Writing, like sports, is a series of choices, says veteran reporter who broke the story of an NHL prospect’s traumatic past.
By Laura Beamish
On Dec. 19, 2005, Gare Joyce’s article “Alias” was published in ESPN The Magazine, revealing then NHL prospect Bobby Ryan’s traumatic past. Growing up, Ryan’s father was aggressive, and had a temper that would eventually get him charged with aggravated assault and attempted murder of Melody, Ryan’s mother. After this, all three family members moved across the country, change their last name and tried to start over, but eventually the past would catch up with them. An updated version, “The Secret Life of Bobby Ryan” appeared in Sportsnet Magazine in 2013, in light of Ryan’s trade to the NHL’s Ottawa Senators.
Gare Joyce has an extensive resume that spans over 30 years of writing and editing feature works. With an education from Ryerson University, Joyce has gone on to write for ESPN, Sportsnet, the New York Times and the Globe and Mail, among others. He has written multiple books and continues to write while also working as the features editor for Sportsnet. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
J-Source: How did you get into journalism?
Gare Joyce: I was always a consumer of media going back to when I was a kid. I remember at age eight pouring through not just Sports Illustrated, but Time. I was an early reader and rather than books, I went to newspapers when I had to crawl over them to read them. It was always something that I imagined doing.
J-Source: Was sports always the route you wanted to go?
G.J.: It wasn’t originally what I started out in. I’d always had an interest in it. I’d done work on the police beat, I’d done courts, any number of things. I ranged around a fair bit. I’d looked into getting into sports coming out of Ryerson and actually I was able to work in other areas first before crossing over into sports.
J-Source: When you go to write a piece do you have a particular process or something that you have to have while you’re writing?
G.J.: I’ve evolved over the years and the most important thing—and I pass it on to all the writers on our staff and everyone younger than me—is that I work from outline no matter what. I never used to do that, I was a seat-of-the-pants-guy.
In 2004 I did a profile of a fellow named Budd Schulberg who won an Oscar for the screenplay ‘On the Waterfront’ and he won national literary awards for his novel and had done extensive journalism… We got talking about outlines and I said, “Well I can understand with a screenplay that you work from an outline.” He goes, “No, actually, if I’m writing a 500 word book review I work from an outline.”
Ever since then I’ve done it and it’s made my life easier. Now I’ll spend five or six times as much time working on an outline than I actually do on the writing. Basically, if I have a 3,000-part piece I would write that top to bottom more or less in two hours and I’ll spend a week moving pieces around in the outline phase until I feel comfortable with it.
You can think it’s harder to do on deadline, but it actually isn’t. If you’re writing a game column, or anything like that, even taking that time to have four lines and writing four sections with a line dedicated to each. For a piece like Bobby Ryan, that would start with sections and then it would be first sentence in each paragraph and then in point form notes about what will go in a certain paragraph.
J-Source: Speaking of that Bobby Ryan story—it is a very personal story. How did you come across that story to write about it?
G.J.: I originally broke that story in ESPN The Magazine back in 2005. I wrote it around the draft. I was in Owen Sound with Bobby for a couple days and met his mother. Then at the draft I caught back up with him.
I’d heard from some of my contacts in junior hockey and in NHL scouting that this kid had a crazy backstory. His agent was the agent of Patrick O’Sullivan who I’d written about and broke the story of his history of abuse. I’d written that for ESPN The Magazine as well and they thought that I handled it fairly enough that they gave Bobby a recommendation that it was okay to talk to me.
I think it was that way with Patrick as well. If Bobby didn’t talk about it, then the story would be out of his control and someone would write it without his contributing to it. It’s one of those things, with a story like that, for the subject to get out in front of it and to have your version of events out there rather than an inaccurate and possibly unfair or incomplete version. So they were pretty happy with the story.
But (with) the original story in ESPN The Magazine, Bob was actually on probation and he wasn’t cleared to leave the jurisdiction. He’d just been released from jail at the time of the NHL draft and further there was a restraining order, he wasn’t supposed to have any contact with his wife at that point, even though they had reconciled. So Bob ended up going back and having to do some time after the draft because I outted him. I didn’t know and he actually didn’t know, but that’s sort of the fallout of it.
J-Source: With a story like this, was Bobby Ryan or anyone else involved ever hesitant to talk about it?
G.J.: Bob, Bobby’s father, was when I spoke to him for ESPN. It wasn’t that he was reluctant, he was just like, “You better be fair to my kid,” but he was very happy with the story. By the time I’d talked to him for Sportsnet he was completely on board. I’ve bumped into Bobby a bunch of times over the years, he actually did a blurb for the book that Patrick O’Sullivan and I wrote, and I know that he was happy and relieved with the outcome.
(Bobby’s) an incredibly well adjusted young man for all the stuff he’s had to go through. Even as a teenager, even at 17, 18, he was incredibly strong. Maybe he’d say that he came off stronger than he actually was, but I think some 17- and 18-year-olds would have difficulty and I think some 28- and 29-year-olds would have difficulty. Bobby was pretty together at 18.
J-Source: Why is it important to you to write features like this?
G.J.: We see games or we see personalities in the game packaged, but we don’t really see how they get into the spotlight. We see what’s under the spotlight. We don’t see process. I always say it comes down to choices, that your destiny is the product of a series of choices and any one choice made in a wrong direction can derail your career and good choices don’t guarantee a career. I think that’s true with not just a career in sports, but a career in anything. Life is just a series of choices. I think we get to see choices that players or athletes make in competitions or in a game, but we don’t get to see the choices that they made so that they would have a chance to make those choices in the game.
Laura Beamish is a Masters of journalism student with a Bachelor of Arts in political science. Laura has a passion for looking at underlying social issues and understanding human actions and their impact on society. In 2016, she interned at CTV Two’s Alberta Primetime