By Stephen Whyno
THE CANADIAN PRESS
TORONTO _ In the so-called centre of the hockey universe, baseball is dominating the sports conversation as the NHL season gets underway.
With the Blue Jays playing their first playoff game in 22 years Thursday at Rogers Centre, two sports are colliding in Toronto in early October. Even at Air Canada Centre and the Maple Leafs’ practice facility, there’s buzz about the Blue Jays.
“I’d love to be a part of it and I feel like I am,” Montreal Canadiens star P.K. Subban said. “Being from Toronto I want to see the team do well. With the ownership group and what they’ve done, the management team, it’s great to see. It’s good for the city of Toronto and they deserve it. Hopefully the boys can put another banner up.”
Subban was three and four years old when the Blue Jays won the World Series in 1992 and 1993. Admittedly not a big baseball fan, the defenceman has paid more attention since getting to know catcher Russell Martin and relief pitcher Liam Hendriks.
Ontario kids Devante-Smith Pelly and Nathan Beaulieu are big-time Blue Jays fans, so Subban said there’s plenty of baseball talk inside the Habs’ locker-room.
Martin, a Montreal native, and Hendriks were expected to be at the first game of the NHL season between the Leafs and Canadiens. More than 10 other Blue Jays players were also expected to be in attendance Wednesday night before facing the Texas Rangers in Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Thursday afternoon.
During a first-period television timeout, a video tribute to the Blue Jays played on the brand new video board at Air Canada Centre to the strains of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Us Now.” The message read: “Let’s go Blue Jays, bring it home to T.O.,” as fans gave their loudest ovation of the night.
When several Blue Jays players, including Martin, Hendriks (in Canadiens garb), Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman and LaTroy Hawkins were shown, fans applauded and then broke out into chants of “Let’s go, Blue Jays.” Organist Jim Holmstrom added a couple of notes of the song, “OK Blue Jays” for good measure.
It’s a mutual admiration as the Blue Jays took out a newspaper ad featuring Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson holding hockey sticks and wishing the Leafs the best of luck this season.
Coach Mike Babcock wants his team to make progress and compete. He wants the Blue Jays to win and keep playing, partially for the Leafs’ benefit.
“I was in Detroit a number of years when we had great runs in the playoffs,” Babcock said last week. “What it does is it keeps the heat off the Red Wings until you got playing good. I’m hoping the same here. I want them to have a long run so we can get playing good before people start watching us.”
Blue Jays knuckleballer R.A. Dickey said he could speak from “both sides of the coin.”
“I remember when the Leafs made the playoffs a couple of years back, it was kind of nice because if we got off to a poor start they always had the Leafs to talk about. So it can work both ways,” Dickey said. “But it’s exciting, it’s great for the city and it’s great for the fans that have supported us for a long time, that have been begging us to get to the post-season.
“It’s exciting for everybody, including the people in here (the Jays’ locker-room) who have never been able to experience it. I mean I’m 19 years in and this is my first playoff. So it’s pretty special.”
The Blue Jays’ run has distracted some attention from the Leafs, who go into the season with lower-than-normal expectations. But none of the first-round baseball games conflict with hockey, so there will be time for fans to watch both.
Some of those fans are players. The Ottawa Senators changed the time of their practice Friday in Toronto so that some players could go to Game 2 of the ALDS, which starts at 12:45.
As the Leafs go through a rebuild, players can appreciate the fervour around the Blue Jays and hope they can one day do the same thing, even beyond the excitement they created by making the playoffs in 2013.
“It’s great for us to see the city get behind the team, and it’s exciting,” winger Joffrey Lupul said last month. “I’ve been a Jays fan my whole life, so I’m thrilled with this, and you can just see the energy around town.”
_ With Files from Neil Davidson.
Follow ?SWhyno on Twitter