By Doug Kennedy
Steve McAllister’s career started in Kincardine and it will end here. What happened in between is an amazing journey for a small-town guy who dreamt as a teenager about one day writing about sports for a living.
That journey started in the eastern Ontario community of Prescott and continued in Toronto, where he studied journalism at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (known today as Ryerson University). In May 1981, McAllister tossed his bags into his mom’s car and made the seven-hour drive to Kincardine and the start of his career as a reporter-photographer at the Kincardine News. Some 39 years later, his wish to eventually return here has come true, thanks to Megan Adams and John Peevers, who hired him in the fall of 2018 to join the corporate affairs department at Bruce Power.
He has worked in newspapers, public relations, communications and digital media, making quite a name for himself among journalists across Canada. If you ever wanted to be involved in sports as a big part of your everyday life, this story is going to make you jealous.
McAllister is grateful to have enjoyed a career that’s taken him to three Olympics, two World Series, and three Grey Cups, and allowed him to spend time with some of biggest sports figures. He also rubbed elbows with some of the greats in Canadian sports media, including his friend Bob Elliott – the long-time Toronto Sun columnist who’s been honoured by the Baseball Hall of Fame with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for sportswriting, and was elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2015.
“Steve was well respected from the time he worked at The Canadian Press – the country’s coast-to-coast wire service for newspapers from Prince George, B.C. to Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador – to eventually becoming the president of Sports Media Canada,” Elliot, who retired from the Sun a few years ago, told me last week. “There may be more liked people in the media business, but I can’t think of any. He’s one of the most popular and respected people in Canadian media.”
McAllister started writing sports as a highschool student in Prescott in the late 1970s and was hired at the News to write both news and sports. That included covering the sports teams at KDSS and where he met the love of his life, Julie Farrell, who played for the volleyball and basketball Knights.
For the last year of his first stay in Kincardine, he lived with friends and Kincardine Royals senior baseball teammates Dan Wilken and Randy McLeod. “The biggest thing about Steve is that all of those big jobs haven’t changed the person I met more than 30 years ago,” said Wilken.
He remembers a funny story when Doug Dunlop, then the coach of the Kincardine Kinucks junior team, didn’t like one of McAllister’s stories from the previous week, so he ordered the players to not speak to the reporter, who happened to be working as a linesman in a Friday night game at the Davidson Centre. According to Wilken, Dunlop saw him with McAllister the next day and that cost him some ice time in the following game. “I think it was worth it,” joked Wilken.
While playing for the Royals, McAllister was one time called “Cubby” by Dale Pollock in reference to cub (young) reporters. The nickname stuck and continues to be used by his Kincardine friends to this day. Although he is quick to say his highlight reel as an athlete is sadly very short, McLeod remembers his roomie hitting an extra-inning walk-off home run to win a game in Campbellville at the OBA senior championship tournament. He also has memories of Steve and Mike Petter leading the air guitar sessions on the team bus they shared with the Kinucks.
“Playing on those Royals teams was so much fun,” said McAllister. “We had some very good teams with Harvey Ross, Nute Catto and Kevin Hedley managing, and deep in pitching with guys like Mike, Rob Davidson, Ken Green, Steve MacDonald, Joe Musselman, Wilken and others.”
One of his co-workers on the editorial side at the News was Bev Fry, who remembers his kindness and how much fun they had working together.
“He was a talented writer with a big smile and always ready to tell you a joke,” Fry said. “He was good at all kinds of writing but he had a special flare for sportswriting. All of his co-workers from back then have followed his career with pride.”
Working in Kincardine also gave McAllister an opportunity to get back into officiating hockey, something he did in Prescott growing up, having learned from his father, Lionel – who refereed games in the Ontario Hockey League during the 1970s and was a linesman in the American Hockey League for one season. As Clarke Pollock told me, that helped him immensely when he resumed officiating with the Kincardine Minor Hockey Association and the Ontario Hockey Association.
“Steve was a fast learner and developed into a top official who was assigned games in the Sutherland Cup junior B final, the Allan Cup senior final and other OHA final series,” said Pollock, recently named to the Kincardine Sports Wall of Fame. “We had many good times travelling all over the province to officiate big games in full buildings.”
