North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Posts Tagged ‘Air Canada Centre

Goodbye Phil, Goodbye Amir

Yesterday was admittedly a pretty big day for Toronto sports, even by its usually outlandish standards. Two of the best athletes in the city left on the same day. I want to take a moment to look at each of them.

1. Exit stage left: Phil Kessel. Arguably the most talented player the Leafs have had in years and certainly the most divisive they’ve had since Tie Domi, Kessel is now a Pittsburgh Penguin.

Kessel’s time in Toronto was marred right from the get-go, when then-GM Brian Burke traded away two first-round picks for the forward. Could the trade really have been six years ago? A story of mine at the Good Point suggests it’s been nearly that long. I defended the trade then; these days, I don’t feel the same way, although I don’t know I care enough to bang out that many words on an off-season trade anymore, either.

The trade is easy to nitpick now. The Leafs lost out on a second-overall pick and Kessel, never much of a talker, burned bridges with the media. By the end of his time here, the Toronto Star’s Dave Feschuk was insinuating Kessel was a coach-killer and even positive stories on him still mentioned an image of laziness. Even now, as he leaves the city, sportswriters are throwing him under the bus for eating too many honk dogs.

In Scottish lore, there were people called sin-eaters. When someone died, these people went to the house and ate a piece of bread, symbolically taking the sins of the deceased onto themselves. The more I think about it, the more I think Kessel filled a similar role for this Leaf team. For basically his whole tenure here, the Leafs were bad. They made the playoffs once and collapsed on an almost annual basis. Problems abounded, but the media honed in on Kessel.

Why? Maybe because he didn’t play along with their games and make them feel like one of the team. Maybe because his trade symbolically defined an era of putting it all on red and seeing the ball land on black. Maybe because somebody had to fill that role and the media weren’t going to throw people they liked being around under the bus. But as the Leafs seasons collapsed into defensive miscues and teams that seemed rudderless, it was the guy who played hurt and alongside replacement level talent and still managed to score 60-points a season who caught the flak.

In all his time here, Kessel was one of the most exciting players on the Leafs to watch. Think I’m kidding? Go watch clips of him in full stride, taking a pass and moving in on the net. At his best, Kessel is a pure skater who can score with ease. He wasn’t always at his best because teams realized they could shut him down and not worry about players like Bozak or Clarkson. Even so, Kessel had moments like this, where he made it all look almost effortless.

I hope he scores 50 in Pittsburgh next year.

2. Exit stage right: Amir Johnson. Perhaps not the most talented Raptor, but certainly one of the most compelling, a fan-favourite who was a lot of fun to watch even when the team wasn’t and someone who genuinely loved the city, hanging out in Toronto long after the season ended. He is now a Boston Celtic. 

When Amir Johnson came here in 2009, the Raptors were a mess. It was their last season with Chris Bosh and they came within a hair of making the postseason, but were eliminated on the last day. The next year, the Raps were in free-fall, winning as many games as the total of different players on their roster: 22.

Over the next couple of years, there was some ugly ball played by the Raptors. This was a time when Andrea Bargnani was avoiding contact and playing away from the basket, when Aaron Gray was making 40 starts at centre and when the Raptors offense struggled to score 90 points per game.

Through it all, Johnson was a blast to watch. He struggled with fouls, yes, and had some injury trouble. But he was a reliable bench option, good for about ten points and ten rebounds per 36 minutes. He was also a lot of fun to watch, someone who gave a lot on the court and looked like he was having a blast, too.

It sounds silly, but in the years after Vince Carter, who admitted he didn’t always try his hardest, after Bosh who left right as he hit his peak and after Hedo Turkoglu, who basically didn’t want to be in Toronto, it was refreshing.

In my files, I’ve got a pitch I wrote for The Classical that I don’t know if I actually sent. It was for a Why We Watch on Amir Johnson. Here’s a small excerpt:

Johnson came to the Raptors in Bosh’s last season. After Bosh left, he settled into a starting role, mostly in the same role: the other big alongside Barganani. He’s also filled another role, too: the fun Raptor.

He has his own Youtube channel, AmirTV. Along with DeMar DeRozan and Sonny Weems, he was part of a group calling themselves The Young Gunz. He’s released a mixtape. And he’s active in Toronto in a way few others are: right before the season’s start, he took part in a Toronto zombie walk. He hangs out here. Bosh was a nice guy, but he didn’t live here.

My pitch is a huge mess – probably why I never bothered sending it – but I think that label is as true now as it was in late 2012. Johnson was a lot of fun, on the court and off. Even now, as his role on the team has been eclipsed by DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Terrence Ross, Johnson was still a sentimental favourite, someone who had bad ankles and still picked up fouls at a ridiculous rate, but had captured something among the fans. Just look at the goodbyes he’s getting from blogs like Raptors Republic.

