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Jason Bell Behind the Bench
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Be lyin’ if I said I won’t miss bylines
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Be lyin’ if I said I won’t miss bylines

Getting bylines is a boost to the confidence, especially early in a reporter’s career. While it shouldn’t be the motivating factor in a writer’s quest to excel, I’d be lying if I said it isn’t gratifying to see your name in print. And it’s particularly rewarding when it’s a deeper story that requires plenty of research, longer interviews and a detailed approach — the kind of piece you hope resonates with readers.

It's been about 33 years since I chalked up my first byline, a rather forgettable short story in the Winnipeg Sun about a city police recruiting campaign, published when I was a journalism student at Red River College. I would be surprised if those 500 heavily edited words managed to tempt even one person to consider law enforcement as a career. If it did, my sincere thanks as a citizen goes out to that individual, who is likely enjoying a city pension by now.

How many bylines since then? I couldn’t hazard a guess. There’s probably some arithmetic formula that would help me figure out a rough estimate. Like taking the number of weeks I’ve worked since 1989 — less the six years I spent out of the industry — and multiplying by an average of seven stories a week. The calculator reads 9,828. I’ll comfortably accept that number, although eclipsing the 10K mark seems far more profound. On second thought, I’m going with 10,028. An extra 200 falls well within my self-imposed margin of error.

How many of those stories do I remember writing? Seventeen might be pushing it. (At the time of this writing, I’m not entirely sure I gave the dog fresh water this morning.)

One thing’s for certain. I don’t see myself copping a byline during the rest of my career with the Free Press. I’ve received dozens of well-wishes from readers as I take on the new role of sports editor, and some even expressed their hope that I’ll maintain a presence in the pages of the section. Save for a brief here and there, I won’t produce for the daily paper. I’ll edit others’ work, instead.

For the record, then, this story stands as my final byline. Not exactly a Pulitzer winner but a fun piece, nonetheless. Naturally, it’s a curling yarn and features a pair of solid dudes, Reid Carruthers and Jason Gunnlaugson, who always made time for me, win or lose.

Facing the reality that my byline days are behind me, I’ve been thinking a lot about the stuff I’ve produced during my time with The Projector (Red River College’s student newspaper), Interlake Spectator, Brandon Sun, and Winnipeg Free Press, in addition to a bunch of freelance gigs. For me, it’s not so much about recalling the actual stories I’ve penned as it is reviving memories of some of the assignments I’ve been on, both in news and sports.

Triumphs and defeats. Feel-good moments and human struggles. Ecstasy and tragedy. It’s been a mixed bag. Some stories you chase down, rich with context, analysis, and background. Others simply fall into your lap, a regurgitation of news and reaction.

I thrust myself under a hot lamp earlier this week, challenged myself to instantly come up with five memorable stories over parts of five decades that had my byline at the top. Here’s what the internal interrogation generated (in no particular order):

1. Golf legend Jack Nicklaus was my idol growing up, and his 1986 Masters triumph — made possible by a 65 on the final Sunday at Augusta National — remains my all-time favourite sports moment.

Fourteen years later, I got the chance to interview him, one on one for about five minutes, at St. Charles while he was in Winnipeg competing at the 2000 at the Senior PGA Championship. I was covering the tournament for the Canadian Press. We actually sat together on a golf cart outside the media tent, and I still remember my hand shaking as I held my tape recorder.

File picture of Jack Nicklaus from 1986 Masters. (Phil Sandlin / Associated Press photo)

2. During stretches of the pandemic, I worked on the news side and helped put faces to the number of people we lost to COVID-19. Through a medical source, I learned about an Inuit woman — an expectant mother — who had contracted the virus and died shortly after giving birth to a daughter in January 2021.

It was extremely difficult speaking with grieving family members, who were gracious with their time and wanted Silatik Qavvik’s story told.

3. I’m not making this up for the sake of entertainment — the day I interviewed Mr. Dressup came to mind as I contemplated noteworthy bylines. The late Ernie Coombs, who played the beloved television character on CBC for more than 30 years, was in Winnipeg to do a show for kids in (I believe) 1988 at Pantages Playhouse. I was one of the editors of The Projector and we thought it’d be cool to talk to the man most of us grew up watching. Photographer Colin Corneau and I had a behind-the-scenes tour, including some time with Casey, Finnigan and the Tickle Trunk. Coombs was a great sport, and we had an absolute blast. I wish I had a copy of that one.

Beloved children’s entertainer Ernie Coombs, aka Mr. Dress-up, stands beside his equally famous Tickle Trunk during a show in Brandon, Manitoba on Jan. 26, 1996. (Colin Corneau / Canadian Press photo archive / Brandon Sun)

4. Worlds collided in 1993 while I was living and working in Brandon. As the Sun curling reporter, I covered the annual Scotties provincial women’s championship. That year, Maureen Bonar’s team from Brandon — with my wife, Allyson, at the second position and pregnant at the time — stormed to victory and qualified for the Canadian championship, slated for… wait for it… Brandon.

While I refrained from interviewing my better half at the national Scotties, I finally gave in following a huge win over reigning champion Connie Laliberte of Winnipeg. These were the days before the free-guard zone and Allyson’s sensational draw around a centre guard paved the way for a last-end steal of one. Days later, the Manitoba champs would lose the Canadian final to the late Sandra Schmirler. By then, however, my boss, the late Mike Jones, relieved me of my duties so I could be a proper fan.

Picture of the 1993 Bonar team. (Supplied)

5. It’s always terrific when, as reporters, we’re freed up from the daily grind to sink a little more time and energy into longer reads. Earlier this year, I spent a week producing a piece on Winnipeg Jets’ star winger Kyle Connor, and spoke with several of the Michigan product’s coaches, former teammates and family. I’m still really pleased with how it turned out.

There you have it, a pretty eclectic mix of stories with my byline, although I don’t expect to add to the large collection. This twice-weekly newsletter will have to do.

Jason Bell

— Sports editor Jason Bell

Jason Bell

OUR COVERAGE

Familiar turf: The Goldeyes are finally holding spring training at Shaw Park after the pandemic forced the ball club to be on the move, reports Taylor Allen.

Start your engines: The Winnipeg Ice and Moose Jaw Raiders are both built with speed to burn, setting up an intriguing WHL playoff showdown, Mike Sawatzky explains.

Strong local flavour: Manitoba could be well represented at this summer’s NHL Draft in Montreal.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Making history: Winnipeg boxer Priyanka Dhillon will soon be Manitoba’s first female boxer to compete at a world championship, Taylor Allen writes.

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Digging for gems: The Blue Bombers used the draft to help stock up on Canadian talent on the defensive side of the ball, reports Jeff Hamilton.

Top-end talent: The Manitoba Moose enter the AHL playoffs with as stacked a lineup as they’ve had all season long. Mike McIntyre has the story.

Making a racket: Badminton player Serenity Poirier has an incredible streak going as she heads into the Manitoba high school championships, reports Taylor Allen.

Star on the rise: At just 15 years old, Jonas Woo is already making an impact with the Winnipeg Ice — one of the best junior teams in the nation — as they push toward a WHL title, Mike Sawatzky writes.

Dream season: Will Irvine calls Trent Crane his brother from another mother. The long-time friends from Morden found themselves as teammates with the Summerside Western Capitals, champions of the Maritime Junior Hockey League, reports Sawatzky.

ONE GREAT PICTURE

Andrew Martinez throws to a teammate on the first day of Winnipeg Goldeyes training camp Thursday at Shaw Park. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

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