Grab the crew, your face paint and your best trash talk, and head over to Ontario, Canada where major sports and rabid fans combine to create an atmosphere that rivals any of the world’s great sports destinations.
In a country filled with regional sports rivals, the Toronto Blue Jays stand alone in laying claim to being ‘Canada’s Team’. After back-to-back World Series titles in the early 90s and playoff successes earlier this decade, hope springs eternal among the Rogers Centre faithful as a team of budding superstars led by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. get set to blow the lid off the retractable roof.
Canadians love their sports, but make no mistake, nothing stokes nation-wide passion quite like a big Saturday night NHL game. In Toronto, aka Leafs Nation, long-suffering and eternally optimistic Maple Leafs fans have good reason to believe this is the spring that the team’s 52-year Stanley Cup drought comes to an end. If you’re lucky enough to score some playoff tickets, you’ll witness an intensity you might not expect of the normally polite and reserved locals.
Even without tickets to the game, you can witness Leafs playoff fever spilling into every locale that has a TV, or join the huge crowds that gather to watch on the big screen in Maple Leaf Square, just outside Scotiabank Arena. No hockey pilgrimage to Toronto is complete without a visit to the sport’s shrine to greatness, the Hockey Fall of Fame. And if you happen to be in Toronto between October and March, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League‘s teams in Toronto and Markham are definitely worth catching for the highest calibre of women’s hockey in the world.
Toronto isn’t the only Ontario city devoted to the country’s national winter sport. The Ottawa Senators may not have the history of their provincial rival, but that doesn’t mean the team’s fan base is any less passionate. The same holds true of the 17 cities that are home to Ontario Hockey League teams. In Niagara, Windsor, London and Kingston, just to name a few, you can catch the next generation of NHL superstars and experience some of the province’s best off-the-beaten-track sites.
OK, enough about hockey already. In Toronto, the Raptors have captured the imagination of sports fans young and old. Whether it’s because of Drake’s influence, the ‘We The North’ banner, or just because the team itself has been turning heads on and off the court, the team and its fans have adopted a confident swagger over the past few years.
The Raptors and Leafs share the same arena. Both boast raucous crowds. And on game nights, the party atmosphere outside transforms Maple Leaf Square into ‘Jurassic Park’. This spring, with hopes of both the Raptors and Leafs making deep playoff runs at the same time, Toronto may never be the same again.
If you like offense, you’ll love the Canadian Football League. A bigger field and only three downs means this pass-first game provides non-stop excitement and often ridiculously high scores. Friday night’s lights and Saturdays from June to November belong to the CFL. And in Ontario, the Toronto Argonauts, Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and Ottawa REDBLACKS vie for the Grey Cup, a championship that dates back 106 years.
The RBC Canadian Open is ready to make its prime time schedule appearance, and the venerable Hamilton Golf & Country Club plays host, June 3-9. Once relegated to the challenging week after the Open Championship, Canada’s lone stop on tour has shifted to the week before the US Open and promises to attract the sport’s who’s who in addition RBC sponsorees the likes of Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar and Webb Simpson, in addition to a contingent of Canadian hopefuls led by Adam Hadwin.
The LPGA also visits Ontario this summer for the CP Women’s Open, August 19-25 at Magna Golf Club in Aurora (just north of Toronto). Canada’s golf hero Brooke Henderson captured the title in 2018 and looks to repeat against a field that consistently attracts the best in the game.
Just as impressive as the product on BMO Field at a Toronto FC game are The Reds’ supporters in the stands. Go to a TFC game and prepare to stand and chant for 90 minutes, an atmosphere on par with what one might find in Europe and South America (but without the hooliganism). The 2017 MLS champs took a step backwards in 2018, and will be hungry to regain top form through this spring and summer in hopes of returning to the playoffs in the fall. The ultras will be demanding it.
For fans of ‘the beautiful game’, pro games can also be caught in Ottawa, where the Fury compete in the USL’s championship division. And the newly minted Canadian Premier League features two Ontario teams, York9 in Toronto and Forge FC in Hamilton. Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé!
Photo credit: torontowide.com for Tourism Toronto
For motorsports fans, the IndyCar circuit roars into Exhibition Place on Toronto’s waterfront, July 12-14 for the Honda Indy. The two-day festival that surrounds the event is every bit as rockin’ as the big race itself. Included is a NASCAR Pinty’s Series stop on the Saturday.
Fans of NASCAR have even more reasons to visit Ontario this summer. In addition to the Toronto stop on Indy weekend, the Pinty’s Series also rolls into Hamilton’s Jukasa Motor Speedway on June 1st and September 28, and adds two more races at Canadian Motorsport Park in Bowmanville on May 19 and August 25, the same weekend as the Chevrolet Silverado 250.
EVEN MORE SPORTS WORTH TRAVELING FOR
UFC Fight Night – Men and women of the octagon visit the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa, May 4.
Rogers Cup Tennis – The top women of the WTA visit the National Tennis Centre in Toronto, August 3-11, a key event in the US Open Series.
Toronto Rock – Perennial National Lacrosse League powerhouses, The Rock are winners of six league titles and look to add their seventh this spring.
DYK: Lacrosse is the national summer sport of Canada?
