Team sports are about working together to achieve the ultimate goal – winning a championship. It can also mean defying expectations and ignoring those who say it cannot be done. We saw the results of hard work and determination in St. Louis and Toronto in June, 2019. The St. Louis Blues entered the National Hockey League in 1967 and journeyed an arduous path to achieve their dream.

At the beginning of the season in October 2018, until the early part of January 2019, the team was struggling to attain victories. They were at the bottom of the NHL standings, with no hope of making the playoffs. The Blues’ general manager, Doug Armstrong faced a couple options – stay the course or make a few changes. He chose the latter. He released head coach, Mike Yeo and replaced him with Craig Berube on November 19, 2018. They won a few more games with goaltender Jake Allen, but not as consistently as they would have liked. Armstrong felt that it was necessary to make another change – this time in net. In January 2019, Armstrong replaced Allen with Jordan Bennington. That adjustment started a run to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Blues defeated the Winnipeg Jets, the Dallas Stars and the San Jose Sharks to emerge as Western Conference Champions. They earned the right to play the Eastern Conference representative, the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final. These teams played for the Cup in 1970, which resulted in St. Louis suffering a four game sweep at the hands of the Bruins. However, the 2018-2019 Cup Final between these two teams went the distance.

It was a hard-hitting, dramatic seven game series with the main storyline occurring in Game 4. Bruins defensemen Zdeno Chara, suffered an injured jaw from taking accidental puck to the face. His doctors did what they could to repair the damage so he could participate in the rest of the series. The Blues won Game 5, and the Bruins were victorious in Game 6. With Game 7 in Boston, the Bruins had the chance to win another Cup. They had the opportunity to win it in front of their home crowd for the first time ever. But, the Blues came motivated, and played like the better team on the night of June 12. The St. Louis Blues beat the Boston Bruins by a score of 4-1 to win their first Stanley Cup in the team’s 52 year history. Ryan O Reilly was named the MVP of the playoffs. The fans at the team’s home arena – the Enterprise Center, and the St. Louis Cardinals’ baseball stadium, Busch Stadium, were all in a celebratory mood. Everyone in St. Louis was ready to attend a long overdue Stanley Cup Parade that followed. The St. Louis Blues had 21 Canadian players. But, a team from Canada celebrated something really special the following night.

The 2019 NBA Finals featured the defending champions, the Golden State Warriors against the winner of the Eastern Conference, the Toronto Raptors. The challengers had home court advantage….and Kawhi Leonard. Toronto’s defence showed up in this series, and proved to be difficult for the Warriors. The teams split the first two games in Toronto. The Raptors travelled to Oracle Arena in Oakland and emerged victorious in both games, taking a shocking 3 games to 1 lead over the champions. Raptors fans who made the trip to Oracle were thrilled, even singing O Canada after Game 4. But the team could have lost a major player in Kyle Lowry after Game 3 of the series.

Mark Stevens, an investor in the Warriors, and a member of the team’s executive board, demonstrated behaviour unbecoming of a high ranked team official. As Kyle was attempting to recover a ball from going out of bounds, he ran into Stevens. The executive shoved Lowry and apparently said some distasteful things. Instead of getting into a physical altercation, Lowry mentioned to an on court official what was transpiring. Stevens was barred from attending any Warriors games for a year – and rightfully so. Kyle was smart in not getting into a physical altercation with Mr. Stevens, because he would likely have been fined or suspended one or more games.

Kevin Durant was out of action with an injury since Game 5 of the Western Conference Semi-Finals against Houston. With the champs facing a deficit in the Finals, Durant decided to play. Unfortunately, he went down holding his leg. It was later confirmed as a torn Achilles. But, I was disappointed in the reaction of a few fans.

Some fans cheered when KD went down. Why? It demonstrated a complete lack of empathy in my mind, and a poor reflection on Toronto Raptors fans. They should have waited for Durant to get up before cheering. Obviously the media did not let the outrageous behaviour go – and rightfully so. Even the Warriors players noticed the reaction and called it “classless.” While it was a just a few fans reacting so poorly, it was downright wrong!

