A brief history of defunct Toronto sports teams.
With a hockey club that hasn’t won a championship in over 40 years, a baseball squad in 20, a basketball team that hasn’t made the playoffs in over half a decade, and a fan base willing to support all of the aforementioned regardless, Toronto seems to harbour a no-child-left-behind policy when it comes to professional sports.
Even so, you might be surprised to know (or remember) that, even in a sporting city as forgiving and loyal as ours, there were teams that just didn’t make the cut. Here’s a look back at five teams that temporarily called Toronto their home.
Name: Toronto Phantoms
League: Arena Football League
Years active: 2001-2002
Home field: Air Canada Centre
Greatest achievements: After relocating to Toronto from New England in 2001 (where they were called the Sea Wolves), the Phantoms won the AFL Eastern Division Championship and qualified for the playoffs in their first year, posting a respectable 8-6 season. However, the team was eliminated in the quarterfinals by the Nashville Kats, losing 45-38 on a dramatic 23-yard touchdown pass with just one second left in the fourth quarter. On a less dour note, the team’s biggest margin of victory was a 61-26 road win against their archrivals, the Buffalo Destroyers.
Star players: Phantoms offensive player Damian Harrell was a Tracy McGrady of sorts. His numbers were pretty decent, with Harrell always finishing top 10 in receptions and receiving yards during his two-year tenure with the Phantoms, but he was largely overlooked. Harrell’s success and recognition came after he left Toronto, where he was named both AFL Offensive Player of the Year and First Team All-Arena twice respectively, in 2005 and 2006.
Fun fact: There’s been speculation that the team was named after a Toronto-based women’s hosiery company known as Phantom Industries, the president of which was team minority owner Ronnie Strasser. Nonetheless, the CFL was less than chuffed to see another football team, regardless of what name, moseying their way into an already tough-to-crack-into sports market. (For two months, the Phantoms and Argos season schedules overlapped.) In fact, Argos owner Sherwood Schwarz and other CFL bosses, in an attempt to mitigate the impending AFL invasion, even discussed starting an indoor football league of their very own.
Uniform look: With an image of gap-mouthed, sickle-swinging Grim Reaper nuzzled under a team script (which looked like it was written in a spooky Power Point-like font), the logo for the Toronto Phantoms felt dangerously seasonal and only ever appropriate at a children’s Halloween party. The silver and black unis were pretty sharp, but you’d expect more style from a team (allegedly) named after a women’s hosiery company.
What happened? It seems both Phantoms supporters and detractors overestimated Toronto’s demand for professional indoor football. Before the inaugural season, Phantoms team president Rob Godfrey (son of then-Blue Jays president Paul) estimated, with an average ticket price of $26, the team would need to bring in 10,000 to 12,000 fans every game just to break even. Sadly, the team averaged just a smidgen under 7,000 in its short existence and closed up shop at the end of the 2002 season with a 5-9 record, bringing an end to Arena Football in our city and the Phantoms franchise altogether. Toronto audiences complained about the vociferous of rock music, scratched their heads at the notion of balls bouncing off nets and back into play, noted the conspicuous lack of defence, and griped about the virtual disappearance of a rushing game. Godfrey, however, cited his own list of reasons for why the team failed in Toronto, including the then-unfavourable U.S.-to-Canadian dollar exchange rate.
Name: Buffalo-Toronto Royals
League: World Team Tennis
Years active: 1974
Home field: Half of the team’s 22-game “home” schedule was played at the CNE Coliseum, the other at the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium.
Star players: Guess who team owner John F. Bassett happened to have as his tennis coach? You guessed it: the Dutchman and former world No. 3 Tom Okker. Bassett offered Okker a generous contract, which included a proviso that allowed Okker to forgo his commitments with the Royals if and when there were scheduling conflicts (i.e., when Okker played in big-name tournaments). As a result, and perhaps rather predictably, he hardly ever showed up.
What happened?: As the old saying goes, sometimes less really is more. The beauty of tennis comes from how elegant and simple the essence of the sport is, so the WTT’s attempt at restructuring the game to appeal to a wider audience (like using multi-coloured tennis courts, for example) didn’t sit too well with purists and failed to attract a substantial following. Playing in cities with less-than-prolific histories in tennis, and coupled with an often-no-show star, the Royals didn’t really stand a chance in Buf-Tor. In fact, on some nights, only a few hundred people showed up at the Coliseum to watch them play. The team’s first game was held in May of 1974, but, within five months, the Royals were sold and later shipped to Hartford, Connecticut, the place were pro teams are usually put out to pasture. (Spoiler alert: the Royals die at the end.)
