Top Of Their Game

An Anthology of Canada’s Best Sportswriting
Edited by Trent Frayne
Doubleday, 267 pp.

Talk about bench strength. I don’t think we’ve seen this intimidating a roster in any journalism anthology since Tom Wolfe and E. W. Johnson edited the Picador New Journalism collection back in ’73.

I have to agree with you there, Chris. These are the best sports writers in Canada, drawn from papers and magazines across the country, finally writing together side by side. We’re hoping for great things from them.

Let’s talk about the lineup. There are 39 contributors. For the folks at home who may not follow sports writing, what should we look for?

Well, this is a team that isn’t afraid to mix it up. They can be poignant, they can be funny, they can pose the hard questions – they can do it all.

Impressive. And what are the rules of sports writing – how do you score?

The genre really has only two rules, Chris. Rule No. 1 is that when you get right down to it, sport is just people playing with balls and sticks. Rule No. 2 is that rule No. 1 is a crock.

Seems simple enough. What about Trent Frayne, the man behind the bench?

Yeah, he’s a tough old bird. He started writing about sport way back before the money took over. You can’t buy that sort of experience. He’s built this team around three lines. First, there are the Wise Old Men.

These would be guys like Scott Young and Milt Dunnell and Red Fisher.

And Frayne himself. He contributes a lovely piece about a long-forgotten black boxer from Weymouth, N.S. Then you got your Pros – these are beat sports writers at the peak of their performance. Your Michael Farbers, your Roy MacGregors, your Earl McRaes.

I guess you’d have to include there people like Stephen Brunt and Alison Gordon, although she’s gone on to write bestselling sports mysteries.

Absolutely, and more besides. And then finally, you got your Ringers – novelists or magazine journalists who just happen to write about sport. People like Paul Quarrington on Cito Gaston or Don Gillmor on the Molson Indy.

Yes, I notice Ken Dryden and Kenneth Whyte are both on the roster. Most people wouldn’t necessarily think of them as sports writers.

Not the first thing that comes to mind, no. Ken, of course, is the great goalieturned-lawyer-slash-education-activist, and Kenneth is the neoconservative editor of Saturday Night. What are a couple of wonks doing in this company? But both of their contributions are superb. Dryden’s is a frosty analysis of the role of the goaltender. Whyte dissects the public persona of Wayne Gretzky.

Any weak spots?

Well, I gotta say I’m surprised at how few women made the squad. Only six out of 39. That’s not good for the sport of sports writing. Also, if I’m not mistaken, the youngest of these 39 contributors is pushing 40. Where are the fresh legs coming from?

And the highlights? Your personal favourites?

Oh, in a field like this, that’s an unfair question. Christie Blatchford’s opening piece about the National Hockey Team touring small-town Canada is a gem. Gare Joyce’s profile of Calgary’s Bret (The Hitman) Hart of the World Wrestling Federation is as heart-warming as it is hilarious. But maybe the nod should go to Brian Preston’s look at the 1990-91 Victoria Cougars, “the second-worst team in the second-best hockey league in the world.” Worth the price of admission.

But you’re still critical of the technical support the anthology received from its publisher, Doubleday?

Very much so. The team is often let down by its copy editors. MacGregor is listed as writing for the Ottawa Journal, a paper that folded in 1980. Toronto radio personality Stormin’ Norman Rumack gets referred to as Stompin’ Norman. Unforced errors like that abound.

And those may seem like small lapses, but they’re the sort of things the judges notice.

Exactly. You know what they say, Chris. Sports writing is the sport of the literati.


  • Globe and Mail August 5, 1996