Once Terry Jones is enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto on Monday, he doesn't expect much to change when he's working on his next assignment at the Edmonton Sun.
"A week later, I'll write a column that two-thirds of the town doesn't like and they'll be all over me, as per usual," said Jones, who has covered everything from Wayne Gretzky
's arrival in the NHL to every Canada/World Cup hockey tournament since 1976 during his 40-plus years as a reporter and columnist based in Edmonton.
Jones is receiving the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award. It is given in recognition of distinguished members of the newspaper profession whose words have brought honor to journalism and to hockey. One of the first phone calls he received after the announcement was from Gretzky, which speaks volumes about the relationship Jones cultivated with the greatest hockey player of all time.
But just like every member of the Hall of Fame, player, writer or otherwise, they've seen their share of bad days. Unfortunately for Jones, that day came about four months after finding out he was headed to the Hall of Fame.
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After the Oilers finished last in the NHL in 2009-10, Jones made a promise in one of his columns: if the Oilers finished dead last again, he'd eat his column with sauerkraut, sour cream and bitter lemon at center ice of Rexall Place. Sadly for everyone in Edmonton, Jones was proven wrong, as the Oilers wound up with the fewest points in the NHL for a second year in a row.
True to his word, he wolfed down his column. But it wasn't the first time he had to eat his words.
"I did that in the first year back with the Oilers, about two months out from the end of the season," Jones recalled. "It was a throwaway line in the column -- if they make the playoffs, I'll eat my column. The guy on our sports desk said if you're going to do that, make it zing a little bit. Let's say you'll eat your column with sauerkraut, sour cream and bitter lemon. So we threw that in. I had no idea the catering staff at the rink would put this concoction together. They cut up my column like spaghetti but they put way too much sour cream on the thing.
"I had to get on a flight immediately after this thing. I got on the fight and it was a real bumpy flight. It's the only time I've ever reached for one of those barf bags."
Things clearly improved for Jones after that unpleasant incident during the 1979-80 season.
Jones, who started his career by winning a contest as a seventh-grader and has been a columnist for the Edmonton Sun since 1982, is more than just a hockey writer. Along with covering more than 500 Stanley Cup Playoff games and all "250 and a half Oilers playoff games," -- Jones' playful way of describing what it was like to be in attendance when the lights went out in Boston in the middle of Game 4 of the 1988 Stanley Cup Final and the game was ruled a tie -- he's well-versed in other sports, too.
No Canadian journalist has covered more Olympics than Jones, who has attended 16. He's also covered 37 Grey Cups, 20 Super Bowl and numerous curling and world figure skating championships. That impressive resume earned him entrance into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame and the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, but Jones wondered if that diversity would prevent him from getting into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
"I cover the Brier curling, I've covered like 20 world figure skating championships. So you're not doing hockey every single day of your life," Jones said. "To be honest with you, I can't say I didn’t think about it, because it's pretty much the best thing that can happen to a Canadian sports writer. But I was pretty much past the point of thinking it was going to happen because of the variety of the sports I was covering.
"But you can't be a Canadian sports writer and not be a hockey writer. If you're not writing hockey more than 50 percent of the time, you're not writing to your audience."
After spending the first decade of his career covering assorted junior hockey in Alberta, Jones fell into a situation that's a hockey writer's dream.
In 1978, Gretzky joined the Edmonton Oilers
, who were still part of the World Hockey Association. They would join the NHL in 1979 and blossom into a dynasty, winning the Stanley Cup five times from 1984 and 1990 with the likes of Gretzky, Mark Messier
, Paul Coffey
and Jari Kurri
In today's game, dynasties like that are nearly impossible to imagine with free agency and a salary cap. But it's also a bygone era for the journalist, when deadlines were more forgiving and players were far more open with scribes.
"Going to the rink every day was an absolute joy," said Jones, who has written a pair of books about Gretzky, the first and last of his career. "Our deadlines back then were after midnight, so you even drove to the office and wrote the piece there. There was none of this writing while the game is in progress. You watched the game, then you went down and somebody was going to provide you with something, because not only were they great hockey players, they were pretty good in the quote department, too.
"When Glen Sather
was the GM and coach, he was always keeping things stirred up. It's always been the newsiest town in the League no matter which end of the spectrum they're on, but it's been a great place to write about hockey, I'll tell you that."
Today, if a reporter wants to spend 10 minutes talking with Sidney Crosby
1-on-1 after a game, that reporter better keep dreaming. Today's superstars are better trained to talk with the media. They are more withholding and less likely to trust, not to mention players of Crosby's caliber are constantly being swarmed by journalists in need of a quote.
"You can't be a Canadian sports writer and not be a hockey writer. If you're not writing hockey more than 50 percent of the time, you're not writing to your audience." -- Terry Jones
But in the outskirts of Edmonton, in a time when the media swell in locker rooms isn't what it is today, reporters like Jones could take the time to get to know the players on a personal level, and it reflected in his work.
"At the time, there were essentially three TV stations, but you'd go to the dressing room after the game and if I was going to write about Messier, I would just put myself down besides Messier and no one would interrupt us for 10 minutes," Jones said. "There was a different relationship. Those guys, there wasn't that, you know, 'Let's go to the bar after the writers are in here,' sort of thing. There was a trust level there that was pretty good."
Covering one of the greatest teams in sports history certainly didn't hurt Jones in terms of getting his spot in the Hall, but the last thing that got him to this point was luck.
After Jones won that contest held by the Lacombe Globe as a seventh-grader, he didn't rest on his laurels.
"I went in for the grip-and-grin check presentation and told the people who ran the Lacombe Globe that they had lousy coverage of the minor hockey in town, so they hired me at 4 dollars a week to do something about it," Jones said. "By the time I was in grade 10, I managed to turn that into a job at the Red Deer Advocate. They paid me 10 cents a column inch and 10 cents a mile to cover games around Central Alberta.
"The interesting thing about that was I was too young to have a driver's license, so I was getting paid 10 cents a mile to hitch hike."
Jones was rewarded for risking his life to cover minor hockey. After graduating high school, he took a job at the Edmonton Journal, whose staff at the time included Hall-of-Fame writer Jim Matheson and Cam Cole, a columnist for the Vancouver Sun who cut his teeth as a soccer writer in Edmonton. One of the first teams Jones covered was the University of Alberta Golden Bears, who were coached by Clare Drake, the winningest coach in Canadian college hockey history who mentored Mike Babcock and Ken Hitchcock.
From there, Jones covered the Edmonton Oil Kings, the premier junior hockey team in Western Canada at the time. After that, the Oilers came to town, and the rest is history.
"I got so fortunate," Jones said. "At the front end of my career, I got to cover all those legends. Not just Hall of Famers, but the Hall of Famers of Hall of Famers."
Jones attended the Hall of Fame ceremonies for Gretzky and Messier when they were inducted. As of Monday, Jones will get to sit alongside them forever, only it'll be in the Hall of Fame in Toronto and not just for 10 minutes in a locker room in Edmonton.
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