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Steven Sandor and two of his Sports Stories novels
You know you are getting old when ... it's the 25th anniversary reunion of your university class. That's the case for me in September 2018, as I graduated from what was then called RyersonPolytechnicUniversity in 1993. We were the first year to graduate with the “university” designation, and our journalism class was the last of the three-year undergrad program.
Naturally, it has me getting a little introspective, especially about my classmates. It's been a thrill to see so many succeed, whether as TV hosts, writing in newspapers and magazines, creating and running websites, or “joining the dark side” in public relations and communications.
As far as books go, and the number published, there's me (14) and Steven Sandor (8), who was one of my early pals at RyeHigh, as we called it, toiling away as we did in the old J-skool building on Gould St., in the basement for Reporting 101 with its rows of typewriters and two personal computers. A couple of other classmates, Kenneth Bonert and Adrian Brijbassi, have written some well-received novels and short-stories. Lord knows it's not a competition though, since there's seemingly so little money out there for authors.
I wanted to spotlight Steven Sandor this go-round for his hockey and sports writing, both in fiction and non-fiction. After Ryerson, he went west, taking a job at a small Alberta newspaper, and building a career. Within a couple of years, he was in Edmonton, writing about his passion for music, which then had him, partly through coincidence, covering the Oilers, and for a time, he wrote content for the team's program. He returned to Toronto — he's originally from Brampton, Ontario — and covered Toronto FC for the Toronto Sun, and back in Edmonton, he was a commentator for FC Edmonton. There have been countless freelance gigs along the way, including hockey content for The Athletic and Reuters.
A website project about Alberta hockey landed him the chance to write 2000's The Battle of Alberta: A Century of Hockey's Greatest Rivalry. It's exactly what you think the book is, Calgary against Edmonton, but takes in far more than just the battles of the WHA and NHL teams. His other non-fiction book might be on SIHR members bookshelves: Illustrated Guide to Hockey Sites & History: Toronto, which came out in 2007.
Sandor's latest, though, is titled Called Up, and it's a work of fiction in Lorimer's “Sports Stories” series of novels, aimed at roughly ages 10 to 13. It marries the story of a house league player in Edmonton trying to move up to “A” with the dramatic life of a Syrian refugee family coming to town. It's not a stretch to see how learning will take place on both sides of the equation.
“It's a topic that I'm passionate about — my parents came to Canada as refugees, and they'd say over and over how fortunate they felt to be in this country. I want to see other families get the same opportunities that my family did,” Sandor told me via email. “I've written about the topic quite a bit, and I wanted to create a story that reflected the conflicted nature of the refugee experience. So, really, the whole thing was hatched over coffee with my editor, while I was in Toronto for a visit.”
At this point, with Lorimer Sports Stories on sledge hockey (Stick Pick), football (Replay), swimming (Trolled), and soccer (Playing for Keeps), the father of two (a 10-year-old son, and 6-year-old daughter) has a good idea of writing for the target audience. “Back when I wrote Playing For Keeps, there was lots of guidance about word usage, but even more on pacing,” he said. “I was reminded that young readers don't really want breaks or a lot of falling action. Keep things fast-paced.”
Or, to put it another way, “it's writing on adrenaline. Every sentence has got to move the story along.”
Edmonton is a character in Called Up in a way, with vivid descriptions of visits to everything from the West Edmonton Mall, to smaller rinks away from the city's core. Since Sandor has called Edmonton home for a number of years, it's natural to ask him about “The City of Champions.”
“When I was first signed to Lorimer, one of the big selling points was that I WASN'T in Vancouver and Toronto. They wanted stories that reflected other parts of the country,” he said. “This one cuts close to home because I've actually set it in the neighbourhood in which I live. I set one book, Trolled, in Brampton, where I grew up, and that was fun, too.”
Sandor said there is “an amazing literary scene in Edmonton.”
“It's amazing that we're producing Giller Prize winners” — 2013's Lynn Coady — “and writers who have such amazing resumes and, unlike a lot of other literary scenes, we're very supportive of each other. It's really amazing what's happening here. I really believe Edmonton is Canada's literary capital right now.”
Hockey is secondary to the story of refugees fitting in, but it's also the draw. Sandor said that a backdrop of soccer and baseball were both considered, but that hockey offered interesting possibilities.
“To many refugees coming here from the Middle East or Africa, it's a strange, exotic game. Hockey can be used as a way to show the kind of cultural gaps a refugee has to cross,” he said. “So, in learning about the game, and about how expensive it can be to play, the strange culture around the sport (like watching a fight on Hockey Night in Canada and wondering why the players only get penalties, and aren't thrown out of this weird game), it's a way of showing how Omar bridges the gap. So, it was unusual because it's not a 'teammates' story like a lot of other sports books, So that meant telling a lot of the story off the ice.”
