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George Gross, founding sports editor of Toronto Sun, dies at 85

TORONTO — The Baron always had a story, always knew someone, always looked good.

Canadian sports journalism lost one of its most colourful characters early Friday when George Gross, the founding sports editor of the Toronto Sun, died at his Toronto home. He was 85.

Toronto Sun editor-in-chief Lou Clancy described Gross as one of "the last of the deans of sportswriting."

"Milt Dunnell, James Coleman, Scott Young, Ted Reeve and Jim Hunt, they were all legends," Clancy said. "And George certainly stands right with them."

Known as "The Baron" because of his European sensibilities, Gross was working right to the end. He spent a full day Thursday in the newsroom, chasing a story about a King Clancy 1932 Stanley Cup hockey stick.

"It just stopped us cold when his son phoned in this morning," said Clancy. "George was working on a story that he was going to write for next week. I had lunch with him a week ago, it was George. He was in good shape, in good humour."

"George was always the same, he was here in the morning before I was, so it comes as a bit of a shock."

His recent columns covered figure skating, women's soccer, hockey and water polo among other topics. Gross gave sports radio in Toronto something to chew on last month when he quoted an unidentified rival club executive that favourite Leafs forward Darcy Tucker had "lost it."

Gross missed his beloved tennis in recent months, citing minor ailments. He was a terror on the court, deftly directing shots when his game was on. When it wasn't, his racket went flying and Gross's blood pressure grew. It was just the way he played, it wasn't malicious and no one at his club seemed to mind.

To commemorate one birthday, his 70th, 75th or some such, his family gave him an equal number of tennis ball containers. Gross delighted in cracking open a new container and then giving them to his tennis partner.

"Kiddo" was a favourite greeting, regardless of the recipient's age.

A veteran of Olympics and other sporting celebrations, Gross's list of contacts was as slick as his wardrobe. A founder of Sports Media Canada, the Canadian arm of the International Sports Press Association known as AIPS, he continued to work those contacts. If he didn't know the right person, chances are he knew someone who did.

Gross came to Canada in 1949 after fleeing his homeland and once he had mastered English, quickly found his niche as a sports reporter.

His impressive body of work and many contributions to sports earned him membership in the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame and the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame, and made him a recipient of the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award from the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Olympic Order and the Order of Ontario.

Born in Bratislava, then of Czechoslovakia, Gross played tennis, basketball and soccer in his youth and also worked as a sports and political journalist before his writings landed him in jail under the post-Second World War communist regime.

In 1949, Gross and a kayaker friend posed as paddlers out for a training session and rowed their way across the Danube into Austria.

Eventually Gross made it to Toronto, working as a farmhand and in construction before restarting his career in journalism by doing some freelance work for the Toronto Telegram.

He was hired full-time at the Telegram in 1959 and when the paper shut down in 1971, he and other staffers at the paper founded the Toronto Sun, becoming the paper's first sports editor. There wasn't much he missed.

In a 1997 column, he reminisced about having to skip the 1972 Summit Series after being tipped that the Russians might hand him over to the Czech secret police if he went to Moscow. At the time, Gross was in Stockholm covering some Canadian exhibition games and preparing to go to Russia.

"I don't scare easily, but I don't profess to be dumb," he wrote remembering the moment.

Publisher Doug Creighton advised him to come home.

"Reluctantly, I heeded his advice. And as I sat in Doug's office on the day Canada stood still, the streets outside my window were deserted, seemingly everybody glued to a television set. When (Paul Henderson) Hennie's coup de grace shot sailed past goalie Vladislav Tretiak and ignited the red light behind his CCCP sweater, tears of joy rolled down my cheeks, tears that drew furrows of emotion on my face in that unforgettable moment."

In a 2006 interview with the Ryerson Review, Gross recalled covering the Maple Leafs and coach Punch Imlach in the late '60s.

Gross recalled Imlach approaching him and saying, "You didn't have to be that rough on me." But after a brief chat, Imlach would say, "'OK, I understand. Let's have lunch.' And that was it."

Gross never changed. He relished the personal touch. While some reporters might have been happy to get deposed Leafs GM John Ferguson Jr. on the phone, Gross had him in a column last month "sitting in a local restaurant munching on some good Greek food."

As a boss, Gross was demanding but one who rewarded hard work, according to current Toronto Sun sports editor Dave Fuller.

"George hired me in 1977 and if you worked hard and broke stories, you'd be fine with him," said Fuller. "He liked guys who worked long hours and were really dedicated."

Gross served as sports editor until 1986, when he became the corporate sports editor writing one column a week. In recent years he wrote more frequently and was responsible for a soccer column, a notebook column and a Sunday column per week.

"I had lunch with him just over a week ago and we were talking ostensibly about the upcoming soccer season in Toronto but George, interestingly, was reminiscing," said Clancy. "He was telling me about how we went back to Czechoslovakia back in 1966 and how a petty communist bureaucrat held him at the airport for a couple of hours until the Czechoslovakian ambassador called. Of course then the stern customs officer turned pale and whistled George through".

"He was a wonderful storyteller but he was telling personal stories, which is a moment now I will certainly treasure."

Gross is survived by his wife, his son and his daughter.

Information from the The Canadian Press.