Skip navigation

Tuesday October 18, 2011

Sports writer never lost his sense of wonder

The self-described 'lippy little shin kicker' had fun taking on the world with his words

Headshot of Roy MacGregor

They say - and no one would ever say otherwise - that the worst that can happen to a person is to lose a child. And yet there is another sort of empty hurt that comes to those who lose one who exemplifies all the best qualities of childhood: a sense of wonder, delight, mischief, fun, optimism and a simple fascination with people, no matter who they might be or what they might do.

That was Earl McRae, the Ottawa Sun journalist who passed away suddenly Saturday evening while working on what would be his final column - ironically, one about mourning someone special. He was 69. He looked 49. He felt 29. He sometimes acted 9.

Perhaps his heart burst because it was too full. He loved life with such a comedic passion that his hijinks knew no limits. When his children were young, he would climb onto the roof at Christmas with a pair of skis and make "sleigh tracks" leading up to the chimney and then, come morning, haul his kids out - there would eventually be five - to "prove" to them that Santa was real.

For children, his own, his friends', his neighbours', he was a master creator of memory, his own favourite - though told only once - being of "floating" as his father, in new Canadian army uniform, tossed him again and again into the air before heading off to the war from which he would never return.

McRae was a sentimentalist, as all great sports writers are. But he was also a cartoonist of such devastating ability - devastating to those he caricatured - that he could have made a living at it. He was an impersonator of such skill that there was not a voice or gesture in the sports media world he could not capture perfectly. And he was a writer of such astounding skill that there is hardly a

typist sitting in a press box today who has not been profoundly influenced by his style, his courage and his often offbeat take on all matters to do with sweat, performance and score.

"A light has gone from the lives of all who knew him," says David Cobb, a magazine colleague of McRae's early days. "He wrote some of the most marvellous stories I've ever read."

Bob McKenzie, the popular TSN analyst, says it was McRae who inspired him to go into the business. "I remember waiting for the Saturday Star to show up so I could read him," McKenzie says. "He was a special talent."

He was indeed, and turned down opportunities to work in the U.S., where he likely would have become a far larger presence in sports. He bounced around Canadian publications. He got in trouble, as the best journalists should. He was lucky and unlucky in love. He made mistakes and admitted to them. He lived a life, which is not an easy thing to do.

In the 1970s, whipped on by legendary editor Don Obe, McRae produced many of the finest profiles sports - in any country - has known. His study of NHL enforcer Reggie Fleming - "Requiem For Reggie," which appeared in The Canadian magazine - not only is a remarkable study in character and setting but was, in retrospect, nearly 40 years ahead of its time in its harsh and riveting detailing of the effect of fist pummelling on the hockey brain.

A generation later, scientists at Boston University would confirm, through research, what McRae had already shown in words. He was so far ahead of the curve in talking about concussion injuries that he lived to see it all come full circle.

But let us not forget the funny side of Earl McRae, who liked to call himself "the lippy little shin kicker."

During the 1976 Canada Cup, the magazine arranged to have a young Denis Potvin record his thoughts daily into a tape recorder and produce a "diary" of this first truly international tournament featuring the best hockey players in the world.

Before the tournament began, an earlier profile McRae had done of Team Canada leader Phil Esposito appeared - a portrait that repeatedly returned to Phil's efforts at covering up a spreading bald spot.

Esposito didn't like it, and never one to take things quietly, he began calling the magazine's Toronto office - this being in the glory days before e-mail, cellphones or even voice messaging - and Earl simply let the calls build into a pile of ignored pink phone slips. He instructed the magazine receptionist - (for those with no historical reference, these were human beings, usually women, who actually answered ringing telephones and wrote down messages) - to never, ever, allow one of Esposito's call to go through to him.

Esposito, however, was not one to give up. At one point, while we were meeting with Potvin at Maple Leaf Gardens to retrieve a cassette (another historical oddity), Potvin warned McRae that "Phil is steaming" and had sworn to get back at McRae.

By chance, Esposito walked out of the stick room just then and began moving in our direction. McRae bolted, knocking over an elderly Gardens employee as he rounded the corner. I was left to pick up the cassette and the stunned employee.

Esposito called again, and finally the receptionist told McRae to "deal with it."

So he did. He took the call, put on the voice of the publisher and, in a very grave manner, he informed "Mr. Esposito" that, sadly, "Mr. McRae passed away suddenly yesterday morning."

Those of us standing around could hear the player sputtering over the phone.

"What did he say?" McRae was asked when he quietly placed the receiver back down.

"He asked that his regrets be passed on to the family."

Thirty-five years later, consider it done.

Back to top