crooked.

MM: So they’re all crooked, and if they’re all crooked, he still won.

JT: He still won.

MM: Are the CFL athletes crooked?

JT: I don’t think as much. I’m sure there’s some. I remember when the pills first came out, they called them Greenies. Some of the dumb guys there, they said to their trainer, “I want some Greenies.” So he made some sugar pills—placebos—and he dyed them green and he got an old cardboard salt box

and cut the top off and he filled it and he put Greenies on it. These guys were taking them on the way out, and when they come back in some of the guys said, “Boy I just felt so good.” And another guy said, “ I’m never taking those again. I just felt so sleepy out there.”

MM: That’s the part of sport I just hate. That and the fighting in hockey. They take away from the game.

JT: The joke about the weightlifters? What do all the great Russian weightlifters in the ‘60s and ‘70s have in common? They’re all dead.

MM: The stories you tell in Hello Sweetheart, Gimme Rewrite were something else.

JT: It’s been great. And hopefully it’s not over, I mean, I’m not going to be writing for newspapers anymore but I hope there’s still some stuff to write.

To me, it’s never been really about the games. I enjoy them and I had a great time. It’s the 10 or 15 minutes after the game when you have to make the words work. My high school has picked four of us to honour at a dinner for their 100-year anniversary. You hang around long enough that’s the kind of thing you’re invited to. And I say this with no modesty: there are four people in my class who are more qualified than me.

It never occurred to me that I did anything important. I just told stories, and made people laugh, or cry.

*****

Friendship first:

Jim’s friendship with the Gretzky family trumped his role as a columnist that August day. Instead of writing about Wayne’s move to Los Angeles, a trade he had known about for weeks, he waited because he told Wayne he would keep quiet, even though it put his job as a journalist in jeopardy.

Wayne promised he would call Jim the night before the trade, so Jim’s column could be first to press, but word got out before Wayne could call. Thus, the apology.

Jim regrets nothing. He said, “I gave my word.”

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