My own son, Quinn, age 11, read it first, and said that he found the characters interesting, and liked the diversity. But he wondered if the character Omar, the son of the refugee family, is bipolar. Sandor liked that Quinn considered that and didn't know: “There's simply no way around it. It's something that is addressed right from when I plan the book and write the outline. Youths need to see themselves reflected in what they read. And that means, as a writer, you need to cast a big net. You also need to be respectful that you are writing about cultures that aren't your own — so you need to make sure your characters don't end up being caricatures. As for bipolar, I'm not sure I'd say that. If that's how it comes off, I am fine with it. Of course, readers are free to take from the book what they will. I simply wanted to show over and over that he was hiding something, that there was something deep within him wanting to come out, but he had to push it down.”
Quinn also appreciated the humour from a secondary character, but was a little irked that Sandor questioned his age group's grasp of geography and current events. (And I'll chip in that my son is definitely more tuned in than most.)
“I think there are lots who will have a good grasp of what's going on the world, what's happening in the Middle East, and some will be behind in that matter,” Sandor explained to Quinn. “That's the challenge of writing to that audience; there will be a wide swing in what one reader knows about what's going on and what the other one knows about. To me, I think of a bigger challenge. If a kid finds this book, like, 10 years from now, will he or she still be able to relate to the characters, even though maybe the circumstances in the world have changed?”
One of Sandor's other gigs is editing Edmonton's Avenue magazine, which, like its sister publication in Calgary, aims to showcase “city's architecture, personalities, arts, fashion, food and design.”
He used it as an example of how a writer wants a story to last. “When I edit Avenue magazine, I often tell people that I do the 'doctor's office' test. If someone in a doctor's office picks up an old, old copy of our magazine while that person is in the waiting room, is it still interesting to them? And that's really about how strong of a story you write. And I guess it's up to the readers like yourself to say if this was a good story or not.
With fiction and non-fiction under his belt, and another kids book due at the publisher's soon, Sandor has a pretty good grasp of writing. He doesn't see much difference between the two opposite ends of the writing spectrum.
“In the end, you're trying to accomplish the same thing. You're telling a story. The narrative has to be there no matter what you do,” he concluded. “If anything, writing fiction for a younger audience has made me a better magazine writer, because it has helped me understand when I might be slowing things down too much, even for an adult audience.”
READ THE CLASSICS
One of the adages that I have lived by, since I was a teenager and devoured my Sports Illustrated magazines and the Globe and Mail sports section when it was great in the late 1970s and early 1980s, was to be a better writer you need to read, and read, and read — especially people who are better than you (which is pretty well everyone when you're 10).
With that in mind, I love discovering collections of writers at thrift shops, garage sales or the library. There is great enjoyment reading John Lardner, Red Smith, Trent Frayne and Jim Coleman years after they are gone, and it's equally awesome to know that at various points in my career, I got to take a little time out of the lives of Jim Taylor, Allen Abel and the greatest of the greats in my mind, Frank Deford, for whatever project I was doing that overlapped with them.
This brings me to the just-released collection, The Roger Kahn Reader: Six Decades of Sportswriting. Mr. Kahn is still around, so it's cool to get his insight into how this assembly of stories came together, not his first rodeo or collection of stories. The goal with this one was to publish “a collection of pieces not readily available elsewhere.”
Known primarily for his baseball writing, there are plenty of Kahn gems here through the years. There's a sole hockey piece, “Lafleur (the Flower of Canada)” from SPORT in December 1981. It's great too, but perhaps not enough to justify this collection for your hockey bookshelf.
Now, if you have a bookshelf of great sportswriters, like me, well ...
- Last year (https://sihrhockey.org/__a/public/column.cfm?cid=4&aid=512), I talked with Roy and Kerry McGregor, the father-daughter team behind the newly-launched “Ice Chips” series. Book two is out on September 18, titled The Ice Chips and the Haunted Hurricane. Spooky stuff.
- D'Arcy Jenish, who has done a number of terrific books on hockey, especially the key book about the NHL's centennial, The NHL: 100 Years of On-Ice Action and Boardroom Battles, has a new book coming out on September 22 about a different battle: The Making of the October Crisis: Canada's Long Nightmare of Terrorism at the Hands of the FLQ.
- Ken Reid's Hockey Card Stories 2 is about to hit shelves. The Sportsnet anchor will have a book launch at the Jason George, 100 Front St. E., in Toronto, on Tuesday, October 9, 6:30-8:30 p.m.
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