Dear Mr. Zelkovich

By Pat Lovgren

From calling out Don Cherry for his Coaches Corner antics to taking Pete Rose to task for gambling on baseball, Toronto Star columnist Chris Zelkovich pulls no punches in his writing.

 Zelkovich is entering his 10th year in his position as a sports media columnist for The Star and in his own words, “can’t imagine a better job.” He has carved out his own niche writing a weekly Monday TV review along with his sports media news columns.

“The running joke around here that people tell me is that you’ve got the best job in the business, you get paid to watch TV,” he says. “Well that’s only partly true, I get paid to watch it one day a week.”

In 1998 he decided to submit a column critiquing a TSN broadcast of the World Series. His editor at the time, Steve Tustin, loved it and that was the beginning of his weekly review. He then added sports media news columns to round out his work and has been doing that ever since.

Tustin says when the position became available he thought Zelkovich would be a good fit, but at the outset Zelkovich didn’t have the same kind of confidence.

“I just didn’t understand why anyone would want to read this,” he says. A big turning point for him was when he went on the FAN for what was supposed to be a half hour radio show. “They got so many calls, that I ended up staying on for three hours and afterwards I thought, people really do care!” he says.

Zelkovich was also one of the first writers to put his e-mail address at the bottom of his column, something his colleagues warned him about. “I remember the first e-mail I ever got on the column. It started out with: Dear Mr. Zelkovich, you have no idea how much I despise you.”

In the beginning he was learning new things every day, from how rights deals were set up to how to deal with different sports media personalities. Initially, he was surprised at how many broadcasters read his columns. “It’s funny, they all read it. Someone you haven’t talked to in three months will come up to you and tell you word for word what you wrote about them.” 

Zelkovich’s current editor at The Star, Mike Simpson, says that over the years his work has resonated with readers because he refuses to pull any punches in his writing and also because he has always spoken from intelligent, well informed arguments.

 “Doing the job Chris does is hard because everyone watches TV and we all think we’re experts. I think what sets Chris apart is that he does a good job mirroring what the average viewer thinks,” Simpson says. “In a world where we tend to soften things, he tells it like it is.”
Still, Zelkovich says he does receive some negative reaction, even though most of his columns are meant to be taken with a grain of salt.
He is surprised by how many people take what he does so seriously. “I never get personal, never make fun of how a person looks, it's just purely about what they say,” he says. He admits he probably overstates things, but believes columnists should create a reaction. “I think the absolute perfection would be if 50 per cent hated you and 50 per cent loved you.”

Tustin says that what makes Zelkovich’s stories successful is that he’s always fair and although he may criticize people at times, he’ll also be the first to give them credit if they deserve it.

“He’s not afraid to say what he thinks,” Tustin says. “He doesn’t rely on rumours like many other writers, he writes based on fact. I know for a fact that people in the industry read him religiously…I think he’s the best in Canada in terms of doing the job he does.”

Zelkovich’s unique style has resulted in many memorable columns including one where he praised Jim Gray for trying to get Pete Rose to admit he bet on baseball during the 2000 Major League Baseball All-Star game in Atlanta.

Here’s an excerpt from his column:
Gray refused to treat Rose with kid gloves. "There appears to be an opening," Gray asked a self-satisfied Rose. "Are you going to admit you gambled on baseball?" When Rose defiantly maintained his innocence, Gray pressed harder. He pressed so hard that viewers probably felt sorry for the all-time great…But Rose took care of that by repeating the same tired explanations and deflections he's used for years. It was a rare, if uncomfortable, accomplishment in sports broadcasting. Hats off to Gray for seizing the moment.

After the column was published, Zelkovich says he was shocked by the reaction he received. “Well holy moly, I got e-mails for two weeks with 98 per cent of people calling me a complete idiot. I don’t know what it was. It may have something to do with Jim Gray not being very likeable. But I guess there’s a lot of Pete Rose fans out there,” he says.
There are also a lot of Zelkovich fans.

“When I first started, two thirds of the people told me they despised me, now it’s just the opposite.”

Career History
Zelkovich started his career writing reports on softball games for his local paper in Thunder Bay. His editor, former NHLer Pentti Lund, liked him and his stories so much he was given bylines on the front page.

After college, he had a short stint with the Oakville Beaver before he moved to Montreal and joined The Hockey News in 1973. However, after the editors at the paper took creative liberty with one of his articles and “completely changed the focus of it” he got fed up, quit the job and returned to Toronto.

Once back, he did some freelance journalism before accepting a position as the sports editor of the Mississauga Times. While at the Times, Zelkovich says that, “I had so much fun I ended up staying five years and eventually became the news editor.” The paper was owned by The Star and had a strange format where it didn’t have to make money. “So I got to go all over the place to big events like the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games.”

It was not until 1981 that The Star came calling and hired Zelkovich as a copy editor. Before settling on sports, he worked in almost every department. What pushed him back in the sports direction was what he termed, “a sort of mid-life crisis.” After editing an award-winning, law changing series on mental health he realized that the product was great but he still wasn’t satisfied with it because he wasn’t the one writing it. It was like being a baseball manager and never getting a chance to actually get in the game and affect the outcome, he says.

And then there's Don Cherry and his precious Leafs
Zelkovich gets flooded when he writes about Cherry. “After I started taking some shots at him, he began referring to me on Coaches Corner, although he only mentioned my name once and he mispronounced it badly.”

Zelkovich says Cherry has only really taken offence to two things. One was when he made a remark on Cherry’s pronouncement of the word ‘nothing.’ “Well he called me back and left a message saying something to the effect that,’I’m just a hockey player with a grade eight education, I’m not like you guys.’”

The other time involved a comment about Cherry’s repeated weekly references to soldiers in Afghanistan. Zelkovich wrote, “With Coach's Corner done for the season, how will we know what's going on in Afghanistan?”

Zelkovich says Cherry got really worked up over it, but he said he told Cherry that it was nothing personal and that his only complaint was that the repeated references to the soldiers had nothing to do with hockey.

What may be his best story though, was when the two were in a photo shoot together and the photographer suggested Cherry put Zelkovich in a headlock. Cherry wouldn't do it, not because it wouldn't look good, but because he said, “I might not let go!”

Despite their combative nature, it seems as if the two don’t take what each other has to say too seriously.  Zelkovich says he has nothing personal against Cherry.

“I think he respects me for the fact that, like him, I speak my mind.”

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