Greatest achievements: The Buf-Tor Royals ended their only season in the WTT with a record of 13-31, edging out the Hawaii Leis (12-30) for the worst record in the league that year. It’s quite the achievement, really, considering how this was the only time in the Leis’ three-year existence where they didn’t finish in last place.
Uniform look: Photographic evidence of the Royals’ existence is tough to come by, however, as per the league standard, it’s safe to assume that they just wore traditional tennis gear with a small logo on the shirts.
Fun fact: Nothing about the Royals was particularly memorable, but they did play against the Philadelphia Freedoms once. The Philadelphia Freedoms, if you’re inclined to remember, was the inspiration for Elton John’s funky pop tune of the same name.
Name: Toronto Tornados
League: Continental Basketball Association
Years active: 1983-1985
Home field: Varsity Arena
Uniform look: The team’s logo in no way resembled an actual tornado, but more of a light blue pie cut into eight pieces, with the team’s name, written in a needlessly contrived font, running through the middle. One can only assume it was meant to look like a basketball. Luckily for the players, the uniforms were rather boilerplate, with the player’s number and the words “Toronto” or “Tornados” written in standard sports lettering.
Star players: With CBA salaries maxed out at $400 a week, the Tornados were unlikely to make millionaires out of players, and thus, struggled to attract top-tier b-ball talent. The closest they ever got to superstardom was with guard Carl Nicks, who once played college ball with the legendary Larry Bird at Indiana State. Nicks scored 23 points in the team’s first ever home game, a 108-112 loss to the Bay State Bombardiers that attracted 2,613 fans.
What happened?: In the spirit of a certain mayor who shall remain nameless, team owner Ted Stepien blamed the team’s much-to-be-desired popularity on the Toronto media. He lamented the fact that there was next to no radio or television coverage for home games, and was quoted as saying, “the media could have made our sport in Toronto” and that they “should have been hyping us.” The fact that the decades-old Varsity Arena had often been cited for fire-code violations, and lacked proper insulation during games in the winter, probably didn’t help attendance-wise. After only 400 or so people showed up to watch the Tornados upset the undefeated Tampa Bay Thrillers, Stepien decided to move the team mid-season to Pensacola, a Florida city of (at the time) 30,000 people, where he said the Tornados would be “front page every day.” The team’s first home game in Pensacola drew in 3,661 but, at the end of the season, they moved to Jacksonville and were renamed the Jets. The team eventually found its way to Biloxi, Mississippi, where they were finally and mercifully put down for good. The CBA itself has been on hiatus since 2009.
Fun fact: Tornados boss Ted Stepien was a bit of a character, sort of like the Caligula of professional-minor league sports. Stepien once sacked the team’s cheerleaders because they didn’t sing the national anthem, fired Tornados coach Gerald Oliver on the eve of the team’s first playoff game, and threatened to pull the team out of Toronto unless “the city proves it wants me.” During halftime, he would come onto the court and shoot free throws in his suit. Before the Tornados, Stepien was the owner of the NBA’s truly dreadful Cleveland Cavaliers, whom, in a rather poetic instance of irony, he once threatened to move the Cavs to Toronto.
Greatest achievements: After posting a 16-28 record in their first year in the CBA, the Tornados seemed destined to finish under .500 in their second year. However, the team went on a late-season tear, which included a streak of 15-2. They finished the 1984-85 season 26-22—good enough for an Eastern Division playoff spot, and more wins than the Toronto Maple Leafs for that year. However, the Tornados were eliminated in the first round by the Albany Patroons, which was coached by the not-yet-famous Phil Jackson.
Name: Toronto Toros
League: World Hockey Association
Years active: 1973-1976
Home fields: Varsity Arena, Maple Leaf Gardens
Uniform look: With tones of dark blue, bright red, and immaculate white, the Toronto Toros uniform was rather flashy. The logo featured a charging bull vigorously blowing air out of its nose, which, coupled with the team’s colour scheme, made the Toros look like the Buffalo Bills on ice.
Star players: The most famous person to ever play for the Toros was Summit Series hero Paul Henderson, who defected from the Maple Leafs to join the team. According to Henderson, he left the Buds for the Bulls because Leafs owner Harold Ballard was stingy in terms of contract negotiating and “simply impossible to deal with.” Henderson even went on to say, “I hated Ballard so bad that I got an ulcer.” In his biography, Blood, Sweat and Hockey, the illustrious Leafs blueliner Börje Salming admits he considered jumping ship for the Toros in 1975 for similar Ballard-related reasons.
