This summer could be particularly heart-breaking for fans of the Toronto Raptors as they face the prospect of forward Chris Bosh, arguably the best player the team has ever seen, leaving the city as a free agent.
Toronto Blue Jays fans can sympathize with their basketball neighbours – this summer they lost ace Roy Halladay in a lopsided trade with the Philadelphia Phillies and Seattle Mariners.
It’s a familiar story for Torontonians. One of their teams will draft a player who becomes a star, but the franchise player eventually begins to grumble and complain about greener pastures, eventually demanding a trade or letting their contract expire and moving on via free agency.
Fortunately, NBA All-Star Tracy McGrady, a former Raptor, was in town and shed some light on the topic during a shoot-around with his teammates on the New York Knicks.
“Some guys do it for different reasons,” McGrady said. “[Bosh has] been here for quite some time now, and he's personally been successful. The team really hasn't done that much.”
And that’s the problem – teams in Toronto struggle against American competition. There are two main reasons for this:
1. The taxes in Canada limit team’s options when it comes to free agency.
Any professional athlete in a major sport (basketball, baseball, hockey) is going to earn in the high six figures.
In the United States, that would put them in the highest tax bracket, where they’d have to pay about 4.3% of their annual income to the federal government.
Employees in Canada who earn more than $126,264 pay 29% of their annual income to the federal government.
That is a jarring disparity. An athlete who earns $10 million per year on the Blue Jays or the Raptors would have to pay $2.9 million to the taxman. In the United States that same athlete would have to pay $430,000.
It’s tough to compete with other teams for prized free agents when they player will be losing 29% on the dollar just for signing on the dotted line.
2. Teams in Toronto offer less media exposure, making it a less attractive option for players.
Toronto is the biggest media centre in Canada, and actually stacks up pretty well against other North American cities in terms of population (fifth largest city, eighth largest metropolitan area).
However, sports teams based in Toronto get the short end of the stick when it comes to being televised on American networks.
Without a high profile in the United States an athlete can’t capitalize on their secondary source of income – endorsements and sponsorships. For example, Chris Bosh was drafted in 2003, the same year as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony. However, Bosh doesn’t even rank in the top 15 for jersey sales, and neither does Toronto for team sales. By comparison, all of Bosh’s draftmates rate highly on the list, even though they play for teams in smaller markets.
It all boils down to money. Professional athletes lose significant amounts of income from both of their main revenue sources, which makes Toronto a tough sell.
Some of you may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned hockey, a sport that has six teams in Canada? Simple, really.
Most hockey players are Canadian, and so they’re used to heavy taxation. The second largest group of players in the National Hockey League are European, who are also used to high taxes.
Also, the fact that there are six Canadian teams mitigates the lack of coverage in the United States - ESPN can ignore the Raptors and Blue Jays because they’re the only Canadian teams in the league, but when there’s at least one Canadian team playing every night and every franchise prominently features athletes from Canada, they’ve got no choice but to acknowledge non-American teams.
As an aside, all this adds to the fact that the Buffalo Bills, or any other team NFL team, would not work in Toronto.
All this is to say that in leagues where there is only one Canadian team (NBA, MLB and the MLS) there is a nearly unique set of challenges that face franchises based in Toronto. When the Raptors, Blue Jays and TFC struggle in the standings and begin to lose marquee players, it’s probably because they’re not grappling with the reality of the market.
Sure, a team can draft a young prospect, but it’s tremendously difficult to put together a team that can contend for the championship when so many players see Toronto as an undesirable city to play in.
Three days after Sidney Crosby scored in overtime to lift the Canadian national team to a 3-2 triumph over Team USA in the Olympic hockey final, the Canadian people are still deliriously happy. It’s the biggest international hockey win since the 2002 Salt Lake City games.
The most recent win is always the sweetest, but how does Sunday’s game rate in Canadian hockey history? I’m sorry to say that to me, it the fifth biggest... let’s break it down.
5. Sidney Crosby and Team Canada down Team USA 3-2 in overtime for Olympic gold
It capped a thrilling two weeks where Canada, at long last, won a gold medal on home soil, and then rolled to 13 more first place finishes for the Winter Olympics record. Canada also gained a measure of revenge against the United States who had embarrassed them earlier in the tournament, beating them 5-3.
Canada’s win was big for several reasons.
First and foremost, it was on home soil, with nearly 80% of Canada’s population watching in the arena or on television. What other event could captivate four out of every five people?
It also served as the perfect cap to two weeks of patriotic build up. Like a dam straining against a swollen river, Crosby’s goal unleashed the flood gates.
Crosby himself had virtually disappeared for the last three games, being held off the point sheet even in routs like Canada’s 7-2 man-thrashing of Russia. Having him rise to the occasion in extra time made it all the more surprising.
