Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Most Unforgettable 'Teacher' In My Life

THERE I WAS the other night and for whatever reason a thought popped into my head: "I wonder how Ol' George Gross is doing?"
Without any fanfare, I started to check the Internet. Did he have another Vaclav Nedomansky waiting in the wings? Of course, how could I ever forget those bygone days when he whispered on the phone about the most famous defection in hockey history. And as well, his admonition to me to keep it a secret.
While scrolling the Net these dramatic words hit me like a two-by-four: George Gross, the founding sports editor of the Toronto Sun, has died.
What? I blinked a half dozen times and rushed to wake up The Missus.
"George died," I said in a shaky voice.
"George is dead," I repeated.
The impact was immediate on both of us.
How could this be? A legend should give at least some advance notice of their demise, but to learn of Gross' death with only a few terse words on the Net was almost indecent.
How could this pupil of a sportswriting legend even sleep while burdened with news that brought tears to my eyes?
In the morning I was still shaken and wrote the following:
George Gross was one of a kind. He was wise sometimes. He was humourous sometimes. He was even hard driving at other times.
And I can say all these things, for I was his right-hand man at the very beginning of the Toronto Sun in November 1971.
Actually, I learned from this debonair man of the world during my days with the late and great Toronto Telegram. And what a learning experience that was.
When the Tely went the way of the dodo bird, Gross was an integral member of the team which began working on wooden crates in that early Canadian foundry -- the Eclipse Whitewear Building. And I was the fortunate one, being named the first assistant sports editor under his leadership.
Those days were filled with apprehension and wonderment at the Little Paper That Grew as it blossomed into a newspaper, which actually hit the streets every day.
It was a miracle.
There were nights at his home, planning the look and essence of those sports pages. It was like looking over the shoulder of a master at work.
Then there were the "chats," if his right-man man stepped out of line and words such as "okay, kiddo," which always seemed to conclude every so-called "lecture."
In those days, we were family, so when I decided to leave to become sports editor of the Edmonton Sun and later its executive editor, this man I considered to be my father in the business realm was mildly annoyed. And the communication between us became somewhat strained.
A few years late, in the mid-80s, Gross came back into my life after my relationship with the Edmonton Sun disintegrated.
That's when the "real" George Gross came to the forefront and he welcomed me back into the Toronto Sun fold, for which I will be eternally grateful.
While I retired in 1994, this wise and generous man continued to be such an influence with his writings and his generous ways.
When I heard of his passing last Friday, I went into shock, for he definitely was one of a kind.
Since then countless words have flowed concerning this man, who escaped Czechoslovakia from the Communists via a row boat or was it that he had walked on the Danube as someone once wrote?
In this day of cookie-cutter celebrities, Gross was larger-than-life, known from Prague to Moscow to Toronto to Vancouver to even Los Angeles as the stylish gentleman with the European charm and sometimes explosive temper.
The Baron, a name that most called him, was the last of a dying breed. He was definitely old school and he had been trained in the finer points of tennis, soccer, hockey and figure skating and wrote about each with style. In addition, his charity work, particularly, with Variety Village, goes unmatched.
While the deaths of sportswriting legends such as Dick Beddoes, Jim Coleman, Scott Young, Milt Dunnell, Jim Hunt, Ted Reeve and Jim Proudfoot have been dramatic, the demise of George Gross has made me feel very vulnerable, for he was not only my teacher, but my friend.
Incidentally, his scoop concerning Nedomansky's defection to the World Hockey Association in the 1970s earned him a National Newspaper Award.
Now this legend is gone at age 85, survived by his wife, Elizabeth, son George and daughter Teddy and his "pupils" of which I certainly was one.

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