travel

From axe throwing to Canada's first ever LGBT sports bar, Toronto is the perfect place for sports fans

Toronto is famous for its shopping and diversity but, as the sports-averse Markus Bidaux found out, it’s also home to Canada’s most passionate sports teams and fans

2019-01-18

This article first appeared in Attitude issue 291 January 2018.

I tapped my hatchet’s head against another man’s, as is tradition before battle. Then I pivoted and, with a firm twohanded grip on the handle, I raised the little axe over my head, the back of the blade almost touching my back.

I lunged one foot forward, swung the weapon over my head and released it. I grinned ear-to-ear as I heard the sound of a blade sinking into wood and saw that I’d hit the bullseye. I was in Toronto, the home of the Backyard Axe Throwing League (BATL).

Since its start in a backyard in 2006, BATL has grown and now has indoor locations across Canada and the US, and has even crossed the Atlantic to London.

It’s a lot like darts, but with a simpler scoring system – and throwing a spinning axe through the air provides much more of a workout.

I was at BATL’s warehouse location on the outskirts of downtown Toronto with five other UK journalists.

After our tutorial from the doppelgänger of Seth Rogen (complete with the Canadian actor’s distinctive chuckle), we had a couple of practice rounds, followed by a knockout competition, in which I made it to the final — only to completely lose my lumberjack skills.

I was born and raised in the Canadian prairies (more than 1,000 miles west of Toronto), so I’m fully aware of Canada’s passion for sports — after all we invented ice hockey, popularised lacrosse and basketball, and do quite well in the Olympics.

But growing up, watching or participating in team sports was never my thing. I was shy and much more comfortable around the arts. Although I’m familiar with the inside of a gym, it’s been a while since I played any sport.

And even though I didn’t win the axe-throwing competition, this was a thrilling start to my sporty trip to Canada’s largest metropolis. After my defeat, we took a short taxi to the Distillery District.

The 19th century buildings once housed a whiskey distillery, but now the pedestrian-only cobbled streets are home to art galleries, design shops and microbreweries.

We toasted the winner with a clinking of glasses filled with gin and tonic mixed at the Spirit of York Distillery. This new distillery only opened this spring and features a 360-degree bar with botanicals growing above it.

The space is almost a museum; we were surrounded by walls of glass, which gave us a glimpse of the distillery rooms producing the gin and vodka.

Our hosts tried to convince me that I’d like some of the city’s many sports bars such as Real Sports, with its kaleidoscope of screens showing a dozen sports all at once, or the memorabilia sports bar and restaurant dedicated to Canada’s best-loved ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky.

But it wasn’t until I went off on my own and discovered Toronto’s new gay sports bar that I found a place where I wanted to watch men’s diving, gymnastics and wrestling.

Striker Sports Bar is Toronto’s first official LGBT+ sports venue, born of the frustration husbands Oliver and Vince felt at not being able to watch a hockey match in Toronto’s gay village.

Their sleek bar has semi-industrial elements, a glossy black-tiled wall and big screen TVs dotted around. The handsome bar staff pull pints in basketball-style jersey uniforms and the bar hosts regular events for dozens of Toronto’s queer sports teams.

If the sight of the Striker’s biceps revealing bartenders and teams of gay football, basketball and water polo players doesn’t entice you, then head to Church Street where most of the bars are clustered together on.

This area is adorned with rainbow flags — even zebra crossings and the Royal Bank of Canada’s façade and logo are striped in seven shades of Pride. Toronto claims to be the most multicultural city in the world — more so than either New York or London — and is the focus of Canada’s fashion, media and business industries.

So it wasn’t too surprising to discover a vibrant and diverse group of gay men partying and watching drag shows in packed bars on a Friday night.

Over the course of several days we visited the state-of-the-art sports facilities that were later used for Prince Harry’s 2017 Invictus Games and took part in some table sports and arcade games at the Rec Room bar and restaurant.

We were also taken to a Blue Jays’ baseball game, where we were surrounded by some of the most loyal and passionate fans in the world. Sadly, I left the game with my distaste for baseball intact.

That feeling dates back to a co-ed game I played in my junior year of high school, when a baseball struck me in the groin, resulting in half the class gasping then laughing at me, leaving me never wanting to see a stitched white ball again.

My trip involved experiencing a lot of sports in a short space of time, but it was broken up with a tour of Toronto’s street art.

While I hate the tagging that some graffiti artists do — which, as far as I can tell, just involves crudely repeating their moniker over and over again — I do appreciate the work of skilled muralists.

The tour took in several city blocks and ended in Graffiti Alley, where artists are allowed to spray their craft legally.

There were some stunning pieces on show and the work is constantly evolving as one artist paints over another, so no two trips there are likely to be the same.

My final foray into Toronto’s sporting scene was a trip to Lamport Stadium, aka The Den, to see the Wolfpack.

Toronto Wolfpack is Canada’s only professional rugby league team, so most of their games are played against British teams such as Newcastle Thunder, who flew over for the match.

My ex is a manic football fan, to my irritation. I never understood the appeal of watching overpaid athletes kick a ball around and pretend to be hurt to get a penalty.

I always told him rugby is the sport I’d want to watch — and this game proved me right. Most of the crowd seemed to be discussing the Wolfpack’s new player, the mammoth Fuifui Moimoi from Tonga; but it was number five, Liam Kay, who attracted my attention.

Bearded, and with his hair tied in a ponytail, fluttering behind him as he propelled his impressive physique across the field, he looked like a Game of Thrones warrior who’d thrown on a pair of rugby shorts.

The crowd’s enthusiasm was infectious as the Wolfpack took a comfortable lead in the first half. They ended up winning 50–nil. Newcastle went home with their tails between their legs and I left having found a new sporting idol.

The sun was setting as we filtered out of the stadium. I peered south towards Toronto’s most iconic landmark, the CN Tower, which had a golden hue on it as the summer day turned to night.

I thought to myself that I may not be remotely sporty, but if ever I did want to try to fall in love with sport, Toronto would be the place to do it.

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