Wolfpack Have Big Shoes to Fill in Championship City

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I was born in Maple Leaf City. It was the 1970’s and the Toronto Maple Leafs of the NHL were the biggest sports show in the country and they – being not so far removed from the championship wins of the 50’s and 60’s – enjoyed unprecedented fame and unrivalled reign over the Big Smoke. 

Every kid learned how to skate, every league was overflowing with players and road hockey was played in every neighbourhood. If you were a kid back then there weren’t a lot of other home teams to root for. My brothers and I would sit beside the television and go through all 12 channels, pressing each button in the hopes that the box would conjure up a NBA tilt, a Buffalo Bills contest or an afternoon baseball game on a feed from Detroit or New York. The search was exhausting and often fruitless.

In 1977 the Toronto Blue Jays came to town. Playing out of the old Exhibition Stadium the team captured the city and our summers were suddenly filled with major league baseball. The players and teams we had only seen on TV screens were now regular visitors. My old man would take us to games down at the old Exhibition stadium, back when the crowds were sparse enough to pick your own seat. The Jays made Toronto more relevant in the North American sports landscape and while hockey had a long and treasured history it felt like old Canada. Baseball was all-inclusive, revered in America and in a city as diverse as Toronto it appealed to the heavy flow of new immigrants much more than hockey did. By the mid 80’s they were a hot ticket.

There was struggle then mediocrity and then eventually excellence. The stretches of hope and brief playoff appearances over the years were all part of the culture building until one day in 1992 the Blue Jays won the World Series. The city erupted and strengthened behind that victory and changed everything about our expectations for sports in the 6ix. It was the birth of Blue Jays city.

The Toronto Blue Jays celebrate their 1992 World Series victory over the Atlanta Braves during the fall of 1992 in Georgia. (photo: Robert Sullivan/AFP via Getty Images)

After repeating as world champions the next season the Jays followed up those glory years with a 22-year playoff draught – the longest in the history of professional sports when it ended in 2015. The focus went from them – quiet ploddingly – to the Toronto Raptors – the big, new shiny NBA franchise that arrived in 1995. I was in the Sky dome (as the Rogers Centre was known back then) at the first NBA draft held outside the U.S.A. From the upper deck seats that I had sat in to watch the Jays for so many years as a kid I now looked down from as the Raptors selected Damon Stoudamire to a chorus of boos. Fan knowledge was thin back then and they were wrong about Stoudamire – who went on to become rookie of the year – but over the years they’d learn and become one of the smartest and most passionate fan bases in the NBA.

 

Before that though, the Raptors stunk and struggled until they drafted Vince Carter in 1998. Carter’s electric star power brought the team to their first playoff appearance and kick started a basketball revolution not just in Toronto, but also across the country. Like the Blue Jays they became Canada’s team but fell in popularity behind the lore of the Maple Leafs and Jays for nearly 20 years until 2019, when they won the NBA Championship. 

 

The celebrations that followed the Raptors’ victory were epic. An endless sea of people filled the streets around Scotiabank Arena – the world-class arena that opened in 1999 to house the Maple Leafs and Raptors. A few days later I was among the millions that attended a victory parade like nothing the city had ever seen. Not bad for an organization many thought wouldn’t last after their expansion cousins Vancouver Grizzlies picked up and moved to Memphis in 2001 after just six seasons. The march toward respectability was long and hard and very much a part of the championship campaign that gave birth to Raps City.

The Toronto Raptors championship parade cut its way through the city and millions of fans in the summer of 2019.

Years before the Raptors stole the hearts of Toronto sports fans major league soccer had also made its way to the 6ix. When it was awarded to Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment in 2005 the club was an afterthought in the crowded sports scene. Like the early Raptors years many questioned its survivability but the big money and pull that MLSE had from owning both the Leafs and Raptors allowed TFC to more easily navigate the choppy waters of pro sports. After living through the ugly seasons that come with expansion teams TFC found a competitive footing and a rabid fan base. Before long they were a contender in MLS, ultimately winning a championship in 2017. The accomplishment didn’t register quite like the Stanley Cups, World Series championships and Larry O’Brien trophy brought to Toronto but for a moment they owned the city. 

 

When the Toronto Wolfpack rugby club arrived in 2017 and established themselves as the world’s first transatlantic pro team few took notice. It started as a speck on the Toronto sports scene, born in the midst of a hockey-crazed city, the re-emergence of the Blue Jays and the beginning of a championship era for the Raptors. Not the best timing for a new sport looking to find a place in a market saturated with pro teams, but the Wolfpack are not the typical sports franchise. As a transatlantic club, they are the only team in rugby league’s Super League that plays in North America. Super League teams are based in the UK with one other playing out of France. They spend much of the year training and playing league games abroad, which can make it difficult to build a local following and stay visible on this side of the world. And while rugby is a relatively popular grassroots sport in Canada participation almost completely disappears after high school. This means there isn’t a lot of elite Canadian rugby players to mine from, which would have made the sell job to the public a bit easier. Travel costs, venue concerns and resistance towards expansion from a loyal UK fan base have stacked the odds against the club’s success. They are an underdog story in almost every way, which is why I decided to switch it up and cover the team full-time.

 

I know very little about rugby. Facts. Before last year I had never even heard of Super League. After a lifetime of watching teams come to Toronto and set up shop – seeing the difficulties and doubts turn into hard-fought successes – I’m buzzed by the possibilities that exist for rugby league in North America. I’m learning and I am an eager student. The feeling of watching something grow from ground zero is part of this job I’ve enjoyed most and I’ve been fortunate to come up in a time where my friends and I witnessed the birth of four world-class franchises. I consider myself even more fortunate that I was able to cover and follow and write about one of those teams – the Raptors – for 13 years on the home beat. I watched them survive, as their expansion cousin Grizzlies did not. I covered the team through some pretty dark days and some promising ones as well. The beginnings of pro sports franchises are ugly, mismanaged and often tightrope-walking affairs, but they are a rarity that fans should cherish. 

 

Toronto has been spoiled by sports teams that have helped build up this megacity. There isn’t a lot of room left for many more new beginnings and the Wolfpack could be the last launch of a big time sports team this city will see for a long time. The market is full of winners. Every major franchise has won a ‘ship. Expectations are high. The record-breaking $10M signing of Sonny Bill Williams – rugby’s biggest star – sent a big wave through the rugby world last fall. He has helped put all eyes on Toronto across the rugby world, much like Carter did with the Raptors. The team has seen a growing and passionate following emerge as they’ve pushed through the lower divisions of rugby to reach Super League. The ascension has been rapid and amazing but with mounting operating costs, a less than fully supportive league and a front office still settling in the Wolfpack are a hardly a sure thing. There may have never been an expansion franchise on less footing in Toronto as the ‘Pack are today, but also never one so damn intriguing. 

Sonny Bill Williams was brought in to help the Toronto Wolfpack grow the game and their brand by winning now. (Photo: Stephen Gaunt/Touchlinepics.com )

It will take a lot more winning and star power for the club to make a dent in championship city. The uphill battle of doing something never done before is a fight won with bloody fists.  As a journalist it was hard for me to resist getting closer to ringside – hard to resist getting dirty. It’s harder still to resist sticking around and seeing if this scrappy club can one day have its day in a Wolfpack City. Every major team in Toronto has been bought into and believed in enough at some point to get push and earn the payoff of a championship. I’ve seen most of them from the beginning and if the Wolfpack can survive the next few summers, they may one day join their ranks.