With the motivation of Durant’s injury and the perceived lack of fan empathy in Toronto, the Warriors went on to win the game, making the lead 3-2 for the Raptors. Game 6 was the final ever game at Oracle Arena, as the Warriors are moving to a new arena next season. Lowry started off on a really hot scoring spree. Fred VanVleet scored nine consecutive points in the second half to quiet the Warriors crowd. The Raptors played tremendous defense. But, another superstar went down for the defending champs. Klay Thompson was hurt because he landed hard on his left leg after a dunk. Silence permeated Oracle. Klay shot two free throws then left the game. The Warriors fought valiantly down the stretch, but could not overcome the tough minded challengers. When the clock struck zero, the pockets of Raptors fans inside the champion’s arena were jubilant and celebratory as the Toronto Raptors became the NBA Champions for the first time ever.

Raptors superfan, Nav Bhatia was embraced by Golden State’s coach Steve Kerr. Steph Curry hugged Kyle Lowry – class acts by both men. Fans celebrated in the numerous Jurassic Parks across Canada. It was a wild and crazy scene in Downtown Toronto as well. But, it would only get crazier a few days later. The morning of the parade, it was revealed that the Golden State Warriors took out a full page ad in the Toronto Star to congratulate the Raptors, with a picture of Steph embracing Kyle. A classy move by a classy organization.

On June 17, the city celebrated the team’s Championship victory. About two million people packed Nathan Philips Square. Fans saluted the team, as busses carrying them stopped at different points in downtown. While this was fun, and well deserved for the team, it delayed their arrival at the Square by a couple hours, and the fans who were already there had to wait the entire day for the team. During the tour, Kyle Lowry held on to the Larry O Brien Trophy for dear life (he did the same when the team arrived at the rally), Kawhi Leonard received a potted cactus from an individual dubbed “plant guy”, and fans were chanting “five more years” to Kawhi – in reference to his free agent situation. But, I think Marc Gasol had the time of his life. He was dancing and very jubilant the entire time, especially on the bus. When the team arrived at the Square, fans were thrilled, though I am sure some were extremely tired after waiting for so long. Thankfully, the speeches were kept short.

Lowry thanked his teammates, whom he called his “brothers”. Kawhi did the same, and ended his speech with a variation of a laugh he did in one of his early media interviews as a Raptor. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau congratulated the team. Mayor John Tory expressed the same sentiments as the other speakers, but he added a couple things to his presentation. He presented Kawhi with a key to the city, and renamed part of Bremner Blvd as “Raptors Way.” But, I think Drake’s speech provided a warm moment. While he congratulated the team and talked about how much they mean to him and the city, he said to “turn to somebody you don’t know and I want you to give them a hug,” and almost everyone did. I think he wanted to emphasize that we are all the same, regardless of our differences. That is a great lesson for everyone.

After a late start to the proceedings, celebrations ended after 4 p.m. It was an extremely long day for those at Nathan Philips Square. But, I am sure that if you ask those who were there, they will say it was worth the wait to see and hear from their heroes. Unfortunately, the event was marred by a shooting which created chaos and panic. The shooting became the topic of the day. The focus should have been on the accomplishment of the team. But, instead, the media chose to focus on the chaotic incident that occurred.

Both celebrations were well deserved for the St. Louis Blues and Toronto Raptors. They were historic. Nobody thought the turn out would be as big as it was in Toronto. Hopefully, it will not take another 52 years for the Blues to win another Stanley Cup. Hopefully it does not take another 26 years for the city of Toronto to celebrate another title in the Big Three Sports Leagues.

I want to end with a message for Toronto fans. As great as you all were during the Raptors run, I know you are worried about Kawhi Leonard re-signing. I understand. Masai Ujiri brought him here to win a title. Kawhi did just that. He will test the free agent market. IF he chooses to leave, please do not be upset – he did what he was brought here to do. It is his decision. He has to do what he thinks is right for him and his family. So, please respect it.

Azeem Kayum

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