Two weeks ago, as I began my 46th fall sports season as a writer with Sun Newspapers, I thought how fortunate I have been to work in a community like Edina.
Although Edina is not my exclusive beat – I also cover Hopkins, Minnetonka and Wayzata sports – Edina is my most long-standing territory.
The year I arrived at Sun Newspapers, 1972, change was in the air. Edina-West High School had just opened, and the old Edina-Morningside High School along Highway 100 had been named Edina-East.
Jerr Boschee, who was Sun’s executive sports editor at the time, asked his cub reporter to do a little research.
“Why don’t you find out whether every varsity athlete from last year’s teams is an East Hornet or a West Cougar?” he asked. “Do you think you could do that by Friday?”
Three minutes later, I was in my car on the way to Edina-West High School.
At the time I was only about three years older than some of the high school seniors, so the first thing a teacher asked me near the front door was, “Shouldn’t you be in class?”
As she tried for figure out what class I was missing, I explained that I was a college grad – the new sportswriter in town.
“Why don’t you go downstairs and see Leo Cabalka,” she suggested.
When I entered the door to the coaches’ office, there he was – Leo Cabalka. He was chuckling to himself as he sometimes did.
I had never seen the man before, but he could not have been more cordial – or helpful. I handed him a stack of Edina High sports programs from the previous year, and told him my dilemma.
“You want to know where all these kids are, right?” he asked. “Let me get a pen. OK, if I put an E by their name, they’re at East. If I put a W by their name, they’re at West. Got it?”
It was amazing how fast Mr. Cabalka went through those names. There was only one name he didn’t recognize, so he asked another teacher, Gene Johnson.
“Hey, Gene, which campus is this guy at?”
“I think he was expelled,” Gene replied.
It took Mr. Cabalka nine minutes to complete a project that I thought would take the whole week.
“Anything else I can help you with?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “I would like to meet Stav Canakes, the football coach.”
“I’m not sure this is the best time for that,” Mr. Cabalka said. “He’s not in a good mood today. Why don’t you call him on Sunday afternoon?”
Naturally, being the greenhorn that I was, that’s what I did.
When coach Canakes picked up the phone and found out who I was, he said, “Yeah. What do you want?”
I briefly thought about Leo Cabalka sitting at his desk chuckling.
“I’d like to get a few comments about the game on Friday night,” I said.
“You’ve got 45 seconds,” he said.
I asked some lame question and he gave me a short answer: “Robbinsdale’s a good team, so is every other team we play. If we execute, we’ll win. If we don’t, I won’t be in a good mood next time I see you. And by the way, don’t ever call me on Sunday afternoon again.”
That was my introduction to the Hall-of-Famer, Stav Canakes.
He enjoyed giving sportswriters a hard time, and came off as gruff on occasion, but it didn’t take me long to figure out he had a heart of gold. We became friends over the years and at Stav’s retirement party, he told me, “You’re not so bad … for a sportswriter.”
I took that as lavish praise.
The sportswriter who covered Edina while I was still in college was a brilliant journalist named Frank Tienan. If there was ever a perfect role model for a young sportswriter, it was Frank.
When Stav spoke during the retirement party, he said, “If you want to give me an award, give me an award for dealing with people like Sherman all these years. Then he turned toward me and said, ‘Maybe someday you’ll get the hang of this. But I don’t know if I’ll live long enough to see it. At least you’re better than the last guy. What was his name? Frank Something or Other?’”
It was a backhanded compliment, but a compliment nevertheless.
The highlight of that party for me was to be compared to Frank Tienan, a man who set the standard I’ve been trying to meet ever since the fall of 1972.
Contact John Sherman at [email protected]