McAllister credits his father and Pollock as the two largest influences in his hockey officiating, which led him to a Hockey Canada Level 5 certification, an invitation to attend the National Hockey League officiating evaluation session at Maple Leaf Gardens, and the opportunity to referee the first two games of the first unofficial World Women’s Hockey Championship in Toronto in 1987.
On Labour Day weekend in 1985, McAllister left the News to join another weekly newspaper, this time in Georgetown. He would then move on to another newspaper in the Metroland chain, the Etobicoke Guardian. On returning from his honeymoon with Julie in December 1988, he joined the Canadian Press and covered the CFL for two seasons before moving over to cover the Toronto Blue Jays. How exciting would that have been to be the national baseball writer for those two World Series wins?
McAllister told me about some big highlights from those two championship seasons in Toronto, including the vivid memory from Game six of the 1992 World Series when Mike Timlin flipped the ball to Joe Carter for the final out in Atlanta.
“That was pretty amazing for a (then) young man from a small town in eastern Ontario to be inside the visitors’ clubhouse at Fulton County Stadium trying to avoid getting sprayed with champagne,” he remembered.
Like every Canadian baseball fan who was alive in 1993, the Joe Carter “touch them all” home run in Game six is embedded in his memory.
“I was already in the Jays clubhouse when Carter walked in after doing some television interviews on the field,” McAllister said. “He had this ‘did that really just happen look’ on his face. It was a couple of hours later when I finished writing, but I’ll never forget seeing people still celebrating on Lakeshore Boulevard as I walked to my car.”
Just as vivid is the memory of the fourth game of that 1993 series at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia when the Blue Jays staged a wild rally to win 15-14.
“Easily the strangest sports event I covered. That game took more than four hours to play and it rained pretty much the entire night. When the Blue Jays scored those six runs in the eighth inning to take the lead, the sportswriters from the Philadelphia papers were slamming down their laptops and cursing a blue streak because they had already written and sent in stories that were no longer relevant.”
“It’s a bit of a blur now but I vaguely remember looking at Doug Smith (a Canadian Press reporter then but now the long-time basketball writer for the Toronto Star), deleting my story and then sweating profusely to get a new story written by the final out. “
Having access to tickets as a journalist allowed Steve to bring Julie and his mom, Jean Dufour, to a game or two during those championship runs.
After the ’93 series, McAllister left CP and joined the communications team at Tennis Canada. Nine months later, he received a phone call from Bob Goodenow, then the executive director of the NHL Players’ Association. The NHLPA was facing a lockout from NHL owners and needed a person to speak with reporters. So, he became the PA’s first-ever media relations manager for the next three years. I am sure that was interesting to work for the players, and meeting all the great people who work in the NHL – including Gary Bettman – was a life-changing experience.
He returned to Tennis Canada in the summer of 1997 and eventually became the national federation’s Director of Communications, highlighted by working on what is known today as the Rogers Cup tournaments in Toronto and Montreal.
He missed journalism, however, so when Neil A. Campbell – his good friend from his baseball writing days – called to say he was leaving his job as sports editor of The Globe of Mail to become the editor of globeandmail.com, McAllister jumped at the opportunity to move into one of the “best jobs in Canadian sports media”.
Bob Elliott credits McAllister with continuing the work done by Campbell in leading one of the best sports departments in the country between 2000 and 2008. Among his moves during his time at the Globe was giving Dave Naylor – now with TSN – a full-time role as a football reporter, hiring veteran hockey writer Tim Wharnsby as his deputy sports editor, and moving current Sportsnet multi-platform journalist Michael Grange from golf into being the number one basketball writer for Canada’s national newspaper.
After a one-year stint working as an editor on The Globe’s sports website, he was recruited by Yahoo in December 2009 to be the managing editor of the online company’s Canadian sports property. Less than two months after he started, Steve was on a plane to Vancouver for his first Olympic Games.
“I was involved in Olympics coverage at CP and the Globe, but Vancouver was my first games on the ground,” he said. “Most Canadians have a story around Sidney Crosby’s golden goal, and I do, too. I was sitting in our rented house in Kitsilano watching the game with five Americans working for Yahoo Sports in the U.S. They were running around the living room high-fiving each other when Zach Parise tied the gold-medal game in the final minute of the third period. They were sure silent when Crosby scored.”
