Olympic glory

Barbara Wagner and Bob Pal won the gold medal in pairs figure skating, despite a glitch in the...

Barbara Wagner and Bob Pal won the gold medal in pairs figure skating, despite a glitch in the stereo turntable. (Sun Media files)

GEORGE GROSS, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 11:30 AM ET

As a newcomer to Canada with a limited knowledge of the English language, I was thrilled to get off from farm work in southern Ontario and become a freelance journalist for the now-defunct Toronto Telegram.

They had sufficient faith in my knowledge of sports to send me to Sweden to cover the 1958 soccer World Cup, featuring the debut of the great Pele.

While it was an impressive start to my career, together with daily broadcasts on radio station CFRB, it wasn't really a dream international event for a struggling journalist trying to establish himself.

That dream opportunity came soon after The Telegram hired me on a full-time basis in 1960 and the late sports editor Bobby Hewitson assigned me to cover the 1960 Olympic Games in Squaw Valley, Calif.

To say that I was uptight facing such Canadian greats of sports journalism as Milt Dunnell of the Toronto Star, Scott Young of the Globe and Mail, Dick Beddoes of the Vancouver Sun and Andy O'Brien of Weekend Magazine, would be an understatement.

In an effort to familiarize myself with the surroundings and the language Canadians use at international sports events, I flew to Squaw Valley three days before the official opening of the Winter Games. I read the papers, listened to the local radio station, watched some television and the following day, I ran into Dunnell at the press centre.

He suggested we should examine the facilities and I followed him. Walking around the speedskating oval, suddenly the boardwalk collapsed under me and I fell into the hole up to my chin. The security guard on the site yelled at me to watch where I was going, which upset the normally subdued Dunnell.

Milt leaned over as they were trying to pull me out of the hole and whispered professorily in my ear: "Start limping." So, I limped all the way to the office of the general manager for the Olympics where Dunnell threatened him with all kinds of legal actions. Small wonder that the GM was more frightened than me (even though I had only suffered a few minor scratches). In the end, we got a courtesy car with a sticker that permitted me to park the automobile right against the front door of the press centre.

Speaking of the press centre reminds me of the last day of the Games. Since we were staying at a motel about 20 miles from Squaw Valley, we usually had breakfast at 7 a.m. and then drove to the Olympic facilities. Since the Games were practically finished with only a women's ski event left, we agreed to have breakfast at 9 a.m. and then drive leisurely into Squaw Valley.

It was a beautiful sunny day and, as we were nearing the Olympic site, the late Andy O'Brien exclaimed: "Too bad we didn't make it on this lovely day, I can just see Canada's Anne Heggtveit schussing down the hill, then standing on the podium in the press centre, being interviewed."

All of us in the car had a hearty laugh, but when I parked the car at the door of the press centre, we couldn't get in. The place was jammed and standing at the microphone was none other than Anne Heggtveit. And she was wearing the gold medal. Deplorably, none of the Canadian newsmen saw her win.

My personal problems were not the highlight of my first Olympic Games.

There was the hockey final between the Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen representing Canada and the best of the U.S. The Americans, led by a phenomenal performance by goalie Jack McCartan, beat Canada 2-1. The game was played in the Olympic arena despite the fact that Bunny Ahearne, the late president of the IIHF, threatened to move the hockey tournament to Denver because of bad ice.

Canadians, however, triumphed in other sports, particularly figure skating.

Barbara Wagner and Bob Paul won the gold medal in the pairs event even though a glitch in the turntable stopped the music and they had to start all over. Also, Don Jackson won a bronze medal in the men's event and Sonja Henje of Norway, the perennial women's world and Olympic champion, told me Jackson would become world champion next time around.

As it happened, the 1961 world championship was cancelled after the entire U.S. figure skating team was killed when their plane crashed near Brussels, Belgium. Jackson won the global title the following year in Prague, as did Maria and Otto Jelinek in their native city after finishing fourth in Squaw Valley.

Space doesn't permit me to feature other memorable moments of Squaw Valley.

However, my coverage opened the door for the other greatest assignment in my career: the appointment as lead hockey writer of The Telegram. As such, I covered the Maple Leafs for 11 years.

All in all, I worked 13 years for John W. Bassett at The Telegram and now 36 years for the Toronto Sun. It is a real blessing for a fellow who could hardly speak the language a half a century ago.

Though, as the late Doug Creighton (founder of the Sun) used to say, nothing has changed in that regard in 50 years.


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