A Fierce Honesty
The legendary Scott Young published hundreds of stories describing battles on the ice and playing fields. But perhaps the most fascinating fight took place in the newsroom, when he abruptly quit the Globe
In the Winter of 1951, Bob Wilson, chief scout for the Chicago Black Hawks, was sitting in the wooden bleachers of an arena in Belleville, Ontario. He’d come to check out the talent on a Junior B team affiliated with the Black Hawks, but he’d gotten there early, and so he was killing some time watching a bantam game, especially the amazing play of a chunky 12-year-old with a shock of blond hair. I want that kid, Wilson decided, and with one telegraph to the National Hockey League’s headquarters, he had him – and then some. For the rest of his hockey life, according to the professional hockey chattel system in force back then, Robert Marvin Hull would be the property of the Black Hawks as surely as if they’d bought him at auction.
A few years earlier, 179 kilometres to the west in a Toronto office, a newly arrived assistant editor atMaclean’s was working on an assignment, the working title of which was “Hogtied Hockey.” Scott Young was just out of the Royal Canadian Navy and, as a communications officer, more accustomed to writing about the battles of the Mediterranean than the less deadly battles of sports. But if an expos? of hockey servitude was what would pay the bills for his wife and two children, then a hockey expos? was what he’d write.
As Young’s evidence grew, so did discomfort in the league’s front offices. Conn Smythe, the irascible owner of the Maple Leafs, refused to talk to him and told him no other owners would either. As Young threats,” such as NHL president Red Dutton’s threat to sue.
But, showing the persistence in fact-finding he’d later become famous for, Young pursued and wrote the piece – and nothing happened. “The article had no real effect,” he’d write, “being treated more or less the way a horse treats a mosquito.” It wasn’t until 1972 that competition from the World Hockey Association-which would make Bobby Hull the sport’s first million-dollar player – really broke the NHL’s shackles. As for Young, he came away unscathed from what he’d call his “first brush with the powerful men who controlled the old six-team National Hockey League.” More significantly, “Hogtied Hockey,” for all its immediate fizzle, rekindled Young’s interest in hockey writing, which he hadn’t done since he started out as an 18- year-old cub at theWinnipeg Free Press. It was a defining moment in the career of a dominant voice in Canadian sports journalism.
Young, who died last June 12 at 87, never wanted to be a sportswriter; he wanted to be a novelist. He got to be both, of course, and more. For a half century, his body of work, which also included short stories, biographies, television documentaries and general interest newspaper columns, were the apotheosis of writing for a living. He was a professional: proud, prickly, conscientious, quiet spoken, courtly and uncompromising (or bullheaded, take your pick). Like so many journalists of his era, he jumped from job to job, following what money there was, and sports often made the best offer. As a columnist for The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Telegram, he covered everything from the Grey Cup to the Kentucky Derby, from the World Series to the Olympic Games with a measured pizzazz. But it was as a chronicler of the fortunes and miseries of the Toronto Maple Leafs – mostly at a time when the NHL was tube skates, bare heads and wrist shots – that he did much of his finest work. Yet among his generation of sportswriters, he’s best remembered for Scrubs on Skates, a trilogy of juvenile novels he published between 1952 and 1962 that shaped many of their childhood hockey dreams.
But if Young’s professional life was admirable, his personal life was messy. As he confessed in his autobiography, A Writer’s Life, he was hard to live with, especially when he had money worries. This happened often enough, and his first two marriages, despite the good times, collapsed in screaming rows. A string of what he called his “extramarital involvements” didn’t help. He had two sons by his first wife and two daughters by his second. One of his sons, Neil, made something of himself despite growing up apart from his father, though at the end they were close. He found lasting love for twenty-five years with his third wife, Margaret Hogan. Together they spent the last fourteen years of Young’s life at his beloved farm in Omemee near Peterborough, Ontario. “Now, I can’t think of any way in which our marriage can be improved,” he wrote in 1994, “except that as it goes on we still have some pretty good battles that, if we were wiser, we could head off. But we are not wiser, and the hearts-and-flowers side of our marriage, though a mixture of high comedy and low drama from time to time, suits me.”
So did hanging with the sports press back when newspapers were still the most influential force on the scene and columnists were kings. Even so, Young’s power and that of his colleagues – especially Trent Frayne, now 87, Jim Coleman, who died at 89, Milt Dunnell, 100, and the late-arriving Dick Beddoes, who replaced Young at the Globe and died in 1991 – was constrained by a code of honour. They covered the game, not the gate. They were interested in athletic accomplishment, not, for the most part, the greed of the business side nor the politics of the owners. The players’ peccadilloes (to put it mildly) were pretty much private matters. The games the writers portrayed had not yet joined the entertainment industry; they were not yet considered “the product.” These guys were in search of heroes, not ego-mad millionaires and drug cheaters, who feel, in the words of the Globe‘s Roy MacGregor, “that they’re not only above their fans, but above the law.” For Young’s bunch, a performance- enhancing substance was Aspirin (it could ease a hangover). Many of them had grown up on the Depression Prairies – at one point Young, Frayne and the greatest editor of Maclean’s, Ralph Allen, had lived and written sports together in Winnipeg – and their respect for honest work and self-reliance shone through their prose.