4. Team Canada’s 3-2 win over the United States to win the Olympic gold medal in women’s hockey
The only thing better than winning at home is winning on the road and disappointing your opponents’ fans.
Cassie Campbell, Hayley Wickenheiser, Cheri Piper, Kim St. Pierre and the rest of the women on Team Canada did just that as they dropped their one – and only – hockey rivals, Team USA.
There are two factors that make this victory particularly sweet. The first is that for once, Canada was the underdog in international hockey. That’s right, the Americans had won their previous eight meetings. That’s a heck of a big monkey for Team Canada to carry on their backs and it made this ninth meeting on the biggest of all stages especially intense.
The other is that the referee (an American) called a series of questionable penalties, all against the Canadians, including five straight in the second period and a total of 13. The United States were only assessed four minors, meaning that the Canadian squad had to play on its heels the entire time.
Holding off a late surge, the Canadian women held off their arch-rivals for the biggest win in women’s hockey history.
3. Montreal Canadiens and Red Army battle to 3-3 tie on Dec. 31st 1975
Super-Series ’76 grew out of the popularity and success of the 1972 and 1974 Summit Series. Instead of playing all-star teams from the National Hockey League and the World Hockey Association, the Super-Series pitted the Soviet Wings and the Red Army (two of the top teams in the Soviet Union’s hockey league) against eight NHL teams.
The Canadiens were one of the best teams in the NHL at the time and went on to win the Stanley Cup that season. Many considered it to be a World Championship of professional hockey. It ended up being was a showcase for the considerable talents of Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak who faced 35 shots while his team only mustered 13 against future Liberal MP Ken Dryden.
Unlike the other games on this list, Canada didn’t win. However, as argued over on HockeyAdventure.com, it was the most entertaining game ever.
As a whole, the Super-Series underscored the fact that Soviet-style hockey could work against North American teams, moving the NHL towards the fire-wagon brand of hockey popular in the 1980s.
2. Canadian men top Team USA 5-2 in Olympic gold medal game
The most memorable and important hockey game in my lifetime, this game is significant for several reasons.
First of all, it allowed Team Canada and the nation as a whole a level of catharsis after being upset by the Czech Republic in the 1998 Olympics in Nagano as well as avenging themselves on Team USA after a devastating loss to the Americans at the inaugural World Cup of Hockey.
Both losses had wounded the national psyche and called into questions the direction of Hockey Canada.
Further, Canada hadn’t won a gold medal in the Olympics for fifty years, not since the 1952 games in Oslo, Norway. It was an opportunity to regain dominance in a sport that many Canadians consider their rightful property.
It also featured the best hockey play I’ve ever seen.
With the United States leading 1-0, Chris Pronger carried the puck past the blue-line where he suddenly stopped, shaking off the American covering him. He wired a pass to captain Mario Lemieux who raised his stick for a one-timer. As a smile flashed across his face, the cornerstone of the Pittsburgh Penguins let the puck slip between his legs to a streaking Paul Kariya who snapped a shot past a startled Mike Richter.
Pronger’s pass was good. Kariya’s speed and skill were great. But nothing – nothing – will ever top the incredible hockey sense and awareness that Lemieux displayed on that play. I could watch that play all day, every day. It’s poetry in motion.
1. Canada wins on Paul Henderson’s goal in the final minute of the eighth game of the 1972 Summit Series
You knew this had to be number one. The gran’ daddy of them all, the 1972 Summit Series irrevocably changed the international game of hockey, undoubtedly for the better.
The context of the series itself was incredible. Canada had withdrawn from almost all international competition, even going so far as to cancel the 1970 World Junior Championship in Winnipeg.
As a result, only a handful of North Americans had ever seen the Soviets play hockey. The game developed in a vacuum behind the Iron Curtain, creating a more finessed style of play that relied heavily on teamwork and passing plays as well as conditioning and stamina.
Canada’s brand of hockey was a more physical, individual game including using their bodies to block shots. Team Canada’s stickwork was fancier, using tape-to-tape passes that didn’t touch the ice and flipping the puck in over the defence.
The styles clash was epic, and changed how the game is played as both sides of the Cold War began using each other’s tactics and strategies.
Further, sports were becoming increasingly political. Just that summer the Israeli team had been massacred at the Munich Olympics and most African nations had boycotted the summer games entirely to protest Rhodesia’s apartheid state.
Also, unlike the other matches on this list, the Summit Series was played over the course of four weeks with tension mounting after each game. By the time the eighth and final game was played in Moscow, it seemed like the Cold War was hanging in the balance.
That last game is a classic. Whether it’s Peter Mahovilich jumping over the boards to rescue Alan Eagleson from Red Army officers or J.P. Parise threatening to slash one of the referees, the tension is palpable. With Henderson’s wonderful, desperate goal all of that pent up emotion was unleashed in a moment that still sends chills down Canadian spines.
Nothing will ever be able to top that moment for Canadians.