Can new faces bring a winning attitude back to this city’s professional hockey and basketball teams? Find out for yourself as the Maple Leafs and Raptors return to action at an Air Canada Centre that’s abuzz with anticipation.
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 summer made good on his reputation by signing workhorses like Mike Komisarek, Garnet Exelby 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. Lacking any true scoring stars, it’s unlikely the 2009–10 version of the Maple Leafs will be remembered among the storied lineups of yesteryear, but this city of rink rats and ice queens nevertheless lives and dies by the fortunes of its blue-collar hockey heroes.
[Editor’s note: After this story went to press for the October edition of Where Toronto, the Leafs boosted their offensive punch by signing Phil Kessel to a five-year contract. Last season, the 22-year-old winger broke out for 36 goals with the Boston Bruins.]
Who to Watch: In early days, supporters and detractors alike can find much to discuss about the Leafs’ lineup. Goaltending is a major question mark: at press time, veteran Vesa Toskala was incumbent at the position, but young Swedish acquisition Jonas Gustavsson could also be given time to prove himself between the pipes. And while a bigger, tougher blueline attempts to keep opponents in check, the Maple Leafs’ offensive responsibilities largely fall on the shoulder pads of Matt Stajan, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Jason Blake.
Cheer Them On: The Leafs open their season at the Air Canada Centre by facing off against bitter rivals the Montreal Canadiens (October 1). A few days later they find fierce contest in the Ottawa Senators (October 6) and Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins (October 10), with star Sidney Crosby. The team also hosts the Colorado Avalanche (October 13) and New York Rangers (October 17) before ending the month on a five-game road trip.
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 disheartening 33–49 record last year. But where the 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 to help 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. While the marquee trio of Bosh, blossoming centre Andrea Bargnani and reliable point guard Jose Calderon remains in place, all eyes will be on recently acquired small forward Hedo Turkoglu when the Raptors return to the hardwood. Brought over from the Orlando Magic as part of a Byzantine four-team swap, the Turkish baller adds not only size and stability to the starting lineup, but also above-average playmaking skills and a flair for hitting clutch shots. Other newcomers expected to make an impact: Jarrett Jack, a combo guard coming off his best offensive year with the Indiana Pacers; enigmatic scoring threat Marco Belinelli; defensive-minded centre Rasho Nesterovic; and super-athletic rookie DeMar DeRozan. The consensus among both experts and fans is that the roster shake up is, on paper, decidedly positive. If Canadian head coach Jay Triano can form a cohesive unit from all the fresh faces, expect the Raptors to compete with the Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic for top-tier positioning in the Eastern Conference.
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 will be 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: can the Italian seven-footer continue to develop into a legitimate threat from both beyond the arc and beneath the basket? Turkoglu, too, should be hungry to prove that his star turn in last year’s playoffs was no fluke, while draftee DeRozan could be the kind of high-flying scorer not seen in these parts since the days of Vince Carter.
Cheer Them On: The NBA’s preseason pits the Raptors against rivals including the resurgent Washington Wizards (October 11) and mighty Boston Celtics (October 18), but the big ticket is undoubtedly the team’s regular-season debut, which brings basketball icons Lebron James, Shaquille O’Neal and the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Air Canada Centre (October 28).