The best game in town
Torontonians may not understand the intricacies of rugby league, but that hasn't stop them from falling in love with the Wolfpack
A Toronto team is on the verge of being crowned champions on home turf this weekend – and there are plenty of tickets left.
The Wolfpack have begun professional life as transatlantic upstarts, running roughshod over the competition all season in rugby league's British third tier. With a win over the second-place Barrow Raiders at Lamport Stadium in Round 6 of the Super 8s, the Wolfpack will lift Britain's Kingstone Press League 1 trophy and gain promotion to the Kingstone Press Championship.
No idea what any of that means? Neither did I before going to a match on Labour Day weekend (after doing a thorough Google search first, of course). If there's a professional sport in Toronto, I've attended it. So how does the Wolfpack compare? Well, it was a blast.
Rugby knowledge is not necessary to enjoy the final two games of the season – the last one crucial if the Raiders upset the home team. A new fan just needs to know that tickets are affordable, the Wolfpack seem near unstoppable, the beer and food won't bankrupt you, the crowd knows how to party and the players are, to put it politely, charismatic.
Here, a guide to cheering on Toronto's buzziest, hopefully soon-to-be champion sports team.
You can buy tickets ahead of time for $21 plus fees. Or you can make a game-time decision at the gate that costs $30. The team draws between 6,000 and 7,000 people at the 9,600-capacity stadium in Liberty Village – or the Den, as the team calls it – so your chances of being turned away are slim.
No such thing as nosebleeds here, where the seating is general admission. Want to watch the smashy-smashy of large men colliding midfield from the first row? Go for it. Want to be that weird bleacher bum who prefers the last row? Get climbing, although it's a very modest ascent. Or join the rest of us in the craft beer garden in the stadium's north end. But, as my friend Matt implored me, watch out for flying rugby balls while you're double-fisting drinks.
An hour to kickoff, the place to be is a tiny space across from the field. The first fans on the scene are crowding into the team storefront. Many of them already have $75 jerseys – some signed by Wolfpack players – and they're looking to accessorize with $45 caps or $15 scarves. The lineup at the register is all ages, from young families buying matching shirts for the kids to older gentlemen with British accents locking in next season's passes. Of course, there's also that one pack of guys dressed in their best wolf costumes.
If you're unfamiliar with the players, now is a good moment to get acquainted with a team calendar, wherein shirts are outlawed and pants are optional. Don't linger on the misters of September too long: When that Beyoncé track begins blaring from the stadium, it's time to head inside.
The food and drink
The menu at Lamport comes with sticker shock – because of how affordable it is. Compared with more corporate venues across the city, it's a steal to order a hot dog (starting at $5) and beer (all $9, not a Budweiser in sight). If you splurge on a $12 Packs Alpha Predator Dog, a foot-long wiener with mac 'n' cheese and nachos and cheese, at least let me have a bite, please.
One tip: Take a chance at halftime on the hot-dog cannon, which is impossible to hate. As the players take a 15-minute break, the crowd is brought to its feet by a Wolfpack employee wielding a machine that launches plain hot dogs into the stands. He works the length of the field twice, accompanied by cheerleaders and mascots of ketchup and mustard. Who Let the Dogs Out is played.
One warning: There will be lineups for everything at halftime. Lamport is, after all, a modest municipal facility, as evidenced by the elementary school-style wash fountains in the bathrooms. Best to eat before or after halftime – or via hot-dog cannon.
The Wolfpack's dominance has trained fans to expect wins, which keeps the energy light but boisterous. There's the supporters club in the northeast stands, where a wolf-cowled man with a megaphone and a drumbeat leads the group in chants. Fans cheer at the right times, and they have a lot to cheer for on this day as the Wolfpack score seven times. The DJ is restrained, keeping the music to breaks in play. He oddly transitions from hip hop to wedding staples, opting for YMCA and Otis Day's Shout on two of the Wolfpack's tries. The kids love it.
In the beer garden, the crowd is rowdy but respectful of the diehards raptly hanging off the railings. Casual fans such as me and Matt are chattier, running into friends and colleagues throughout the game. We ask: Why'd you come? "It sounded like fun." "I live down the street." "I heard there were men."
There was a game, much of which I don't remember. We did debate the rules for a few plays – they're allowed to pass backward, like a lateral in football, right? – then decided to appreciate the match in broad strokes. The Wolfpack beat Whitehaven 36-18. Even when Whitehaven pulled within two points, victory still felt inevitable for a team that has lost just once this season. Go Wolfpack!
Very few things about Toronto sports make me feel like a kid again. So I didn't expect much when visitors and Wolfpack alike came out postgame to shake hands, sign souvenirs and take selfies for fans. It's a rush to shake sweaty hands with these giants who've been tackling other giants for 80 minutes. The match already felt intimate in the confines of Lamport. Face to face, you're close enough to see every bruise and cut. Then I did something unlikely for a 30-something guy from Toronto who describes his fandom as "jaded."
"Would you mind taking a selfie with us?" I ask Liam Kay, the wing player with the bearded Viking vibe.
"Sure," he says, palming my rose-gold iPhone. "A pink phone, eh?" he wonders out loud, before expertly flipping to the front-facing camera, positioning me and Matt above his head, then snapping four shots of our grinning selves.
"Thanks, boys," he says, then moves on to the child waiting to get his jersey signed.
At halftime, I ask a woman pouring pints about last call.
"Oh, we serve until 9 p.m."
What? The game started at 4:30.
"That's right. The players come out and drink after the game and everyone sticks around."
I stuck around. After the formal fan session, the players hit the showers. The families head home, including Matt, who has a newborn daughter. The DJ returns to form with more Beyoncé. The drinks keep flowing.
At some point, the players return refreshed. Some are easy to spot in their shower shoes and Wolfpack-branded polo shirts. But I can barely pick out the rest of the team, whose hands I was smitten to shake just an hour ago. They've blended into the dance party that's broken out in celebration of another W for the home team.