Toronto: Hockey Town (?)

Neither of these teams will exist in a couple of months. Also, that’s Wojtek Wolski for Brampton. Retro!

We know the line of argument. Toronto, according to Torontonians, is the capital of the hockey world. However, Toronto, according to non-Torontonians, is the capital of Leafs town — in the heart of Loser Region — and if it disappeared off the map tomorrow nobody would be sad. Sound extreme? Sure, a little, but this is muted in comparison to some of the opinions I’ve received from friends who are Alberta or BC natives.

The non-hockey town line of thought is pretty defensible actually. Ever been to a non-Leafs game in Toronto? Crickets. You could fire off a cannon in most rinks under those circumstances and not even worry about killing someone. And now, with another Greater Toronto Area OHL team relocating, it looks as though the Toronto as hockey capital argument has been dealt a crippling blow.

I watched a lot of junior hockey growing up in the GTA. I was nine years old when Don Cherry invented the Mississauga IceDogs and they played their first games. If you think your team is bad, you’ve seen nothing. They won 27 games through their first four seasons. TOTAL. Meanwhile, just around the corner in Brampton, Stan Butler was assembling a good little Battalion team built around blue chippers like Raffi Torres (true story) and Rostislav Klesla (Brampton allowed Europeans on their team, unlike Cherry’s IceDogs).

The team got better though, and I kept going. We were essentially season ticket holders without season tickets. Our household even held off ditching a certain cable provider that owns the Blue Jays so we could watch away games on our local station. It was all quite riveting.

It was apparent, however, that we were squarely in the minority. Very few people cared at all — let alone to the degree we did. This of course has also led to a life of consistent frustration every time the World Juniors or Memorial Cup roll around and certain highly paid television pundits have interns do mass amounts of research for them in an effort to feign knowledge. I may need to provisionally check myself into a hospital this year for stress when those tourneys roll around as the only hockey on television. It is going to be sickening. However, I digress.

With news coming out in the last week that the Battalion will be relocating to North Bay, I was quite sad. For a large chunk of my life I hated that team with youthful vigor and now they will be gone. The proverbial Nordiques have left my proverbial Habs flapping in the wind, completely and utterly alone. Over at The Hockey News, web guru Rory Boylen weighed in on the move, arguing that it confirmed Toronto as a big league town, not a hockey town.

As for Toronto? It should be a sad day for hockey fans in Ontario’s capital who want to exclaim their home as Canada’s most immersed puck town.

The fact is, Toronto is a big-league town and these recent events around its minor teams in the junior circuit prove that beyond a doubt.

The fact is, most won’t even notice the Battalion are gone.

He’s right. He’s absolutely right.

The comment section — to be read at your own risk, mind you — has of course spurred lots of vitriol in his direction. “How dare you slight Toronto! I’m so mad that I could log in to Facebook to comment on this and make ad hominem arguments against your column!” is an example of typically how that sort of thing devolves.

The numbers don’t lie though. The Marlies don’t draw well in Toronto in comparison to the rest of the AHL, even after an early season spike. The St. Mike’s Majors had to leave Toronto proper after not filling Maple Leaf Gardens and not earning enough revenue from the ancient St. Michael’s Arena (Woot! Shiverdome!), knocking the IceDogs to Niagara in the process. Now the Battalion are gone. All of these teams have had prolonged stretches of success, and all of them have been shown roadblock after roadblock in an effort to build a following.

There, of course, will be plenty of arguments in defense of their inability to draw. The Marlies are still new to town, sort of. St. Mike’s played in a shack. Mississauga and Brampton aren’t even TORONTO.

It’s all nonsense.

The self-anointed hockey Mecca ought to be filling these places regardless of longevity (new = honeymoon period, by the way), building (small = easier to sell out), or distance (Mississauga and Brampton are huge cities in their own right). The fact there is any debate over this whatsoever underscores how ludicrous the thought is. If Toronto cared, the proof would be self-evident.

Plenty of Torontonians are happy to sit at the border after the hour long drive on the QEW to see their Leafs play in Buffalo where they will surely lose because they always lose in Buffalo. But yes, you’re right, the half hour drive to Mississauga or Brampton where solid NHL prospects play (Leafs first rounder Stuart Percy is the bloody captain of Mississauga! And fellow Leafs prospect Sam Carrick was captain of the Battalion last year!) for playoff teams is a stretch.

Oh, and before we go on that road, just because you take your kids to hockey practice doesn’t prove that you’re a hockey fan. Plenty of parents take their kids to soccer practice and couldn’t pick Lionel Messi out of a police lineup, and he’s the biggest athlete on the planet.

I firmly believe that Toronto could and would gladly support a second NHL team. Not because the Leafs need competition and not because Toronto is a hockey town. Because it’s an NHL ticket. Mr. Boylen nailed it right on the head when he said Toronto is a big league town — not a hockey town.

Don’t believe me? Go to Minnesota and experience the atmosphere at a high school game. Those are hockey towns.

It’s Day 58 of the lockout. If you feel anxious and depressed, it’s not because you miss “hockey”; you miss the NHL. I’m getting concerned many people don’t know the difference and you can be sure nine out of 10 people in Toronto do not.