Stephen Brunt has a strong connection with the University of Western Ontario. He received his BA in 1981 and his MA in journalism in 1982. It’s also where he met his wife as a first year student and began to craft his skills as a journalist.
Brunt worked for the Globe and Mail for 27 years before he recently moved on to beome a columnist for sportsnet.ca and the new Sportsnet Magazine. Considered by many to be one of the best sportswriters in Canada, Brunt has also written several books including Facing Ali, Gretzky’s Tears and a number one bestseller in Canada, Searching for Bobby Orr.
How did working at university media such as Radio Western and the Gazette at Western help you get into the industry?
It was everything. I walked into the Gazette in my second year and started writing on music. When I originally went in it was to keep up-to-date on the news and see some free shows, but I realized I had an aptitude for it and the writing part was relatively easy. By my third year, I was the pop music critic for the London Free Press, which helped lead me to the Globe and Mail. During that time I freelanced with the Globe, which gave me the ability to make the right contacts and eventually a job.
Did you ever think your career would take you where it has?
No. I never thought I was going to be in sports. The only time I [had done] sports was sideline reporting for Western football games for campus radio. Music and arts was what I originally wanted to do, but the sports job came open [at the Globe and Mail] and I wanted a change of pace, so I thought I’d take a shot at it.
How did covering other topics like politics and arts help you with sports writing?
It helped out a lot, especially the way I ended up doing it. When I became a columnist I needed to figure out a way to keep myself and others interested in reading it. Part of what I wanted to bring was more of a real world connection. There were guys who had done it like Robert Lipsyte of The New York Times, who was one of my real heroes. He was one of the first guys to write sports in a political, economic and social context in the 1960s. I had covered courts, business, arts, and in the old days of sports you never did that—you just covered the game. Now, you cover business, labour, social and political aspects in the context of sports. It helped prepare me more than some of the guys who had a strictly sports background.
There has been so much written on Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr, why did you choose to write books on them?
I knew if I was going to write a hockey book I needed another type of narrative and they both tied into the country, the culture, the times, the changing pace of sports and its business. There’s a lot of different elements in those books. The Orr book discusses the first player agents and unions, Canada in the 1960s and the changing sports iconography. The Gretzky book worked the same way since I was able to look at the one moment when so many things were happening. I got to write about hockey in a way that you don’t usually get to. I was able to write whole chapters on key moments that defined them and you don’t get to do that covering a hockey game. It was a chance to look at the game in a fresh way.
Gretzky and Orr had little to no part in those books. Was there any issue writing on them without their help and interviewing people who knew them?
A little bit. Gretzky co-operated a bit and he didn’t close any doors, but Orr made it difficult. The books kind of stand for themselves. There’s no way you could read those books and think they were unfair. I tried to balance anything negative since it’s not fair to go entirely negative. Authorized books are always glorified and unauthorized [books] are usually overly nasty, I wasn’t interested in either. I wanted to write a bigger story.
If you had the chance to interview Orr and Gretzky, would you have?
It would’ve been easier, but I wouldn’t have learned anything that I didn’t know. It definitely made me think and work harder than I otherwise would have. It was kind of a test of confidence that I could write a book like that and do the amount of work that went into it. In the end, it helped me to be forced into that position and think about the writing and the story.
How do you reflect on your 27 years at The Globe and Mail?
They put me in a position to do good work for years. They sent me around the world and allowed me to see and experience things I otherwise wouldn’t have. They let me be adventurous and try many different things in my writing. I worked with extraordinary people that set a high standard.