Leafs, pro sports in Toronto on the ups
In June of 2011 and 2012, ESPN proclaimed the city of Toronto as North America’s worst
professional sports city when they published their annual Ultimate Standings. The ranking, one that once drew the ire of then Leafs President and General Manager Brian Burke, was met with equal parts criticismand acceptance as Toronto’s professional sports teams continued to increase ticket prices while failing to produce on the court, field, artificial turf and ice. Leading the way in this lowly endeavour were the Toronto Maple Leafs, whose league leading ticket prices were met with an equally unacceptable performance year, after year, after year.
When Burke came out to candidly defend the city of Toronto - as he was known to do - he was quick to target the rankings as “absurd and offensive”, continuing to say, “I don’t think ESPN knows squat about Canada. I don’t think they know squat about hockey.”
While Burke may have been right, the words of Peter Keating, ESPN’s senior writer also rang true. “You have this team in the biggest city in the country with this great history and an avid fan base charging huge prices, but they don’t make the playoffs”, Keating said when discussing the rankings to which he authored on a number of criteria. It was a ranking that while sad, and perhaps too low considering the lack of a winning history in many cities, was nonetheless apt. Prior to the Toronto Rock’s 2011 NLL Championship, the banners in Toronto had been few and far between. Even the Argonauts had only one championship to speak of (2004) in what dated back more than a decade in a 7-8 team league. It’s important to note that while the Toronto Rock may have been a dynasty of sorts, both the NLL and CFL were not accounted for in the rankings as they took only the NBA, MLB, NFL and NHL into consideration.
Let’s be frank, Toronto fans haven’t felt what it’s like to be a successful sports city in some time. That is changing. With a win in the 100th Grey Cup, the Argonauts lit a flame in the city of Toronto that hasn’t burned in quite some time. That flame has appeared to grow, stretching into a reformed Jays franchise that once refused to put money into a team that is capable of generating a ton of interest, and further to a Raptors franchise that is young and entertaining despite their awful record. Further still, the Toronto Rock are a team that has once again clinched the East Division, which leaves us with the Leafs.
As Toronto’s most adored and beloved team, the importance of the Leafs generating success for the rich sports culture is where the city would triumph or die. As mentioned in Dante Martella’s recent article, the Leafs’ proverbial flame has been extinguished for well over 3200 days. As the team’s success goes, so does the city’s in many ways, with fans living and breathing on the squad’s every move. Quick to target Phil Kessel, Brian Burke, Ron Wilson, Vesa Toskala, John Ferguson Jr., Bryan McCabe, Dion Phaneuf, Luke Schenn and Andrew Raycroft for the team’s inability to succeed in recent years, there’s finally reason to be optimistic.
While the Leafs are by no means ready to labelled an annual competitor, they’re hanging on and well inside a playoff race with a team oozing of chemistry and self-confidence. Not only have a number of the team’s prospects flourished and shown promise in the junior ranks with the likes of Morgan Rielly, Josh Leivo, Garret Sparks, Matt Finn and Stuart Percy making names for themselves, but so too is the AHL affiliate having success. The Marlies, with just one regulation loss in their last 10 games, sit comfortably atop the North Division with a 7 point lead on the Rochester Americans, good enough for 2nd in the Conference. All this without the core of players that brought the baby buds to the Calder Cup Finals last season. Gone are the team’s dominant AHL stars in Matt Frattin, Ryan Hamilton, Jake Gardiner, Mike Kostka and Nazem Kadri, heart and soul players in Leo Komarov and Mark Frazer and up and down steady hands in Joe Colborne and Korbinian Holzer at times yet the team continues to succeed.
With the Leafs, the AHL graduates are leading a young Buds roster to a current playoff spot that has seen them bounce around from 5th to 6th place in recent days. This success, more because of the young talent and pleasant surprises than the actual playoff standing, has been the catalyst in rejuvenating the city, especially in maintaining hopes as the Blue Jays struggle out of the gate. A young, fascinating Nazem Kadri leads the way, continuously bringing fans out of their seats. Phil Kessel’s play has been balanced and dangerous and, when healthy, Lupul has proven to be a force. Not to be overlooked, James Reimer continues to emerge as a net minder capable of shoring up the position that has plagued the team for years.
Toronto sports are turning a corner, and could finally be reaching the light at the end of the very long and very dark tunnel. The Leafs are finally relevant again and leading the city’s charge. If only the faithful could be sure it might last…
For years it’s been rebuild, rebuild, rebuild. Well, allow me to say cheers to the rebirth of sports in Toronto.