“There’s nothing complicated about being a journalist, at least my kind of journalist,” Young once said. He simply reported what he saw as clearly and diligently as he could. “The prime virtue of Scott Young’s career as a sports columnist,” The Toronto Star‘s Dunnell observes, “was his sincerity.” That and what George (the Baron) Gross, 83, corporate sports editor of the Toronto Sun, calls “brilliant language.” Young was a gifted storyteller who eschewed the clich?s and the cant of the scribe tribe. A goal was a goal, not a marker. An inning was an inning, not a stanza or a chukka. The Stanley Cup was the Stanley Cup, not Lord Stanley’s battered old beaker. Here he is, describing a scoring play in the 1959 championship series between the Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens:
“Armstrong had dug hard to catch up. He was on Duff’s right wing and about two feet off the pace when Duff crossed the blue line toward the warily waiting defense, and simultaneously let his shot go hard and low between Tom Johnson’s skates – one of which the puck ticked – toward Plante’s right side.
“Then, if you watched and didn’t listen, you saw Plante look behind him and begin skating out, erect, his long saturnine face impassive, as the Leafs tried to knock Duff out and programs showered down. And if you listened, the crashing roar went on.” (It’s fascinating to realize that six months later, Young couldn’t have described Plante’s expression, which would’ve been hidden behind the NHL’s first goalie mask.)
Young won the National Newspaper Award for sports writing in 1958 for his account in the Globe of the aftermath of the Grey Cup game in which the Winnipeg Blue Bombers upset the Hamilton Tiger Cats. It contained this passage:
“Don’t let anyone tell you that Hamilton lost this Grey Cup in the night clubs, either. While I’m not a great advocate of booze as a bodybuilder, the Hamiltons are grown men and can take a drink or two and recover in less than two days.
“The Winnipeg players had their night on the town too, but showed no signs of being afflicted with extreme lassitude or spots before their eyes. They were, by one touchdown, the better of two good teams. To prove it, they played a dedicated, battering kind of game that was very close to being a coach’s dream.
“In fact, as I was saying to the chaps on the bus while we drive downtown after the game, that’s the way WE WESTERNERS always hope our teams will play in the Grey Cup.
“What made them play it that way, this of all years?
“I asked that of Norm Rauhaus. He is this year’s dark horse hero, and has exactly the right background for it. In his 16 years of growing up in Regina and another six in Winnipeg, he has had built into his fibre the true-blue truth of what a western boy must do on Grey Cup day, if he can. That is, kick the whey out of the East.”
“There’s unfortunately a lot of people around today who don’t remember him at all,” says Pat Hickey, 62, sports columnist for The Gazette in Montreal and close colleague of Young’s at the Globe in the ’70s. “It’s kind of sad. You have to be a certain age. The last sports stuff he did was twenty-six, twenty-seven years ago.” Young quit – abruptly and on principle – in 1980. He never looked back.
Young traced his fierce honesty to a scare he had when he was 14 and living in poverty with his mother and two siblings in Winnipeg. He was caught stealing bikes, charged and brought, trembling, before an imposing judge who found him guilty but gave him a suspended sentence. “The judge was not harsh,” Young wrote, “but he lectured me on the value of honesty in the lives of individuals, family and society as a whole. I listened hard and believed, and do to this day.”
Young was born in Cypress River, Manitoba, on April 14, 1918, but he grew up ten miles away in Glenboro where his father, Percy, an easygoing but feckless man, owned a local drug store. It went bust and the Youngs floated from relative to relative until Percy found work at the Hudson’s Bay Company in Winnipeg and took the family there to live in 1926. The job – and the family (by then Scott had two siblings, Bob and Dorothy) – lasted five more years. By then, Percy’s relationship with Young’s party-loving mother, Jean, had soured and the couple fought all the time. It didn’t help that they were chronically broke even before Percy was fired by the Bay. For a while, he worked part-time, but the Depression had set in and the work dried up. He left the family before Young’s thirteenth birthday.
Penniless, his mother sent Young away for another tour of betteroff relatives in Prince Albert and Strongfield, Saskatchewan. It would be a year before they, too, couldn’t afford to keep him, and he returned to his mother, brother and sister in Winnipeg.
After scraping by for months – three of them in a single room – Jean, with some help from a boyfriend, rented a house and took in boarders, including the boyfriend. “Mother by 1932 had lost all the weight that had plagued her in her child-bearing years and was just plain good-looking,” Young wrote. “Also she knew how to use being a woman. That’s the only way I can explain why, in the next few years, our landlord showed world-class patience as he waited for the rent.”
