Wells: How ink-stained frustrations turned into a better tomorrow

I saw them in Centre Spot bathed in morning light: stacks of Gazettes. I felt a rush spotting students peeling off their copy on the way to class. For the first time, they were all going to see me – my byline – inside.

I grabbed a paper and flipped pages to the sports section to find my name. This was pure anticipation – my first published story and one I was sure would be just the beginning. It was not just any story, but an account of the Mustangs hockey opener, a big win over the University of Toronto.

My first foray into journalism was not made lightly. It was my destiny.

In Grade 6, I decided to be a sportswriter when I read Andy O’Brien’s biography Rocket Richard about the Montreal Canadiens legend, filling the library borrower’s card with my name, over and over. I even created my own homemade hockey magazines by writing stories about NHL stars on the family typewriter. My mom was the lone subscriber.

WELLS

WELLS

And so, for my first Gazette story at Western I signed up to cover the game against the U of T Blues. When the puck dropped in Thompson Arena, I filled pages with scribbled notes and afterwards interviewed players in the dressing room. I wrote and polished. I wrote. A lot.

My lede read: “Western’s hockey Mustangs had U of T singing the blues after an impressive season-opening victory.” It contained several more adjectives that I’ve since erased from my memory.

“Singing the blues.” Get it? Masterful.

And now in Centre Spot, I had a Gazette in my hands and found the page: “By Jon Wells.”

Triumph!

But something was odd. Before reading a word, I could tell the story was shorter than my original. And where was my clever lede? Had the editor moved it further down in the story?

My eyes burned a hole in the paper and my legs felt weak. My name was on the story, but it was not mine. Except it was. I recognized a few lines, but not many. The piece had been gutted, shortened, rewritten. And “singing the blues” no longer existed.

For this – a hatchet job, an insult – I blamed the Gazette sports editor Bill Glisky. But I said nothing to him. I vented to my faithful subscriber, though. I told mom I was through with the Gazette. I would never write for them again. Maybe journalism wasn’t my thing, either.

Mom, typically, listened patiently, empathized, and offered gentle wisdom: Why not talk to the editor? It can’t hurt. See what happens.

Meanwhile, a friend at Western, Andrea Roberts, gave me a framed copy of that first article as a gift. It was a touching gesture. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that story stopped being ‘By Jon Wells’ the moment it hit the presses. I stuffed the gift in my desk drawer.

Still bitter, and embarrassed, I walked into the Gazette offices and there was Glisky, who I had seen but never actually met. I remember him looking tired, his feet up on his desk, faded jeans. He was just a student, but already had the aura of a grizzled newsman.

Why had he disemboweled my story?

He explained. My story had been too long, too flabby. I had tried to write the ‘Story To End All Stories’ – and it showed. He said Gazette style included avoiding writing “hockey Mustangs.”

Oh, and “singing the blues” is a more than a little bit cliche. They avoid that, too.

Glisky suggested I had potential. Try again, he said. Sign up for another game, maybe one of the lower-profile sports. Build on it.

I listened. My anger dissolved. I stayed with it, in part because I wanted to show Bill what I could do. And I didn’t want to quit on my mom.

I covered volleyball, soccer, tennis and others. Pretty soon, those dastardly editors were barely touching my stories. In third year, I was sports editor and wrote the coveted (at least to me) From the Sportsdesk column. I covered the Mustang football team (not “football Mustangs”) in Halifax and their winning the Vanier Cup in Toronto.

My sportswriting days ended after Western. I graduated in Political Science and that provided me with learning and context that served me well in my journalism career, covering topics ranging from crime to politics and health and the environment.

It has been a good run, spent mostly as a reporter at The Hamilton Spectator, where I have covered stories from New York to L.A., Dublin to India, and won a couple of dozen awards for my writing, including four National Newspaper Awards. I’ve written six books. And most importantly, I’ve cherished the gift of writing stories for a living.

Not too long ago – decades since that day when U of T sang the blues against the Mustangs – I learned Glisky had become managing editor at the Belleville Intelligencer. I sent him an email recalling that first Gazette crash-and-burn experience. I told him I’ve had many editors over the years, but he was the first, and perhaps the most critical.

For the first time, I thanked him.

Experiences like the awakening I had over that ill-fated hockey story can either defeat us or stick with us in a good way over time. What Glisky ended up teaching me was we should always build on what we have and try to get better.

Those emotions I felt 30 years ago in Centre Spot when I was juiced with expectation weren’t, as it turned out, misplaced. That story, was in fact the start of something, and ended up being a reminder that sometimes, the most important lessons we learn aren’t apparent for a little while.

Jon Wells, BA’90 (Political Science), writes for The Hamilton Spectator, where he has won four National  Newspaper Awards and written six books, including the most recent, ‘Death’s Shadow,’ a collection of true-crime stories. He is married with two teenaged children.