Have new faces brought a winning attitude back to this city’s professional hockey and basketball teams? Find out for yourself as the Maple Leafs and Raptors seek to maintain their mid-season momentum at the Air Canada Centre.
BLADES OF STEEL
You could be forgiven for wondering why it’s so difficult to get tickets to a Toronto Maple Leafs home game. After all, the National Hockey League team—and Canada’s most valuable sports franchise—hasn’t exactly been burning up the ice in recent years. It’s no secret they haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967, and despite attracting some laudable talent, the squad has been shut out of the playoffs in each of the previous four seasons. Such inferiority prompted a high-profile executive change last year, with team owners installing prized hockey mind Brian Burke as general manager. An architect of recent Cup contenders the Vancouver Canucks and Anaheim Ducks, Burke is noted for preferring big, tough players, and this past summer made good on his reputation by signing workhorses like Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin. You won’t be seeing these defensemen at the all-star game; they earn their pay not with fancy stickhandling, but with body checks and blocked shots. Phil Kessel, acquired from the Boston Bruins, has added some scoring, but halfway through the season it’s clear the team is still a star or two away from contending. From this vantage point, the 2009–10 Maple Leafs will not likely be remembered among the storied lineups of yesteryear, but Toronto’s rink rats and ice queens nevertheless continue to live and die by the fortunes of their blue-collar hockey heroes.
Who to Watch: The Leafs began the season with eight straight losses. Since then they’ve flirted with respectability on a game-to-game basis, thanks to steady play between the pipes by Jonas Gustavsson—at press time, the Swedish rookie was sharing minutes with Vesa Toskala as the team’s starting goaltender. And while a bigger, tougher blueline attempts to keep opponents in check, the offensive responsibilities largely fall on the shoulder pads of Phil Kessel, Matt Stajan, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Jason Blake.
Cheer Them On: This month, the Leafs are in tough against a number of dangerous rivals. Early on, they’ll try to spoil Sidney Crosby’s Saturday night when the last season’s Stanley Cup winners, the Pittsburgh Penguins, skate into town (January 9). Following that, the team finds fierce contest in the Philadelphia Flyers (January 14), Los Angeles Kings (January 26) and Vancouver Canucks (January 30).
Like their ice-bound brethren, the National Basketball Association’s Toronto Raptors entered the 2009 off-season in rebuilding mode. After securing playoff berths in the previous two campaigns, the team struggled to a lacklustre 33–49 record last year. But where the Maple Leafs seemed satisfied with incremental changes, Raptors president and general manager Bryan Colangelo virtually swept the court clean, replacing a full two-thirds of his roster in a bid to ensure a winning season and convince star forward Chris Bosh, a sought-after free agent in 2010, to re-sign with Canada’s only NBA franchise. One acquisition, in particular, has helped that cause—veteran small forward Hedo Turkoglu, who joins the marquee trio of Bosh, centre Andrea Bargnani and reliable point guard Jose Calderon. Brought over from the Orlando Magic as part of a Byzantine four-team swap, the Turkish baller has lived up to expectations, adding size and stability to the starting lineup, as well as above-average playmaking skills and a flair for hitting clutch shots. Other newcomers have also made an impact, including energetic combo guard Jarrett Jack, fearless shooter Marco Belinelli and athletic rookie DeMar DeRozan. At this point in the NBA season, the Raptors’ roster shakeup looks to have been decidedly positive—the team boasts a potent offense and, when motivated, can make stops at the other end of the court. Provided their stars can stay healthy down the stretch, expect the Raptors to find a way back to the playoffs, where they’ll attempt to unseat Eastern Conference rivals like the Magic, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics.
Who to Watch: Chris Bosh is Toronto’s number-one scoring option (in 2008–09 he averaged 22.7 points and 10 rebounds per game), and this year is looking to secure his place among the NBA’s elite—not to mention a fat new contract. Another of the season’s intriguing storylines centres on Bargnani: the Italian seven-footer has blossomed into a legitimate threat from both beyond the arc and beneath the basket. Turkoglu, too, has shown that his star turn in last year’s playoffs was no fluke—his dead-eye end-of-game marksmanship continues to justify his “Mr. Fourth Quarter” moniker.
Cheer Them On: The Raptors are thoroughly in the hunt for an Eastern Conference playoff spot as the NBA season barrels toward its halfway point. This month, the team’s home schedule pits them against a number of top teams, including Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks (January 17), Kobe Bryant’s defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers (January 24), and the Miami Heat (January 27), featuring the high-flying Dwayne Wade.