Monthly Archives: June 2019

We The North

You’d never call me a Raptors fan, but I’m glad they won … and I’m particularly happy for their fans. It’s a lot of fun when your team wins. As Nuke Laloosh says in Bull Durham (a movie Barbara loved, and a line we quoted often) “It’s, like, better than losing!” So, good for the Raptors, and good for basketball fans all across Canada.

I admit, I was a doubter pretty much right up until they won it in Game 6 last Thursday. (I’m not so disinterested that I don’t know their past history of playoff defeats!) I’d been watching a little since the Philadelphia series, but not very closely. In fact, the championship game is now the only Raptors game I’ve ever watched from start to finish … including the one I attended many years ago.

The crowd at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square is reflected in the
Larry O’Brien Trophy and Kawhi Leonard’s NBA Finals MVP Trophy.

I think the Raptors just came along too late for me. I used to really love basketball. Though I never actually saw them live, I remember the Buffalo Braves and their games in Toronto when I was a kid. I knew who Bob McAdoo was when he was winning scoring titles. I really started paying attention as a teenager, with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the NCAA championship in 1979 and was hooked when their Lakers and Celtics teams were battling for titles throughout the ’80s. But by the time the Raptors entered the NBA in 1995, it was too late for me. I was with Barbara and helping to raise Amanda. It was nothing they did. I still watched a ton of baseball, and hockey was becoming my regular “day job.” I was happy — and I didn’t have any interest in more sports or another team.

Amanda and Barbara were happy to be Blue Jays fans, though they didn’t care much about the Leafs. I did take Amanda to the Raptors Fanfest in January of 1999 after the NBA lockout … but that was pretty much it for basketball.

Although I’m not really a Raptors fan, I’m not truly a basketball band-wagon jumper either. So, I think that I’m allowed to say that it annoys me that so many American commentators seem to think that basketball in Canada didn’t exist before the Raptors! That used to bug me about the Blue Jays too. We had the Maple Leafs baseball team in Toronto from 1896 to 1967. My parents – especially my mother – grew up as huge baseball fans! As for basketball, we had a hoop in our driveway 40 years ago, and I played on a team in Grade Six. (I was terrible, and never played for our school teams in Junior High or High School, but we had them!) I know my Uncle Gerry, who recently turned 90, played basketball when he was in high school. (When Jews were inner city kids, basketball was a Jewish game!)

The Bond Purple Raiders from Owen Sound were Provincial basketball champions.

Everyone seems to know that James Naismith, who invented basketball in 1891, was a Canadian. And many know that the first NBA game in 1946 (when the league was actually called the Basketball Association of America) was played at Maple Leaf Gardens, where the Toronto Huskies hosted the New York Knicks. That’s really it for pro basketball in Canada before the Raptors, but it’s not like the sport was unknown here! It was played by boys and girls, men and women, in clubs and in schools, since the very beginning. Google the Edmonton Grads, if you’ve never heard of them.

One of my favorite images in the Ross family collection is this picture of
Art Ross with the Crescent basketball team, senior champions of the
Westmount Amateur Athletic Association in Montreal during the winter of 1902–03.

With that in mind, I was agreeable when a producer from CTV News Channel asked me to talk about the historic significance of the Raptors’ victory. Perhaps you saw it? (But probably not!) Anyway, three or four minutes on TV go by so quickly, I barely had any time to discuss anything beyond the comparisons with the Blue Jays winning the World Series. So, if you’re interested, you can read this (slightly bulked up) exchange below between me and the producer to get a sense of what I really hoped to talk about…

(Oh, and by the way, I was disappointed that I didn’t mention the Women’s World Cup and Canada’s team when Marcia MacMillan asked me what was worth watching now. Barbara never followed anything in sports the way she was briefly hooked on Christine Sinclair and the Canadian women’s team after watching that epic semifinal game with the U.S. at the 2012 London Olympics.)

Hi Eric,
 
Here are some talking points ahead of tomorrow’s interview at 10:45 AM EST
 
1.  How monumental is this victory?

It’s huge. As the only Canadian team in an American sport, it feeds into the love-hate relationship with our neighbours. When they validate our victory, it’s even bigger. Though the Leafs have a following all across the country, there is also that national hatred of Toronto. The Raptors and the Blue Jays seem to overcome that. The big thing is, how much does this do for basketball in Canada going forward… (See more in the “Where does it rank…” question.)

 
2.  How does it compare to other Toronto titles of the past?  The Leafs in 67 and the Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993?

The Leafs in 67 has become much bigger in retrospect than it was at the time, although upsetting Montreal in the Centennial year was noteworthy. Very similar to the Blue Jays (see below). But the next Leafs victory — if it ever comes — will be the big one! Though, of course, while the Leafs have a following all across the country, there is also that national hatred of Toronto. The Raptors and the Blue Jays seem to overcome that, as I said.

 
3.  Where does it rank amongst Canada’s greatest wins?  (please provide specific examples)

The most obvious comparison is the Blue Jays. I think this is at least as big as that. Possibly bigger. As I already said, as the only Canadian team in an American sport, it feeds into the love-hate relationship with our neighbours. When they validate our victory, it’s even bigger. And basketball is such a global game. No Grey Cup team has a shot at that, and, really no NHL team either.

