As the NBA heads into their All-Star festivities and the hockey games continue at the Sochi Olympics, all eyes are gradually shifting north of the border to Toronto, Canada. The Maples Leafs and the Raptors – the former with a rich history and league wide respect, the other relatively new and no respect – have been enjoying stellar seasons, a rarity to see occurring at the same time. Toronto has always been enthusiastically supportive of their respective clubs despite both being stuck in mediocrity for most of the past twenty years, forty for the Leafs. However, with two Leaf players representing team USA in Sochi and a young Raptors shooting guard set on making his first All-Star game appearance, the excitement has never been higher. Moreover, fans of both the leagues in America are starting to pay close attention.
On Thursday, the U.S. clobbered Slovakia 7-1 in their first game at Sochi. The team packs a punch with the top offensive trio in the Olympics, statistically speaking, of Joe Pavelski from the San Jose Sharks and two Leaf players in Phil Kessel and James Van Riemsdyk. The three have a combined 84 goals in the NHL, led by Kessel who, with 31 goals, trails only the great Alexander Ovechkin; Van Riemsdyk is not too far behind in 13th place with 24 goals scored. The US team will face a much tougher challenge against the Ovechkin led Russians Saturday morning.
Both Kessel and Van Riemsdyk lead a Toronto Maple Leafs team which has won 13 of their last 20 games, are on a two-game winning streak, and are just one point out of third place in the Eastern conference. The team has been achieving the feat in ugly fashion – not being able to get the puck out of their own zone – but a wins a win. The Leafs were seconds away last year from outing and upsetting the eventual Eastern Conference champions, Boston Bruins, in the first round before giving up the lead, the game, and the series in embarrassing fashion – a lesson learned in their first post-season appearance since 2006. With a bitter taste in their mouths and a more explosive roster, including a rising goalie, the Leafs are hoping and are expected to redeem themselves this year.
The NHL is not the only league witnessing a rising Toronto team. Over the weekend the NBA will kick off their All-Star festivities in New Orleans. The event may be the starting point where the attention starts shifting north of the border in the NBA. Toronto Raptors swingman Demar Derozan was voted in by the league’s coaches as a reserve for his first All-Star game appearance. The guard is having a career year finishing the break in tenth place in points. Meanwhile, Raptors shooting guard Terrence Ross will be defending his title at the much anticipated Slam Dunk contest. The sophomore has also been enjoying a career year peaked by a 51-point game last month, yet he was snubbed from the Rising-Stars challenge. Fellow Raptor sophomore Jonas Valanciunas, however, will be participating in the said game. Averaging under 11 points and 9 rebounds, the 7 ft. center is projected to grow into one of the top big men in the league. Derozan, Ross, and Valanciunas hope to make their presence known in the NBA in three very different ways this year.
The Raptors themselves are in third place in the Eastern Conference. The team is led by point-guard Kyle Lowry who is having a career year averaging 16.7 points and 7.6 assists. The guard has been a hot topic around the NBA with fans outraged he was not selected for the All-Star Games. In his contract year, Lowry is one of the players rumored to be traded by the Feb. 20 deadline.
The Toronto Raptors were once the laughing stock in the league for their constant mediocrity outside of the short-lived Vince Carter era and then the Chris Bosh days. Even then no one in the NBA really cared about the Raptors as they are the only Canadian team in an American dominant sport.
The situation is changing however. Andrew Wiggins from Kansas University, who was born and raised in Thornhill, a Greater Toronto neighborhood is projected to be the number one overall pick in the upcoming draft. The guard joins Anthony Bennett and Tristan Thompson in a growing crop of young Canadians entering the NBA.
Now, as the Raptors and the Leafs enjoy their mid-season breaks, both Toronto clubs have been put on a pedestal together. Granted, neither is expected to win the Stanley Cup or the Naismith trophy, but after years and years of mediocrity, there is finally something to be optimistic about for fans of both respective clubs. Under new management, the Raptors grabbed rapper Drake to be their global ambassador earlier this season and in 2016 they will be celebrating their 20 years in the NBA by hosting the All-Star festivities. As a result, even more attention around the NBA will be shifted in the next couple of years north of the border to Toronto, Canada. Also, maybe, just maybe, we will see Phil Kessel and Van Riemsdyk on top of the world in Sochi representing the Leafs with a US team that has seen its best roster in quite some time.
Editorial By Kollin Lore