It was a tough week for Toronto. The Liberal Party took a torpedo down the funnel, the sub-.500 Blue Jays sent down Travis Snider, and Mats Sundin showed up on TV in a Vancouver Canucks jersey for Game 1 of the Nashville Predators-Vancouver Canucks series.
But all was forgotten Saturday in an orgy of self-congratulation for UFC 129. More than 55,000 fans paying $11.5-million choked the Rogers Centre for a look at Georges St-Pierre's "tree-trunk" legs and Randy Couture's cauliflower ears one more time. One Toronto correspondent tweeted how proud he was of the city for staging UFC's first stadium event, which was delayed a decade by squeamish Ontario politicians.
Out-of-towners, too, were impressed. Fox TV's Jay Glazer was one. "Had an awesomely fun stay in Toronto," Glazer tweeted. "You guys sure know how to throw a party in this city (guess he missed the Group of 20 summit last year). Everyone was so nice. I'll be back."
It also didn't hurt the Toronto hype that the sport was banned for so long. Nothing perks up Toronto's interest than a little cultural forbidden fruit, and when it finally arrived the reaction was ecstatic.
UFC's profit will be augmented by a healthy pay-per-view audience that shelled out $49 each ($59 for high-definition) to see the inaugural Toronto card. No wonder UFC supremo Dana White burbled, "Of course we're coming back. We'd be back next Saturday if we could." Having gotten over its revulsion for mixed martial arts, provincial and local politicians now will surely want the caffeine jolt of taxes that such an event brings to their cash-strapped burg.
Why is UFC successful? White has taken the Vince McMahon big-event strategy from World Wrestling Entertainment - that many of his fans grew up on - and added real blood. All it needs it Miss Elizabeth (sadly demised) and Bobby (The Brain) Heenan to complete the model. The intimacy of the event, compared to football or hockey, is also key to the televised look of UFC.
But White faces challenges: how to replace the retiring Couture and St-Pierre when he departs. Can the sport make a transition to new heroes? Rogers Sportsnet, which has Canadian rights to UFC, is hoping it does.
PEOPLE'S HOCKEY COURT
Maybe it was just us, but for a while during Hockey Night in Canada last Saturday, we thought we'd tuned into Judge Judy instead of Game 2 of the Western Conference semi-final between the Canucks and Predators. First, there was the annoying neighbours' case, locally described as What To Do With The Green Guys? Only in Canada would two guys in green body suits standing on their heads and wiggling their bums at opposing players cause such a commotion. (Has no one seen the NFL's Dog Pound in Cleveland or the Mad Max guys in Oakland?)
As Hot Stove panelist Glenn Healy reported, the NHL is trying to come up with a protocol for people rich enough to buy playoff tickets next to the penalty box but clued-out enough that they don't know the Blue Man Group stole their gig. The visiting Predators denied they complained about the lads, who truly are a year past their stale date. But Usual Suspects has learned that their general manager, David Poile, was indeed involved in ending the spandex nightmare. Case closed.
Then there was linesman Steve Miller and the missing puck from Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final last year between the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers. Everyone at the NHL, including Miller, was denying any knowledge of the whereabouts of the puck used to score Chicago's Cup-winning tally. The NHL seemed to be saying Miller's two-week hiatus from his duties was not a suspension, just a delay-of-game penalty. But then intrepid Hockey Night producers dug up the net-cam footage of Miller fishing the puck out and putting it in his pocket. Snap. Bailiff, take away the prisoner. (Great line from Ron MacLean: "[Miller]must still have it because we can't get the linesmen to drop the puck.")
Finally, there was Healy waving a sheaf of legal papers that NHL trainers and therapists are now obliged to sign. The documents ask these people for disclosure on everything from criminal records to who holds their mortgages. It's clearly an attempt to weed out people with drug or gambling pasts. Which led to Healy's cheeky line, "Maybe if they'd done this to some of the owners they wouldn't have stepped up to buy some of these teams." Judgment reserved.
WITH GLOWING HEARTS
Ah, the ratings magic of two Canadian teams in the playoffs. CBC recorded the highest average audience for a first round, with the Vancouver/Chicago and Montreal Canadiens/Boston Bruins classics leading the way. According to CBC, the first round had an average of 2.148 million viewers for each game, up 49 per cent from last year. The previous high was in 2004, which featured five of the six Canadian teams and an average audience of 1.989 million. The concern for Vancouver is that the longer it survives as Canada's sole team, the stranger its start times will get to accommodate the Eastern time-zone monsters.
THERE'S A DRAFT HERE
ESPN flaks called its slimmed-down NFL Draft panel of Chris Berman, Jon Gruden and Mel Kiper the "Wow" panel. As in, "Wow, did he just say that?" Gruden, in particular, would have thought Maurice Clarett a canny draft selection as he gushed over everyone's selections. Berman, alas, is showing mileage on his tires. It was about 20 minutes of ESPN and we quickly hastened to the NFL Network for the rest of the proceedings. It's official, Mike Mayock of NFL Network is now the king of draft geeks, the go-to guy on who's the real deal.
No one has ever suggested Michelle Tafoya got to the top on network gender balancing. Tafoya is not just the best female sports reporter but among the very best reporters of any gender when it comes to working sidelines. Looks like she's leaving ESPN to go to NBC. Tafoya covering hockey with Mike Milbury and Pierre McGuire - that, we'd pay to see.