On the field, off the cuff, Bruce Huff played a big part in Sun Sports

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Off the cuff’ is defined as spontaneous … informal … something not prepared in advance. 

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Just the way Bruce Huff approached his passion of sports and journalism, playing just about every Canadian pasttime he covered into his 80s. Off The Cuff by Bruce Huff was a must-read for local athletes and leagues who’d otherwise be lost in a sea of Maple Leafs, Argos, NFL and Blue Jays, first in the London Free Press as its Sports Editor, 14 years at the Sun, eight as assistant editor, five years at the Star and back as a freelancer in the Forest City.  

The Huffer was invaluable in Toronto’s newspaper wars, revered by a draft class of Sun writers and deskers as young as his own sons, Tim and Kelly. He reinforced in us all the tenet of ‘get it first, but get it right’; in stories, headlines, cutlines and to the last line of agate page results. When in the doghouse of our demanding boss, George ‘The Baron’ Gross, Bruce always had a joke to ease a bruised ego. 

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Because Bruce had seen it all from the typewriter era, he’d come up with a witty deadline head on a close win, bitter loss, or suggest a better phrase or quote that made your amateur track and field story palatable. But his calming influence competed with the lovable curmudgeon within him, whether griping about the changing print landscape or putting the dagger in some prima donna’s swagger in the newsroom or on the ball diamond. 

One day with our ball team trailing badly late in a slo-pitch game and Huffer on the hill, an overdressed “ham and egger” as he liked to say came to bat with metal spikes, helmet, shades, gold necklaces dangling, cork under his eye — and took three close balls with his side already up 10-plus runs. 

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Bruce fired the next one — overhand — right at the guy’s swelled head. When the ump called time and demanded “what was that, sir?”, Huffer shrugged “sorry, it just got away from me”. 

Our department’s Friday touch football games, played atop the bones of old Maple Leaf Stadium on Fleet Street, were also intense despite the age gap with Bruce. He’d be matched against the stubby fire hydrant Rolf Rimstad and in a manic pursuit scene out of The Benny Hill Show, would chase Rolf, zig-zag the entire field, refusing to give up.          

When our department won the Creighton Cup in the 1990s, a high-stakes hockey tourney involving all cross-country tabloids, Sun founder Doug Creighton came into the winner’s room and immediately asked “where’s old Huff?”, delighted to hand his trophy to the man almost his own age who was still playing. The Huff n’ Puffs, his old-timers’ team in London, were in their 70s when featured in 2003’s Hockey Day in Canada, the prelude to his induction to the London and Dresden Sports Hall of Fame, Canadian Old-timers’ Hall and Ontario Legends of Fastball. 

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Bruce was a gracious winner, but had as much time for the losing handshake line as Gerry Cheevers. After a setback to a haughty rink at broom and stone, the perfunctory “good curling” would be broken by Huffer muttering ‘f*** you’ as the teams passed. Once during every ball game, whether up a few runs or down, he’d tell any lippy foe “you wanna play picnic ball, let’s have a picnic”.    

I had my own touring ball team of 20-somethings, the Toronto Ramones, and added Huffer by popular demand. While his saintly wife Carolyn likely disapproved of him careening around the province with juveniles and spending down time viewing, um, adult entertainment, we didn’t win a game until he joined. One victory came just hours after he and future Ottawa Sun scribe Don Brennan landed in the back of a police car for drinking in public. 

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In winter, Bruce embraced hockey, fiercely defending Canadian coaching from the Original Six era, distrustful of the post-’72 Russian influence. Whenever seeing Wayne Gretzky, he claimed to have been a No. 99 before the Great One and insisted on that number for all our Sun teams. 

Bruce always had a great story or memorable line about someone or something from all his childhood and early job locales in Morpeth, Dresden, Delhi, Norwich, Tillsonburg (where he started writing right out of high school), Chatham and London (he often broke into “fifty degrees in the City of Trees” from his radio days there).    

Raised on Ernie Harwell and the Detroit Tigers, he didn’t quite share Toronto’s love affair with the Jay and their “pregnant pigeon” logo, but like the rest of us, dutifully answered extension 2266 when John Robertson, our baseball columnist, caused deadline havoc by inviting avid readers to phone in with thoughts and poems about their favourite bluebird. 

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Pre-internet, Bruce had to field sports trivia questions when a bar fly called, walk some confused TV viewer through finding what channel had golf on, delight an Albanian soccer fan with a score via foreign wire or just give a shut-in a few moments to rant about the Leafs. Our real bane was bettors calling for late results at Woodbine and Mohawk, which Bruce effectively nipped by telling them we’d be arrested for giving that info over the phone. 

After first edition was put to bed, Bruce and Rolf led the charge to whatever King St. saloon was frequented by the Sun newsroom. Tables at The Domed Stadium, Winchester’s, Underground Railroad or our favourite haunt, Crooks/Upfront, were quickly filled with empty pint glasses and chicken wing bones as successive waves of desk and newshounds crammed in to read the first press run copies and beat 1 a.m. last call.    

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Crooks was owned by actor Dan Aykroyd and ex-cop Richard Kruk. Co-ball team managers Bruce and Rolf secured sponsorship and new uniforms in a late-night call from the bar to Norway where Dan and Chevy Chase were filming Spies Like Us. Crooks’ staff considered Bruce on a celebrity level as any VIP dropping in. He’d play along, purporting to be Dr. Lamb, whose handsome Sun head shot topped a medical advice column. Bruce enjoyed signing Lamb’s page for a group of unwitting Australian women with “I’m good for what ails you”. 

But a certain rogue writer/Crook’s regular held a personal view that the elderly should be culled from the herd so to speak to curtail government spending. Whenever we saw the guy come through the door, we’d playfully throw a coat over Huffer’s head as a precaution. 

Bruce just put –30 – at the bottom of his life’s work, making it to 90 despite recent health concerns. As his wonderful Free Press obit said, he didn’t just report sports, he lived it. And many of us are much better for it. 

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