The birth of the Blue Jays, and then the World Series win, increased interest in baseball all across Canada, and we’ve seen record numbers of Canadians in the Majors in recent years. The birth of the Raptors, and the success of Steve Nash, has already led to more and more Canadians making it to the NBA. This should only increase that in the years to come…

Other examples are the Canadian Olympic hockey wins for the men’s team both in 2002 and, especially in Vancouver in 2010. And, of course, Paul Henderson’s goal in 1972. But those only confirmed that we’re a hockey-crazy country. Just having a women’s national team that competes for World and Olympic titles (and often wins them) has been a huge boost for women’s hockey. More and more girls are playing … but it hasn’t done much to help the women’s professional game. 

Donovan Bailey, and the 4 x 100 relay team at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Perhaps there’s no Andre de Grasse without that. (Ben Johnson would have been HUGE). Another historic comparison would be Mike Weir winning The Masters … though I think the Raptors and Blue Jays are bigger. Still, is there a Brooke Henderson without that?

The only other examples are really extremely old. There’s the Paris Crew, four rowers from New Brunswick who won Canada’s first World Championship in any sport when they won in Paris, France in 1867. (There was a Heritage Minute about that) Rowing was a huge sport internationally then, and during the 1880s, Toronto’s Ned Hanlon became a world champion and was probably the most famous athlete in the world.

 
4.  What do you think James Naismith would think about the Raptors success?

I’m sure he’d be pleased. But he’d probably wonder what took so long! Naismith (1861-1939) lived long enough to see how popular his sport became all around the world. In fact, basketball became hugely popular very quickly, even in Canada. Canada won bronze in the first official Olympic basketball tournament in 1936, and the sport was very popular in pockets of the country (particularly Windsor, ON and Victoria BC) much as hockey has always been popular in parts of the United States.

Who’s Gonna Win?

Game seven for the Stanley Cup! I haven’t been following the playoffs nearly as intently as I used to, but even if it’s hard to relate to hockey in June when your team isn’t in it (which it most definitely is) … well — it’s still Game seven for the Stanley Cup!

For those who’ve been following even less intently than I have, it’s the Boston Bruins versus the St. Louis Blues. The Blues — who joined the NHL as part of the expansion that saw the league double from six teams to 12 back in 1967–68 — have never won the Stanley Cup before. Boston has won it six times, with its first victory coming 90 years ago in 1929. Even so, the Bruins have never been part of a seventh game for all the marbles on home ice.

Art Ross drinks from the Stanley Cup bowl after Boston’s 1939 victory.

I heard someone mention on the radio the other day that this was the Bruins’ first Game seven at home, but that’s not quite as remarkable as it sounds. Boston did win its last Stanley Cup title in a seventh game in Vancouver back in 2011, but this is only the 17th Game seven since the Stanley Cup Final was expanded beyond a best-of-five format 80 years ago in the spring of 1939. (Boston beat Toronto 4 games to 1 that year.) In all that time, seven-game series have been the rarest of all possible outcomes:

Four games: 20 times
Five games: 19 times
Six games: 24 times
Seven games: 17 times

Boston becomes just the 12th NHL city to host a seventh game for the Stanley Cup. New York and Chicago (two other so-called “Original Six” cities) have only hosted the grand finale once. Montreal also has just one Game seven at home. Only the Red Wings and Maple Leafs have had a seventh game on home ice more than once. Toronto won the first Game seven for the Stanley Cup at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1942, and did so again in 1964. Detroit (who lost both of those games, by the way) has hosted the seventh game five times overall, winning three and losing two. Complete Game seven results are as follows:

June 15, 2011 Boston 4 at Vancouver 0
June 12, 2009 Pittsburgh 2 at Detroit 1
June 19, 2006 Edmonton 1 at Carolina 3
June 7, 2004 Calgary 1 at Tampa Bay 2
June 9, 2003, Anaheim 0 at New Jersey 3
June 9, 2001 New Jersey 1 at Colorado 3
June 14, 1994 Vancouver 2 at NY Rangers 3
May 31, 1987 Philadelphia 1 at Edmonton 3
May 18, 1971 Montreal 3 at Chicago 2
May 1, 1965 Chicago 0 at Montreal 4
April 24, 1964 Detroit 0 at Toronto 4
April 14, 1955 Montreal 1 at Detroit 3
April 16, 1954 Montreal 1 at Detroit 2 (OT)
April 23, 1950 NY Rangers 3 at Detroit 4 (2OT)
April 22, 1945 Toronto 2 at Detroit 1
April 18, 1942 Detroit 1 at Toronto 3

When the Bruins won their first Stanley Cup title in 1929, the final was just a best-of-three affair. Boston swept the New York Rangers in two straight.

Cartoon depictions of the Bruins 1929 victory in the Boston Globe.

Back in April, I wrote about the new playoff format that was introduced that year. It saw the Bruins, who’d finished first in the NHL’s American Division, play the Montreal Canadiens, who’d finished first in the Canadian Division, for one spot in the Stanley Cup Final, while the second and third place teams in those divisions played their only little mini playoff for the other spot. Even though the odd format had been introduced by Bruins owner Charles Adams and his general manager Art Ross, Boston sportswriters couldn’t help mocking the fact that the toughest series already seemed to be over and that the Rangers now had a chance to beat the Bruins for the Stanley Cup despite having lost five of six games to them during the regular season. A Boston Globe columnist known as “Sportsman” wrote before Game one on March 28 that, “The series starting tonight looks a good deal like an anticlimax to a season that has about run its course.”

And with the Bruins on the verge of clinching the Cup title in the second game the very next day, “Sportsman” wondered…

What would he possibly have made of hockey still being played in June?

But, hey, if you’re watching tonight (as I will be), enjoy the game!