TORONTO – The Raptors are hosting, but supporters of the Maple Leafs and Toronto FC will be welcome to Wednesday’s party at Air Canada Centre on a dream night for Toronto sports fans.
The arena’s Maple Leaf Square, also known as “Jurassic Park” when showing Raptors games, will host a joint tailgate party night as three of its teams compete in crucial playoff games, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment announced Tuesday.
The Raptors will host the Washington Wizards in Game 5 of an NBA Eastern Conference quarterfinal, with the series tied at two games apiece. As the host team, the Raptors game will be broadcast on the main screen outside the arena.
However, with hockey’s Maple Leafs in Boston for Game 7 of their first-round series with the Bruins and soccer’s Toronto FC in Guadalajara, Mexico, for the second leg of their CONCACAF Champions League final with Chivas, MLSE took on the “logistical challenge” of accommodating fans of all three teams.
Screens will be set up in the northwest section of the square to carry the Maple Leafs game, while another screen will show TFC try to come back against Chivas. The Mexican side beat Toronto 2-1 in the first leg last week at BMO Field.
“It’s a fun city when the teams are in the playoffs. The city really comes together,” Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner said Tuesday. “You look outside the building last night, it’s fun to see everyone so excited and behind you.”
Fans attending the tailgate party should expect increased security, including road closures around Air Canada Centre, after Monday’s deadly van attack in north Toronto. Major roads near the arena were closed for Monday night’s Game 6 between the Leafs and Bruins, and police have told fans via Twitter to expect similar measures on Wednesday.
While Maple Leaf Square has drawn huge crowds for Leafs or Raptors playoff games for years, conflicts between the teams are extremely rare. In fact, prior to last year, the two teams had not been in the post-season at the same time since the square opened in 2010.
Last year there was only one conflict, when Game 2 of the Maple Leafs’ first-round series with Washington fell on the same night as Game 1 of the Raptors’ Eastern Conference quarterfinal with Milwaukee. The Raptors got control of Jurassic Park that night, as MLSE had decided the team playing at home would get exclusive use of the square in the event of a conflict.
This year, not only is a conflict happening between the Leafs and Raptors when the stakes are higher, but TFC battling in playoff soccer in the spring for the first time in team history has created a perfect storm of sports buzz in Toronto.
On top of the action at Maple Leaf Square, the Toronto Blue Jays will be hosting the rival Boston Red Sox in the second of a three-game series, and Toronto FC will be holding a viewing party of its own at BMO Field. The team says screens showing the Raptors and Leafs games will also be available.
Players and coaches have generally said there is no competition between the Toronto teams of the hearts and minds of the city’s sports fans. Cross-promotion is common with one ownership group controlling the bulk of the city’s major clubs. Leafs coach Mike Babcock recently showed up at a Raptors game dressed head-to-toe in the team’s gear.
“Of course, the Raps are doing well,” Leafs goaltender Fredrik Andersen said Tuesday. “We’re both trying to make the city proud.”
Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney said this solidarity is especially important after Monday’s attack. He said from Guadalajara that the team watched Monday’s Leafs versus Bruins game in their hotel.
“And I think for the first time in the history of Mexico all three TVs in the sports bar were on the hockey game — or on a hockey game — and I thought it was a pretty inspiring performance from the Leafs last night, ” he added.
“They really laid it out there. I think in these times the best we can do in our roles, in our positions, is go give everything we can and try to make it as happy an occasion, a night, as we possibly can and give people a couple of hours to forget about some of the things or lighten up some of the things that may be hanging over them.”
— With files from Neil Davidson and Dan Ralph