By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (June 7, 2018)
First in a series
For decades, Stephen Brunt’s thought-provoking commentary has been a staple of Canadian sports journalism. He’s penned highly acclaimed books, including “Facing Ali: 15 Stories 15 Fighters,” “Gretzky’s Tears,” and the No. 1 Canadian best seller “Searching for Bobby Orr.” And he’s also provided radio listeners with engaging, informative sports talk throughout his successful career.
Now 59 years old, Brunt is a versatile, valuable member of the Sportsnet team, not unlike the variety of work that some journalists do for ESPN. He writes long features on a wide range of subjects. He works on TV documentaries (a topic to be explored in greater detail later in this series), too.
Above all, Brunt understands the power of words and employs them with great effect to deliver memorable stories.
Case in point: https://t.co/FVQCqxQyN6
Asked what me most enjoys about being behind the camera or producing copy for a broadcast, Brunt responded by saying, “It’s really different than writing (for print). I still think of myself as a writer, primarily. I do a lot of writing still, but the biggest difference for me is that it’s collaborative. You work with other people. The story’s in their hands as much as it’s in yours. It’s different than working with an editor as a writer.
“Like the visual people, these editors we work with, these producers, they have skills that I don’t have. They can do things that I can’t do, and they are super talented. A lot of them are really young, which again not like the newspaper business, which was getting pretty old at the time I left (in 2011). So I really like being able to think in a different way when you are working visually, and learning how to write a script versus writing a magazine piece or a column. Technically, it’s a different kind of writing. I like the learning part of it, and I really like the people that I get to work with. They are crazy talented.”
That talent creates an enjoyable work atmosphere and beyond, whether in the studio or on location in Canada, Los Angeles, the Dominican Republic or elsewhere.
“I’m having as much fun now as I’ve had at any point in my career,” he said in a recent phone interview. “It’s as satisfying as anything I’ve ever done, and it’s as much fan as anything I’ve ever done. So it’s great. I’ve been at this for a long time and it’s great at this stage … but it’s been a really different phase for me and it’s exciting. I like getting up in the morning and going to work. Its fun.”
Globe and Mail readers saw Brunt’s byline in the sports section from 1985 — he became a columnist in 1989 — until his departure in September 2011, when he joined Sportsnet on a full-time basis, providing content for its magazine, as well as video essays and columns and features for the website. He got his start at the paper in ’82 as an arts intern, then moved to the news department, where he reported on elections in 1984 . (This February, he became a part-time Prime time Sports co-host for an afternoon drive time 5-7 p.m. talk show with Bob McCown and Richard Deitsch. The show is heard on Sportsnet 590 The FAN in Toronto.)
When Brunt made the move to Sportsnet in September 2011, Rogers Broadcasting president Scott Moore was quoted as saying, “Adding Stephen full-time will strengthen all of Sportsnet’s platforms. Stephen is truly one of the most gifted sports columnists in Canada. His video essays are a great example of the type of storytelling we aspire to.”
Brunt commutes from his home in Hamilton, Ontario, to Toronto to go to work. Without traffic, he says it takes about 45 minutes, but it can take two hours. “It’s like driving in any big city,” he noted.
In 2007, he was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame as a reporter. His biographical section on the Hall of Fame website begins this way: “Stephen Brunt is the very best trombone-playing, fly-fishing, Hamilton Tiger-Cats loving national sports columnist to have covered the Canadian Football League (CFL).
“Known for his literary style, as well as his penchant for fine dining and expensive wines, the Hamilton-born Brunt has written about the CFL for The Globe and Mail for almost 20 years and never once lost his enthusiasm for the three-down game.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Brunt was asked what was the first sports book he read that left a memorable impression on him.
“I read hockey books as a kid. I don’t know if any of them were any good,” said Brunt, who was born in Hamilton. “I read some of the Scott Young hockey books. I read Bobby Hull’s. I remember buying his ghosted biography, ‘Hockey Is My Game.’ ”
“I read the usual stuff that you would read as a kid as a fan, and I read books about the local football team (Hamilton Tiger-Cats) in the Canadian Football League, some guys (on the team), which would be really obscure for anybody who didn’t live here.”