At 18, inspired by his uncle, Jack Paterson, an adventure writer whose stories appeared in such publications as the Star Weekly (“It was his freedom of movement that first attracted me”), Young bought his first typewriter. The new Remington portable cost $48 ($4 down and $4 a month for eleven months). Soon he sold a short piece to the Free Press Magazine for $3. One clipping into his career, he applied for a job at the Free Press and was hired as a night copy boy. Four months later, he jumped at an opening in sports. “So I began to cover eight hockey games every Saturday and minor sports through the week,” Young wrote. “I loved it. And that was how…in December of 1936, I became a sports writer: purely by chance. Lucky chance, I’ve always thought.”
Scott Young was always welcome in the Toronto Maple Leafs? dressing room in the 1960s, when he covered the team for The Globe and Mail
The next four years were games and fun. On the job, he rode the bus with teams like the Winnipeg Maroons of the class D Northern League, and in romance, he found a “dark haired headstrong beauty” named Rassy Ragland on the lawn of the Winnipeg Canoe Club, to which he won a free membership. She became his first wife.
In 1940, Toronto beckoned and Young responded with a two-year stint as a news reporter at Canadian Press, then transferred to CP’s London bureau to report on the Second World War. His job was to give first-hand accounts of the experiences of young Canadian sailors in action. “All I was doing,” he wrote, “was trying to get their names and home towns spelled right and their stories to smack of truth.” He eventually joined the Royal Canadian Navy and was shipped off to Europe in 1944 as a communications officer chronicling Canada’s growing strength at sea.
Back in Toronto after the war and in need of cash (Rassy was pregnant with Neil), Young briefly rejoined CP and then bounced to Maclean’s, where he supplemented his $4,000-a-year pay by writing short stories for such legendary magazines as Collier’s, Woman’s Home Companion and Saturday Evening Post.
In 1948, he quit Maclean’s to write fiction full-time and moved to Omemee, where he loved the slow, small-town rhythms of life as an independent author. But a few years later, the fiction-buying U.S. periodicals were dying and taking Young’s main source of income with them.
By 1957, Young was back at the Globe, where he replaced Bruce West as the daily columnist on the first page of the second section for a year before replacing an ailing Jim Vipond as the featured sports columnist. Thus began the glory days for Young, scribbler at large, and his main centre of interest: the Maple Leafs. During the 1960s, the Leafs, with players like Frank Mahovlich, Bob Pulford, Dick Duff, Carl Brewer, Dave Keon, Johnny Bower and Tim Horton, were always Stanley Cup contenders and won the championship four times. Their coach, and one of the NHL’s most argued about figures ever, was George (Punch) Imlach. Loud and pugnacious, Imlach was the darling of the close-knit media on the Toronto sports beat, always good for a quote. He ran his team as if they worked on his plantation until the losing years began and he was fired in 1969.
Imlach and Young hit it off in those years and their friendship continued through thick (they co-wrote two books, Hockey Is a Battle and Heaven and Hell in the NHL) and thin (Imlach’s disastrous return to the Leafs as general manager in 1980).
Meanwhile, Young was running into his own disasters. After a rancorous parting, he and Rassy Ragland were divorced (he later married Astrid Mead, with whom he had two daughters), and, after a bitter quarrel over excerpting rights to his first Imlach book, he quit the Globe. The Telegram immediately hired him and he wound up as its sports editor. Two years later, it folded and the Globe‘s editor-inchief, Dic Doyle, asked the prodigal to come home.
The hockey world that Imlach came back to was a far cry from the one he’d left. The chattel system, so long the mainstay of hockey patriarchy, had gone the way of baseball’s reserve clause. Emancipation had come to the plantation. The players even had a union, established in 1967. Imlach’s bullying ways soon alienated players and they complained to the sporting press.
The press, they complained, had also changed. The young reporters had no time for the old gentlemen’s code; they were out for scoops and expos?s and didn’t care much how they got them. Young was appalled. “One year, the National Newspaper Award went to a couple of guys who came up with the CFL salary figures,” Pat Hickey recalls. “In Scott’s eyes, these guys basically got an award for stealing something.”
Invading privacy was bad enough, but what most offended Young was the use of anonymous quotes, especially when they were used to rake his friend Imlach. The Leafs that year were such a sorry lot that Young compared them to “Confederates limping southward on peg legs and crutches,” and the players blamed managerial incompetence. But they didn’t put their names where their mouths were. The athletes used an unscrupulous young sportswriter named Donald Ramsay – later found guilty of libeling a federal cabinet minister – as their conduit into the Globe. In his column, Young challenged the players to come out of hiding; in private, he told Doyle that if the paper continued to print unattributed quotes, he’d quit.
As the season wound down, Ramsay wrote another piece singling out Imlach. He quoted a Leaf veteran as saying, “We’ve played almost 100 games this year and we have no system for getting the puck out of our own zone.” The quote was anonymous.
As Cec Jennings, sports editor at the time, recalls, Young just called in that night “and said he was gone.”
by Cliff Lee
Cliff Lee was the Visuals Editor for the Spring 2006 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.