It’s spring. When a Torontonian’s fancy turns to sports. With pro basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer and now even rugby, April, May and June are an ideal time to visit Toronto. Here’s a look at the city’s sports scene.
The NBA Toronto Raptors, who made it to the Eastern Conference finals last year, are already guaranteed a playoff spot. Which means thousands upon thousands of screaming fans – not to mention their highest profile supporter, Drake – at the Air Canada Centre in the heart of downtown. The area outside the ACC (as fans call it) has been dubbed Jurassic Park, and it’s where boisterous (this isn’t the quiet, restrained Canada you see in the movies) fans gather to watch the game on giant outdoor TV’s.
The NHL Toronto Maple Leafs are one of the most entertaining teams in hockey, with a slew of young stars such as Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews, who recently set an NHL scoring record for most goals by an American rookie player. They made it to the post-season this year and you can bet they’ll be in the hunt for years to come with a top coach like Mike Babcock holding the reins. The Leafs also play at the Air Canada Centre, where you’ll find plenty of good food and local beers on tap.
Toronto’s Major League Soccer team plays in a wonderful stadium near Lake Ontario and has the wildest fans in North America; flag-waving, song-singing and cheerful-chanting crazies who deck themselves out in brilliant shades of red. Toronto FC, as it’s known, made it to the finals of the MLS Championship last year, only to lose in a heart-breaking, overtime shootout. These might be the most loyal and vociferous fans in Canada, and it’s a huge treat to attend a game. The home season began on March 31.
Canadian baseball fans packed the building formerly known as the SkyDome for years in the 1990s when the Jays were winning back-to-back World Series titles. But they were fairly quiet. Now, with the Jays back to the playoffs for two years in a row, you’ll find their home stadium (now called the Rogers Centre) rocking and rolling and shaking like never before. And, with the convertible roof, you’ll never have to worry about inclement weather at a Jays’ game.
The city has its own rugby squad, the Toronto Wolfpack, which plays on the English rugby circuit. There are a couple of home games in May at cozy Lamport Stadium in central Toronto. And thoroughbred horse racing at renowned Woodbine Racetrack in northwest Toronto begins April 15.
Just about any sports fan on the planet has heard of baseball star Babe Ruth. He made his name as a slugger for the Yankees, but he hit his first home run as a professional ballplayer in Toronto, at the former Maple Leafs minor league stadium on the Toronto Islands. The stadium is, alas, no longer with us. But there’s a plaque to Ruth that visitors can find near Hanlan’s Point, which you can reach from the mainland via a short and inexpensive ferry boat ride. Oh, his homer came on Sept. 5, 1914 if you’re keeping score at home.
The Hockey Hall of Fame is something of a mecca for sports fans who visit the city. You’ll find the Stanley Cup on display, perhaps the most handsome trophy in sports. Not to mention everything from Wayne Gretzky memorabilia to mementoes of the great New York Islanders teams and hockey champions from Montreal and Michigan.
The Sport Gallery, located in the hip and historic Distillery District, features lovely sports books, prints and hipster sports clothes from teams in Canada and the U.S. Look for wonderful black-and-white prints of Muhammad Ali and Canadian hockey heroes, as well as jerseys from Toronto teams, pennants from the Houston Oilers and mementoes of everyone from Jackie Robinson to NFL great Brett Favre.
Great Watching & Fine Food
Toronto has plenty of places to watch the big game. The Wheat Sheaf Tavern is the oldest pub in the city. Located at Bathurst St. and King St., not far from the Rogers Centre, it’s got a ton of TV’s and a great, old-time atmosphere, as well as photos of the famous World Series-winning home run that Toronto Blue Jay Joe Carter hit it in 1993. Duff’s Wings is an outlet of the famous Buffalo dining spot for chicken wings. Real Sports, right across the street from the ACC, serves up very good pasta and more traditional sports pub fare. They have enough TV screens to fill an ESPN studio, including a few screens the size of a basketball court.
But don’t limit yourself to traditional pub fare. The most hopping part of Toronto these days is the West Queen West district and Ossington Ave. One of the top places to dine is Boralia, a small spot on Ossington where they try to make dishes the way old-time explorers did in Canada four centuries ago. It’s a very cool concept, and the food is excellent. Also a ton of fun is The Shameful Tiki Room on Queen West, where they serve up wicked tropical drinks in a shamelessly kitschy yet hipster environment, complete with an “exploding” volcano.
Up in the Leaside area (easily reached by the Yonge St. subway and a short bus ride) is Adamson Barbecue. They sometimes sell out, and lines can be long, so be sure to arrive early for authentic Texas brisket and other meat-lovers’ treats.
About the Author
Jim Byers is a freelance writer based in Toronto. He was the former deputy sports editor at the Toronto Star and covered baseball, basketball, golf and six Olympic Games for the Star. He also served as the papers’ travel editor for five years. His travel stories appear weekly in Postmedia papers and websites across Canada, as well as in other publications in Canada, the U.S., Australia and other places.