While Canadian sports teams and individual athletes piqued his interest, Brunt revealed that A.J. Liebling (1904-63), an icon of The New Yorker magazine, got him intrigued about a possible career as a writer.
“The first book as a writer that really made me think about wanting to write about sports was reading ‘The Sweet Science,’” said Brunt of Liebling’s book of boxing essays, published in 1956, which Sports Illustrated called the top sports book of all time in 2002.
“I didn’t start as a sports writer, and it wasn’t something that I ever really aspired to do. But I love boxing and I love the literature of boxing. So then I read everything of Liebling, which is very old school, his essays, and even his food writing. So I think that’s the one.”
He then pointed out that Robert Lipsyte’s “Sportsworld: An American Dreamland,” which published in 1975, was also quite influential.
“He was one of the first guys, if not the first guy, to kind of write about sports in the real world — political, social context,” said Brunt. “He cover the early years of Ali, among other things, but he wrote about sports not in a vacuum. He wrote about it and linked it to what was going on in the world. … And especially in my early days of being a columnist at the Globe, that had a huge influence over me.”
Brunt began reading Liebling’s works while he was attending Western University in Ontario. He doesn’t recall precisely how he first came across his work, though.
“But my guess is I read a magazine story about boxing, or something to do with boxing, and there was a reference to it,” he offered. “That’s my guess that somebody referenced Liebling.”
He went on: “In any number of great magazine pieces about boxing, Liebling tends to come up, right?”
What attracted him to those stories?
“It was great old-fashioned writing and the reporter is kind of as a character,” Brunt said. “Like I’ve never been that. I don’t ever write about myself, but I love the idea of Liebling as this kind of larger-than-life character, and then he references Boxiana, the 18th century books about boxing. There’s a lot of stuff about Boxiana in Sweet Science.
“So then I went out and bought, I’m looking at it now, I’ve got an original copy of the first Boxiana,” he said, referring to a a book of articles penned by British writer Pierce Egan. The first volume was published in 1813. Several more volumes followed.
“I started reading kind of ancient boxing writing and I got into boxing literature in a big way,” he continued. “I’d say even before I wrote anything about it the one kind of library I have are shelves and shelves of boxing books.”
Brunt found his niche with boxing — and not just for coverage of title fights. With Brunt shining a light on corruption in boxing for an investigative series, the Globe and Mail received the prestigious Michener Award for public-service journalism for his series. Here’s how the Michener Awards Foundation summed up that project on its website:
“ ‘Ontario Boxing Scandal’ disclosed that Ontario’s athletic commissioner and former championship boxer Clyde Gray was not carrying out his duties properly and that he ignored rules aimed at making the sport safe for contestants. More than 40 unlicensed boxers were permitted to fight in Ontario along with 52 others with records that should have resulted in suspensions. The series of stories by Stephen Brunt lead to a government inquiry and transfer of the commissioner to another post.”
In his travels over the years, Brunt got to know a number of prominent boxing scribes from numerous places. He said Vic Ziegel, the late New York Daily News and New York Post columnist, had a gift for humor in his commentary and long-form magazine pieces. He met Barney Nagler (“one of the great old boxing writers,” Brunt pointed out), whose byline was carried by the New York Post, Philadelphia Evening Ledger, Newark Star Eagle, New York Morning Telegraph and The Daily Racing Form, among other print outlets, before his passing in 1990, and became friends with Hugh McIlvaney, the Scottish sports scribe who retired at age 82 from The Sunday Times in 2016.
“When I started covering the fights, I started to meet some of these guys who were of a previous generation,” Brunt recalled with enthusiasm. “I was a real acolyte of the older guys. So I was always really, really excited to meet somebody who had covered Joe Louis or covered Rocky Marciano. It was pretty cool.”
Upcoming installments in this series will highlight memorable events in Stephen Brunt’s writing and broadcasting career, the stories behind the stories in some of his most successful books, why he avoids using Twitter, and much more.
Editor’s note: Jeff Blair and Stephen Brunt have a new weekly podcast. Episodes can be accessed via this link: https://www.sportsnet.ca/590/the-lede/