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It's A Good Time To Be A Toronto Sports Fan

Jon "You're Man" Nava

April 9th 2017

     As the sun rises a week before Easter Sunday, the Toronto sports scene is bearing the fruits of its own resurrection after plunging into the nadir of terrible play only four years ago.

     Approximately four years ago, the Blue Jays re-hired John Gibbons to manage their team in the wake of bench boss John Farrell departing Toronto and opting to take his "dream job" for the Boston Red Sox.  The Raptors were in the throes of their fifth straight losing season in the National Basketball Association.  Toronto FC failed to make the playoffs for its seventh consecutive season since the club's inauguration into Major League Soccer.  Most humbling of all, 2013 marked the first foray into the postseason in nine years for the Toronto Maple Leafs; they were defeated in heart-breaking fashion by the eventual Stanley Cup finalist Boston Bruins.

     Four years later, each pro sports team in Hogtown has seemingly reversed course in their respective fortunes.  The re-hiring of Gibbons for 2013 resulted in a last-place division finish that year for the Blue Jays, but rebounded with a winning record the next season.  That springboarded the Blue Jays into back-to-back playoff berths in 2015 & 2016, along with its first division title, heading into a promising 2017.  The pitching, in the form of young fireballers like Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman and Roberto Osuna, has finally caught up to the prolific offence that has been in place since 2010, Jose Bautista's breakout year.  High-profile acquisitions such as shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, catcher Russell Martin and 2015 Most Valuable Player Josh Donaldson have ascended the club back to a level not seen since their last World Series title in 1993.  The fans have responded accordingly, coming back to the Rogers Centre in droves, finishing first in the American League in attendance the last two seasons.

     The Toronto Raptors closed the 2012-13 season by winning seven of its last eight games, but it was not enough to make the playoffs or escape a last-place tie in the division.  Seeds were sown, in the acquisition of future All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry from the Houston Rockets, and a seven-player deal that netted complementary pieces such as point guard Grevis Vasquez and forward Patrick Patterson.  Combined with budding superstar guard DeMar DeRozan and the emergence of center Jonas Valanciunas,  the Raptors started the winning streak of three consecutive division titles the next season.  That streak may end in 2017 with the rise of the Boston Celtics, but a playoff berth with home court advantage in the first round is certain, as the Raptors look to extend their playoff run past their Conference Finals berth in 2016.

     Toronto FC finished with MLS' third-worst record in 2013, winning only six games, eclipsing the previous season's total by one.  A nominal improvement, but the real change did not start until the next season when new head coach Greg Vanney was introduced with ten matches to play in 2014.  Midfielder Michael Bradley was brought in after that disastrous 2013 season, eventually becoming TFC's captain.  Italian forward Sebastian Giovinco and American striker Jozy Altidore arrived in 2015, with Giovinco's MVP play helping push the Reds to their first playoff berth in MLS that year.  In 2016, TFC made a deep run in the MLS playoffs, earning a spot in the MLS Cup Final but lost to the Seattle Sounders on penalties.  Entering the 2017 season, Toronto looks to be one of the favourites in the Eastern Conference.

     Finally, the Toronto Maple Leafs emerged from nearly a decade-long hinterland of regular-season failures to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs in a lockout-shortened 2013.  Those Maple Leafs came back from a three games-to-one deficit in their series versus the Boston Bruins to force a Game 7.  In that Game 7, Toronto held a 4-1 lead midway through the final period, only to melt down and allow the Bruins to tie the game with less than a minute left in regulation.  The Bruins scored on the Maple Leafs in overtime to complete the collapse.  It is only now - four years later, with an almost total reetooling of the the roster (only six players remain from that Game 7 loss) - that the Maple Leafs have made themselves relevant on the Toronto sports scene again.  Most of the credit goes to the youngsters on the team - Connor Brown, William Nylander, Mitch Marner and eventual Calder Trophy winner Auston Matthews - under the steadying helm of coach Mike Babcock. Veteran players like Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk and Jake Gardiner - stalwarts from that 2013 team - have provided great balance with the rookie players.  The winning culture Babcock spawned during previous stints in Anaheim and Detroit has spread to the players here, in only the head coach's second season in Toronto.  The Maple Leafs qualified for the 2017 playoffs by defeating the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in Toronto's penultimate game of the regular season.

     This writer can't seem to recall the last time all four local pro sports teams were on the upswing simultaneously, and with much promise on that sunny horizon.  Forgotten are the dark days of Andrea Bargnani hoisting three-pointers, Jo-Jo Reyes' winless streak being broken cause for celebration, Jermaine Defoe rehabilitating his injury on another continent, or Maple Leafs fans trying to look up the word "truculence".  It is suddenly in vogue to wear Toronto team colors and gear outside in public, instead of ironic.  It is also great to witness the synergy among the teams - seeing the Maple Leafs assemble in a box suite to see the  Blue Jays during their September/October run, or TFC stars sitting courtside during a pivotal game for the Raptors.  All in all, it's great to be a Toronto sports fan in 2017.