Brunt: Raptors rise a sign of the times

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Pucks have always trumped hoops in this country. But with all that’s happening in Canadian basketball, the gap is narrowing.

In the middle of it all, it was hard to tell whether this was a seismic shift, or merely a passing fancy.

No question the Toronto Raptors this spring became the sports flavour of the moment in populous southern Ontario, and why wouldn’t that be the case? They were winners, first of all, and you don’t have to be a student of Toronto sports history to know that immediately made them a novelty.

There was also the nifty narrative, a team that entered the season carrying zero expectations, that traded away its top scorer and most prominent player for a handful of spare parts in what seemed at the time as much an attempt to tank as an attempt to get better. But get better they did, under the coaching of the estimable Dwane Casey. The plucky underdogs began to thrive in an Eastern Conference where at least half of the teams seemed to have no interest in competing this year. Kyle Lowry, in a contract season, raised his game to new heights. DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas matured by leaps and bounds, and the team prospered.

By the end of the regular season, the Raps had put up the best record in franchise history and had become the Big Smoke’s new darlings. In the same public square where Leafs fans assembled to have their hearts broken last spring, an ethnocultural melting pot of mostly young folks was ready to cheer its heart out, even before Masai Ujiri uttered the percussive epithet.

Which means, in the big picture… well, let’s think about that.

Forever, there has only been one winter game that matters in this country, and it’s not like that has changed. Hockey, the sport that has inspired literature, music, moments of mass patriotic fervour and a large company (the one that owns this magazine) to cough up $5.2 billion for television rights, still blows everything else away. It’s not just the broadcast ratings that tell you that, but also the perpetual national conversation, even in a year in which six of the seven Canadian franchises failed to make the playoffs.

The Raptors, by contrast, barely register outside of the newly hip 416, or its dorky suburban cousin, the 905. Even as the wins were piling up late in the season, the television audience increased only marginally, and any notion of an evolving Canada’s Team would be shot down the first time you tried to engage in Raptors conversation with someone from Calgary, or Winnipeg, or Montreal. It is a Toronto thing—which is still a thing, given the size of the megacity, but also not the same as a cultural groundswell. In every other part of Canada, pucks still trump hoops, as they always have.

Always have, though, is different than always will. And while it’s completely safe to assume hockey’s continued dominance of the national sporting landscape, there are some demographic truths worth noting. The baby boomer generation and its population bulge, which for so long has called the shots, is easing into old age. Those would be the last people for whom the Original Six is an actual memory, who watched the NHL when nearly every player in it was Canadian, who saw Bobby Orr in the flesh, who saw Paul Henderson’s goal, who remember a country in which a single televised hockey game (joined in progress…) on Saturday night really was a touchstone, who at some point in their lives really did skate on a frozen pond. So many of our assumptions about what hockey means here are based on those memories, are based on nostalgia for a world that disappeared long ago. (Any examination of why Don Cherry became Don Cherry has to begin there, with his role as keeper and venerator of the good old days.)

The Boomers’ kids and grandchildren have been listening to that particular gospel their entire lives, and many of them have embraced it. And many of those who gathered outdoors to enjoy the communal experience of watching the Raptors were probably in the same place cheering on the Leafs last spring.

But there is a generation rising that has grown up with a global sporting smorgasbord at its fingertips, that may have different familial and cultural sporting ties, that has never played hockey, never laced up skates, that is way more excited about getting Drake’s blessing than Cherry’s, that understands a golden age of Canadian basketball is at hand, not because these Raptors look like a champion in the making, but because of all of those kids who are about to make their mark on the NBA.

So bandwagon-jumping? Sure. There’s plenty of that going on. Those who jump on can just as easily jump off and move on to something else.

But that doesn’t mean change isn’t in the wind.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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