Remember, it wasn’t all that long ago they were literally giving Raptors tickets away. I was at a game with my friend Eric and an usher came up to us and just handed us a pair of free tickets to another game. We didn’t even have to ask. They have a lot of cultural cache now, thanks to consecutive playoff runs and Drake’s stamp of approval, but for a while there wasn’t much to cheer for. But there was Amir.

Taking a bite out of the Air Canada Centre’s new menu

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This offseason, the Toronto Raptors made some major changes. They let Shawn Marion go and signed Hedo Turkoglu and Jarrett Jack, among others.

But no move was as hotly anticipated as their overhaul of the Air Canada Centre menu.

Over the offseason, something like two-dozen new items were added to the menu. No longer would Raptor fans have to be content with hard pizza, lukewarm RC Cola and a bag of $20 popcorn.

Okay, things weren’t quite that desolate. But still, as somebody who likes basketball almost as much as I like eating, this was something that definitely piqued both my interes and my stomach. And it definitely pinched my wallet.

In rating the ACC’s food, I went with a system of my own design: the Sanchez, named for the New York Jets Quarterback who ate a hot dog on the sideline of a Jets/Raiders game a couple weeks back.

There were two new food stalls added to Air Canada Centre this offseason: Burkie’s Dog House, an upscale hot dog eatery, and Wally’s Donut Shop, which is exactly as it sounds. And as much as I was looking forward to eating a type of hot dog that shares a name with a player I don’t like, I was spared simply because I couldn’t find the atrium.

But the ACC is big and there are a lot of places to eat. So I went with the flow and ended up getting my food at one of the many stalls (one by section 307, in particular).

First up was the Grilled Vegetable Panini, which set me back $8.50. Served warm on a ciabatta bun, it’s a nice sandwich. It’s topped with lots of grilled peppers, some onions and a few slices of some mild cheese. It also claims to have some special kind of mayo, but I couldn’t really tell. It was pleasant, although it could have used some kind of a kick – some mustard, maybe.

I gave the sandwich four Sanchez out of five. I’d recommend it to any QB bored between snaps.

Meanwhile, my buddy Big E bought a giant double cheeseburger and a large coke (came with a coupon for a free angioplasty). After quickly scarfing it down and spilling only a little of it on his jeans, he gave it the nod of approval, but expressed displeasure over it’s price and made an idle threat towards Brian Burke.

I suppose that’s a three on the Sanchez scale (recommended only for those with a lot of poise).

A quick digression. The game we both attended was a loss to Orlando where two things were immediately apparent.

  1. Orlando wasn’t going to give Toronto a chance to get in the game and shot the lights out from downtown
  2. The Raptors were having a hell of time getting rebounds early and had a hard time defending the three (probably because they were so keyed into Dwight Howard).

These two observations led me to a third thought: that the food at the ACC must be good, since it looked like the Raptors eat overeaten before the game.

Later in the game, I went back to the food stand for something else to eat. The menu, in part, reads like this:

  • Pulled Pork Sandwich: BBQ pork on a bun. $8.50
  • Cuban Sandwich: Swiss Cheese, Pork and Pickles. $8.50
  • Beef Dip Sandwich. Going by the picture, a French Dip sandwich served with an Au Jus dip. Again, $8.50.
  • Various kinds of stir-fry. Started at around $7. I didn’t see a single one of these being eaten all day.
  • Slices of pizza. No types listed, but they all looked like pepperoni. I didn’t write down the price.
  • A single unsalted pretzel. $3.50.

While I was waiting in a huge line, halftime ended and the game resumed. Not wanting to wait for another sandwich or break the bank, I ended up buying the pretzel. It was almost as bad a decision as the time I bought a Jamario Moon jersey.

As somebody who eats hot pretzels at almost every opportunity, I happily tried to eat it. But as somebody who also enjoys living a sodium-rich lifestyle, it was hard to swallow something so… bland. A pretzel without salt just doesn’t taste right – it’s like drinking flat cola.

It’s also really, really dry. Like dry enough I needed a Coke (sweet, slight spice notes and a smooth finish) to choke it down. Poor show, pretzel. You only get one Sanchez (just get a hot dog instead).

As I ate the pretzel, the stands around me filled to capacity and honestly, I didn’t feel like making a bunch of people stand up so I could spend more money on food I didn’t really want and couldn’t really afford. So I didn’t buy anything else.

Overall, I liked most of what I ate and nearly all of what I saw – it beats the pants off what I remember the ACC having last time I went, three years ago. And it’s a good answer to the Rogers Centre’s recent menu revamp. It’s better, too.

Just don’t get the pretzels.

Written by M.

November 4, 2009 at 1:54 pm