Toronto Wolfpack – The only transatlantic team of the Rugby Football League, the Wolfpack brings top tier European rugby to Lamport Stadium (aka The Den) en route to their goal of promotion to the Betfred Superleague.
Toronto Defiant – eSports aficionados welcomed Toronto to the Overwatch League in 2019. Join fellow Overwatch enthusiasts in real-life settings like Meltdown ESports Bar and Waves EGaming in Toronto, and Click ESports in Ottawa.
WHERE TO STAY & PLAY
Stay in trendy digs that ooze style without sacrificing on convenience. Le Germain Hotel Maple Leaf Square is just steps away from the Scotiabank Arena and the Rogers Centre. Chic Thompson Toronto offers floor-to-ceiling views of the city skyline and Lake Ontario, and rooftop lounge, bar and pool. The Fairmount Royal York, Toronto’s landmark heritage hotel has recently undergone a multi-million dollar revitalization and is perfectly situated within walking distance of all the downtown sports and nightlife action.
Eat at restaurants that serve up great fare and amazing views of Canada’s largest city. At Kost, sample a menu inspired by the Baja Peninsula on the 44th floor of Bisha Hotel. Falcon SkyBar offers glorious waterfront views from its three-level rooftop perch at Hotel X. You won’t find a better view than from 360 The Restaurant‘s revolving dining room 1,150 feet up the CN Tower. Sportsnet Grill, located in the Toronto Marriott City Centre Hotel, offers superfans the ultimate dinning experience with a bird’s eye view over the Rogers Centre. And for the ultimate hockey fan, get a different view at Wayne Gretzky’s as you dine surrounded by the personal collection of memorability belonging to ‘The Great One’ himself.
Do as the locals do and tap into Canada’s craft brew scene at Left Field Brewery‘s baseball-inspired brews served in a super chill east end brewery (the head of security and customer relations is a basset hound). Steamwhistle Brewing, located at Toronto landmark, the Roundhouse, and just steps from the Rogers Centre, is a must before and/or after a Jays game. And The Loose Moose is a perfect pre and post-game hotspot boasting one of the largest draft selections in the city and live music in the underground Antler Room.
Stay at C by Carmen’s, a boutique hotel with celebrity-themed rooms, a rooftop lounge, heated indoor pool and suites with full kitchenettes. In the heart of the city, the Sheraton Hamilton Hotel offers roomy suites that are perfect for groups.
The downtown dining scene is where Steeltown, Canada sets itself apart. At Born & Raised, owner/chef and Top Chef Canada finalist Vittorio Colacitti, blends local ingredients to create a bold and vibrant Italian menu. If the locals line up for a reservation at The Heather, you know it’s beyond good. Reserve well in advance and gather the crew (full capacity is only 12 diners) at the intimate chef’s counter to witness owner/chef Matt Cowan create gastronomic magic. It’s worth veering 7 miles from downtown to dine at Ancaster Mill where the menu at this restaurant (housed in a restored heritage mill, overlooking a scenic waterfall – one of over 100 in the area) is dedicated farm-to-table.
Naturally, a game and a meal calls for a bar hop. Collective Arts Brewing is an experience unto itself. This hotspot combines local craft beer with a thriving music and arts scene. If your idea of a home run is a sausage-based menu served with craft beer, then you’ll want to head over to Merit Brewing. And at Wendel Clark’s Classic Grill and Bar, there’s a chance you may bump into the former Maple Leafs captain at his casual grill house.
To stay close to the sports action, you’ll want to check into Brookstreet Hotel, the ‘official hotel of the Ottawa Senators’ located in Kanata, just a short distance from the Canadian Tire Centre and offers a 15% discounts the night before and night of Senators games. For autograph and selfie hounds, it’s also a popular hotel for the visiting teams. To stay close to the action in the heart of the city, the Andaz Ottawa ByWard Market features contemporary, Canadian design with floor-to-ceiling windows facing the Parliament Buildings, Gatineau Hills and the bustling market below. You’ll love the little touches like a welcome beverage and complimentary non-alcoholic minibar drinks and snacks, as well as Ottawa’s tallest rooftop lounge.
There’s more to Ottawa’s palate than poutine or BeaverTails (although there’s absolutely nothing wrong with either of them). Sur-Lie Restaurant and Wine Bar, located in ByWard Market, is an upscale eatery focused on modern French cuisine. An unforgettable meal at Signatures Restaurant, Le Cordon Bleu, the in-house restaurant of the prestigious French culinary institute, the only one in Canada, will save you the trip to France. And at Atelier owner and one of Canada’s most recognized chefs, Marc Lepine, serves up a 12-course tasting menu of innovative ‘new Canadian’ food.
When it comes to enjoying a pint or cocktail, you can’t go wrong in the seat of Canadian political life. Union 613, a hip speakeasy style hangout with communal seating, is renowned for its outstanding cocktails and late-night menu. If an upscale pub with an impressively curated menu of craft brews from around Ontario sounds more to your liking, visit Wellington Gastropub and sample local darling Beau’s flagship Lug Tread certified organic lagered ale. Join the local fans at The Senate Sports Tavern. The Clarence Street location provides a Senators game-day return shuttle service for only $10.
Whether you’re following your team across the border or find yourself joining the rabid locals and adopting a new favorite, Ontario welcomes fanatics of all stripes.
Main photo courtesy Jacob Santiago.