“What also stands out from that game is moderating a live chat with Greg Wyshynski (now ESPN’s hockey writer) and having 250,000 people on that chat at its peak. That was at the beginning of sports fans watching games on TV and using their cellphones to interact with others through Twitter and chat platforms like Cover It Live.”
From the 2012 London Olympics, being at the All England Club – home to Wimbledon – to watch Milos Raonic lose 25-23 in the third set against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the longest-ever Olympic tennis match stands out, as does sitting at the finish line of the Olympic Stadium in front of 70,000 spectators cheering on British track star Mo Farah to a gold medal in the men’s 10,000 metres. Two years later in Sochi, McAllister was in the media section to watch Canada’s stunning comeback win over the Americans for the gold medal in women’s hockey.
“The Americans were favourites to win the gold and I really thought they were the better team,” he said. “But the Canadian veterans, including Hayley Wickenheiser, Jayna Hefford , Catherine Ward and Gillian Apps, wouldn’t let that happen. It’s one of the grittiest performances, especially from Wickenheiser, who played that tournament with a broken foot.”
In his almost seven years at Yahoo, thanks to the company’s fantasy sports games, blogs and some of the best sportswriters in the U.S., the company often leapfrogged TSN and Sportsnet in the monthly sports website ratings. During his time there, he also taught at the College of Sports Media and Ryerson University, passing on his knowledge about writing and communications.
He left Yahoo after the 2016 Summer Olympics and started HipCheck Media with long-time friend and sports marketer Colin Campbell, working with clients such as the Canadian Olympic Committee, U Sports, Athletics Canada, NBA Canada and The Hill Academy’s school for student-athletes in Vaughan. Just prior to joining Bruce Power, he joined the office of Kirsty Duncan, the federal Minister of Science and Sport, as a consultant with a focus on a bipartisan committee on Parliament Hill examining concussions in youth sport.
For the past 11 years, McAllister has led Sports Media Canada, an organization that recognizes excellence in Canadian sports journalism with its annual Achievement Awards luncheon. Kincardine native Lee Boyadjian was a recipient of the organization’s Student Award in 2007 when she was studying journalism at Ryerson.
I had to ask about his best interviews over this amazing career. He said Paul Molitor was his favourite player to interview during the Blue Jays’ championship years, followed by David Cone and Dave Stewart. During his days covering the CFL, he mentioned Pinball Clemons as someone who always had a good quote and was enjoyable to be around.
“Probably the only time I was in awe of someone I interviewed was a one-on-one I had with Nolan Ryan at the Texas Rangers’ spring training facility in Port Charlotte, Florida,” he remembers. “I was writing a story about (Toronto pitcher) Juan Guzman, who pitched against Ryan that day. The Hall of Famer was on a stationary bike all by himself in the Rangers’ clubhouse and he was gracious enough to speak about his young opponent.”
In 2011, McAllister was inducted into the Brockville Sports Hall of Fame, and three years later he was added to the South Grenville District High School Wall of Fame
The McAllister’s have three children – Lindsay, Alexa and Ben, who live in Shelburne, London and Toronto respectively. He is optimistic that there will be a minor hockey season this fall and is excited to get back behind the bench again as the coach of the Kincardine midget girls team. While living in Caledon, he coached Lindsay and Alexa in the Brampton Canadettes association and was a coach on Ben’s teams in the Caledon Hawks association.
Talking to McAllister at the Canadian Nuclear Association conference in Ottawa this past February has really helped me with my sports writing. It is amazing the little tips he has given me over the last few months, among them bringing a more personal touch when you’re writing about people you know. I also admire his ability to take a quote and make it into a paragraph that tells a story. I am not sure what type of grade he would give me, so I’ll do it myself. Before we started talking about writing, I think I was a D and I’d humbly suggest I’ve moved up to a B-minus.
This story could have been three times as long, as he has experienced so many amazing sporting events over his life. Getting to know him better over the last few months I am sure he will be a great volunteer in our community. We’re pleased the McAllister’s have found their way back to Kincardine.