It is clear now that Tim Leiweke arrived in Toronto with a To Do list tucked into his breast pocket, and has been busy checking off the boxes ever since.
For all of the hubbub created by the first five tasks, for all of the upset and insult and rankling of Johnny Bower, it’s the last one, the Drake one, that might actually threaten the status quo.
Ever since the modern National Basketball Association arrived in town, an old guard/new guard rivalry has been playing out, though truthfully, it’s been a one-way fight. You might assume the instigators would be the basketball guys, scraping and clawing for a piece of the action in the country’s largest market. If so, you would be wrong.
Hockey, for all of its cultural and historical dominance in this country, is remarkably quick to circle the wagons. The people in the game, the people around the game, the people who love the game to the exclusion of all else, are doggedly protective of something that really doesn’t need much protecting. The minute anything happens to suggest that this is anything but one nation united around the puck, that not everyone gathers dutifully around their televisions on winter Saturday nights the way they did in 1963, it is time to sound the alarm.
And so, since the opening tip of the opening game, the Raptors, however modest a threat they represented, have been derided as a temporary aberration that would someday surely die of indifference because Toronto is a hockey town and they are not hockey.
Even after the two teams came under the same ownership, the narrative didn’t really change, other than during the brief, halcyon days of Vinsanity. Butch Carter once suggested to a reporter that the Raps were even given short shrift by the hockey-loving MLSE ownership, and though he may have only said that for effect (as the Butch was wont to do…) it doesn’t mean that he was entirely wrong.
Never was it mentioned that there was a pre-existing Canadian basketball culture or that the sport attracted a slice of the population that might not feel that same attachment to hockey. Never was it acknowledged that Raptors’ fans have in fact proved themselves remarkably loyal despite a franchise narrative that involved one good-to-great player after another opting to leave town, or that all of those world-class Canadian basketball players turning up in the NCAA and in the NBA draft are but the first evidence of a breaking wave.
The Raptors are still here only because Leafs’ season ticket and box holders were forced to accept them the way they accepted a piece of parsley next to a sandwich—on Planet Hockey, you still hear that all the time.
It’s hard to know exactly what Drake might do to change that perception, especially among those who are oblivious or indifferent to his charms. Leiweke was short on specifics about just what his duties might include, other than being a super fan, glitzing up the guest list for the All-Star Game bash in 2016, and helping to redesign the uniforms.
But bringing him into the mix, having him at the press conference on Monday, was a Zeitgeist bull’s eye. Drake is the man of this moment, and across the country, a whole bunch of folks in a coveted demographic made exactly the connection that Leiweke and company wanted them to make: These Raptors, whatever they do on the court in the coming season, are deserving of attention.
The Maple Leafs open the season against the Habs tonight. They won’t need any help. A huge number of Canadians have that passion imprinted in their genetic code. They’ll be watching.
But their beloved Leafs are going to have company now, and not just a co-tenant, not just an afterthought inhabiting the dressing room down the hall.
At the very least, that’s going to take some getting used to.