The Year of Toronto – Sports & Entertainment

A number of Toronto sports teams and musical artists hit it out of the park in 2015 in what was arguably the city’s best year in a long, long time. But how good was it? City Life breaks it down.

With one swing of the bat, Jose Bautista brought a country to its feet. In the centre of a tempest of 50,000 roaring fans, the Blue Jays right fielder stood frozen, just for a moment, under the gravity of what he’d done. His game-winning three-run homer in the bottom of the seventh put the Jays up 6-3 over the Texas Rangers in the emotional roller-coaster that was Game 5 of the American League Division Series. Then, like a swagger-soaked exclamation mark, Bautista hurled his lumber into the air and began his trot. The crowd was deafening.

A record-setting average audience of 4.85 million viewers tuned into that Sportsnet broadcast to watch the Rogers Centre erupt on that fateful October night. Across the country — crowded in bars, huddled around TVs or with earphones plugged in at work (sorry, boss) — the Jays’ newfound faithful, sporting their crisp royal blues, were locked on to the action. It was an amazing time for Toronto sports fans, no doubt. But the Jays weren’t the only Toronto team making waves in 2015.

On the hard court, the pitch, the rink (well, maybe not the rink) and the stage, Torontonians experienced an unprecedented collective level of success from their artists and non-hockey franchises. From the Jays’ first division title in over 20 years to Toronto FC’s first playoff berth ever, and artists like Drake and The Weeknd dominating the charts, there was plenty to celebrate. In fact, 2015 was arguably the best year in Toronto sports and entertainment in two decades. But why was this year so great? I’m glad I’m pretending you asked.

Ever since claiming back-to-back World Series titles in ’92 and ’93, the Jays have been quintessentially mediocre. But this year was different. With the heavy bats of Bautista, Edwin Encarnación and off-season acquisition and American League MVP Josh Donaldson, the Jays were swinging big all season, driving in a crushing 891 runs — 203 more than the league average. Thanks to some mid-season GM wizardry, Alex Anthopoulos was able to add two-time Gold Glover Troy Tulowitzki and Cy Young winner David Price to support that bludgeoning offence. The team went 43-18 in the last 61 games of the season to lock up its first American League East crown in 22 years. And people went nuts.

“I describe this season as a dream for starving fans,” says Sportsnet Central co-host Ken Reid about the Jays’ 2015 campaign. Anthopoulos read the pulse of the city and the team perfectly. He gave up some highly touted young prospects in those big moves but “it had to be done. That’s what people wanted,” Reid says. Which is what made it so difficult when the Jays lost the American League Championship Series to the soon-to-be World Series champs the Kansas City Royals. As Reid adds, “In that moment you want more. You want more than an ALCS loss to the Royals. You want everything.”

The Toronto Raptors, too, had an overall decent year. Despite ending with a disappointing four-game sweep to the Washington Wizards, the Raptors notched a team record 49 wins and a second straight Atlantic Division title. (And drop the “the Atlantic is a brutal division” grumbling. Someone’s gotta win it!) The Raptors may still be a work in progress, desperate for a first-round playoff victory, but the hordes of rowdy fans flocking to Jurassic Park proved that this is a team the city isn’t ashamed of.

The Leafs on the other hand? Not so much. Let’s not dwell on that Hindenburg-like season, including the whole Salutegate debacle. Once the dust settled, Leafs brass made the necessary decision to strip everything down to the wood and commit to a rebuild. They started behind the bench, bringing in Mike Babcock, the only coach in NHL history in the Triple Gold Club. Babs can’t put pucks in the net, but his résumé, which includes a Stanley Cup and two Olympic golds, brought a light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel hope to an otherwise dismal season.

And then there’s Toronto FC. Talk about a perennial bottom-feeder. Before 2015, TFC had not made the playoffs in its eight years in Major League Soccer. Then they signed Italian striker Sebastian Giovinco. Giovinco (City Life’s June/July 2015 cover man) lit up MLS with 22 goals (tied with Columbus’s Kei Kamara) and 16 assists, setting both a team and league record for points. He single-handedly elevated TFC to its first post-season and, despite losing in a 3-0 beat -down to Montreal, made the Reds a real threat. It was no surprise to see him as a finalist for MLS’s MVP.

All that’s created a new air of confidence among Toronto fans. “If you’re a Toronto sports fan, thanks 99.9 per cent to the Toronto Blue Jays, you can puff your chest out,” says Reid. “You can walk down the street more confidently.” This success has brought a new level of expectations, too. “Sports fans in this city aren’t about three and four years from now anymore,” Reid adds. “They’re about the now, winning now. The city deserves a winner.”

With so much happening in the sports world, you might have missed what was coming out of your speakers: Drake, Toronto’s favourite started-from-the-bottomer, and The Weeknd, the city’s bard of narcotics-fuelled R&B, planted a big ole Canadian flag at the top of the charts.

Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late debuted at No. 1 in February, selling close to 500,000 albums in the first week. That album’s 14 tracks all charted simultaneously on the Billboard Hot 100, tying a 51-year-old record set by John, Paul, George and Ringo at the height of Beatlemania in 1964. In September, The Weeknd became the 12th artist in history to score back-to-back No. 1s after “Can’t Feel My Face” and “The Hills” dominated the summer. Riding that wave in October, Drake and The Weeknd were thrust to one and two respectively on the Billboard Artist 100 list.

Why have these two Canucks struck such a chord? “At the end of the day, it comes down to talent, it comes down to personality, it comes down to great music, and those two guys have all three of those things,” says Mocha Frap, co-host of Roz & Mocha on KISS 92.5.

While their music has obvious commercial viability, Drake and The Weeknd also create content with artistic leanings. The Weeknd’s delicate vocals juxtapose a descent into a hazy netherworld much darker than most R&B artists wade into. Drake, too, while no stranger to rhyming about wealth and his rapping prowess, often goes against the hip-hop grain by showing vulnerability. There are lyrics about failed and regrettable love, about struggling with newfound celebrity. It’s a self-consciousness that creates an intimate connection with listeners.

“They really, really know their audience, they know their crowd and they know exactly what’s going to work,” Frap says. They understand what’s going to appeal to the masses as well as their hard-core audience. “It’s a balancing act that the two of them have perfected.”

While they’re both packing arenas around the world, neither has forgotten their roots. Frap explains, “The great thing about Drake and The Weeknd is they’re always representing Toronto.” Drake’s OVO Fest, for one, has become a two-day staple of Toronto’s summer, bringing in hip-hop giants that include Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Eminem and Jay-Z. And the pair isn’t shy about vocalizing their love for their hometown. “Perfect example is Drake literally renamed Toronto ‘The 6,’” says Frap. Companies and American broadcasters use the handle regularly, and even the Jays were seen throwing up The 6 hand sign after crossing home plate. “The entire world knows Toronto as The 6 now,” Frap adds. “If that doesn’t say something about the power of Drake then I don’t know what does.”

What such attention will mean for emerging artists in Toronto is hard to say. Maybe record execs will be more conscious of the city’s talent. Just like with the success of Toronto’s sports teams, maybe more kids will hit the diamond, court or pitch wearing their prized Donaldson, DeRozan or Giovinco jersey with the big dreams to match.

We might not know what the next 12 months will bring, but the past year has been quite a ride. And that’s worth celebrating.

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