Fun fact: Speaking of defectors, Czechoslovakia’s Vaclav Nedomansky became the first player from east of the Iron Curtain to play pro hockey in the West when he snuck into Canada and started playing for the Toros in 1974. Also, speaking of firsts, Greg Neeld, the first hockey player to wear a visor, briefly suited up for the Toros, as well.
Greatest achievements: In their first season, the Toros finished second in the Eastern Division (41-33-4) and made it to the semifinals of the WHA playoffs, losing to the Chicago Cougars. The Toros made the playoffs again the next year, finishing the season 43-33-2, but were eliminated in the quarterfinals by the San Diego Mariners.
What happened?: Grab some popcorn, because this one’s juicy. The story of the Toros began in Ottawa, where they were called the Nationals during the WHA’s inaugural season in 1972. After struggling in the nation’s capital, the team was bought, renamed, and shipped to Toronto by one John F. Bassett. (That’s right: The same man who thought team tennis would make it in Toronto also thought it was prudent to move a pro hockey club to the same city as the storied Maple Leafs. But wait, there’s more!) Bassett tried to renovate and add seats to the CNE Coliseum, but when that fell through, he housed the Toros at Varsity Arena for a year before moving to the Maple Leaf Gardens for the 1974-75 season—right around the time the team acquired Henderson.
Now, this is where the story gets tasty. It just so happened that the owner of Maple Leaf Gardens was Harold Ballard. (That’s right, the same man who owned the Toronto Maple Leafs also owned the venue in which they and their cross-league rival played in. But wait, there’s more!) Still annoyed that the Toros pilfered Henderson and other ex-Leafs, and clearly a fan of the mantra “keep you friends close and your enemies closer”, Ballard made destroying the Toros an indelible part of his character. According to Bassett, Ballard charged the Toros $15,000 rent for each game at the Gardens (roughly $70,000 in today’s money), an additional $3,500 ($16,000 today) when the games were televised by Global, and an extra fee to raise the level of brightness in the venue. (Ballard intentionally dimmed the lights for the Toros.) Ballard also took sabotage to new levels by refusing the Toros the use of the venue’s box office, forcing them to set-up temporary kiosks for each game; by removing the cushioned pads from the players’ bench whenever the Toros played; and by forcing the Toros to build and pay for their own dressing room, instead of letting them share the one used by the Leafs. As the expenses started to pile up, Bassett, in a stunning show of hubris, drew up a 36-page document and made an offer to buy the rival Maple Leafs. According to Bassett, he “came very close but, right at the end, Harold wouldn’t do the deal.” After playing all his cards, Bassett decided to fold and moved the Toros to Birmingham, Alabama, which he considered a “hotbed of hockey interest.”
Name: Toronto Shooting Stars
League: National Professional Soccer League
Years active: 1996-1997
Home field: Maple Leaf Gardens
Uniform look: The logo featured an anthropomorphic, kiwi-coloured star-creature angrily chewing on what looks like a soccer ball. The uniform was Argonauts-blue, and actually quite fashionable if the centre of the shirt wasn’t covered by the team’s unsightly logo.
What happened?: The Shooting Stars were fraught with financial and ownership problems from the start. President and co-owner Francois Glasman was ousted shortly before the first season even began, resulting in the team being run like a headless chicken. Three games into the season, the ownership collapsed completely, forcing the NPSL to assume control over the franchise. Attendance was under 1,000 for each home game, and without any money, players weren’t getting paid on the regular. (At one point, midfielder Kevin Holness claimed he was owed $10,000.) It didn’t help that the team truly and unequivocally sucked. The Shooting Stars limped and dragged themselves across the finish line, ending their only NPSL season second last with a 6-34 record—losing every single road game—before being washed from the city’s collective memory in a tide of red ink.
Star players: The most famous player to wear the Shooting Stars kit was probably Maradona. Not Diego, mind you, but his younger brother Lalo.
Fun fact: You may be surprised to learn that the club actually had season ticket holders and that, one time, they demanded to be reimbursed when the Shooting Stars abruptly moved three of their home games to Rochester.
Greatest achievements: A Dec. 16, 1996 article in the Star opened with the lede: “It was a good day for Rick Titus yesterday. Titus scored four goals to lead the Toronto Shooting Stars to an 8-7 overtime victory over the Edmonton Drillers at Maple Leaf Gardens. And he actually got paid for it.” So there’s that.