They call him the “ultimate Leafs fan” for a reason.
This season, Mike Wilson went on a quest to attend every one of his team’s games across the continent, an odyssey that ended in first-round misery. But as the Stanley Cup final comes to a climax, the hockey-mad 65-year-old says he’s surprised to find himself swept up in another sport entirely.
“I never thought I would ever see a day that I would be nervous before a Raptors game,” he said, recalling how he felt watching the basketball team’s series-clinching win against the Milwaukee Bucks — the victory that sent Toronto to the NBA Finals.
Wilson’s conversion is unusual for his age, according to a pair of new Canada-wide polls that reveal a stubborn divide between the nation’s older hockey fans and a younger generation that’s glued to the Raptors finals series with the Golden State Warriors.
Hockey is still king in Canada, the polls say, but basketball is taking over in the younger generation — at least while the Raptors are rolling.
If they could choose only one sport to watch, 45 per cent of Canadian men age 18 to 35 say they’d rather watch the Raptors in the finals, handily beating the 39 per cent who’d prefer the Stanley Cup, according to an Angus Reid poll released this week.
Meanwhile, the attitude is reversed among Canadian men over 55, with 49 per cent saying they’d rather watch the hockey and 30 per cent saying basketball.
The same pattern — though less extreme — holds for Canadian women, with the younger cohort preferring the NBA Finals 35 per cent to 32 per cent, and women 55 and up preferring the Stanley Cup 37 per cent to 29 per cent.
Another poll, this one by Campaign Research, found a similar age divide: Asked if they’ll be watching any games between the Raptors and Warriors, about 62 per cent of respondents aged 18 to 34 said yes, while just 45 per cent of those age 55 and above said they’ll tune in.
Overall, the Angus Reid poll, which was conducted between May 30 and June 4, found Canadians as a whole preferring the Stanley Cup 38 per cent to 33 per cent.
Still, Canadians may be more interested in the NBA than ever. Just 10 per cent of Canadians said they followed the NBA before the Raptors run — now that number is 40 per cent.
None of that is surprising to Wilson, who says he can remember similar trends when the Blue Jays and Toronto FC made championship runs.
“It’s not just young people. Everybody is caught up in the hype right now and people always love to back winners,” he said, adding he admires how Raptors players conduct themselves and hopes it can be an inspiration to his Leafs.
What explains the generational gap? Another Leafs mega-fan named Mike, 23-year-old Mike Stephens, says cultural differences in the sports make basketball more attractive to young people.
“Hockey players are covered in equipment, the culture surrounding hockey is more, like, put your head down, no one is special, go to work and that’s it,” said the University of Toronto student, who writes columns for the website Editor In Leaf.
Basketball tends to be more accessible and the players are a lot easier to get to know and root for, he said — Raptors shooting guard Danny Green has his own podcast, for example. “That’s something young fans use to get another connection to the team, and a lot of older people are less inclined to stuff like analytics and social media,” which are vibrant in the NBA, Stephens said.
Stephens said he chose to follow the Leafs at a time when neither team was winning. But he too is completely swept up in the Raptor-mania, watching every game and reading every basketball article he can get his hands on.
“Hockey is just inherently an older sport that we all grew up with,” he said. “But it is possible in the same city to cheer for two of our major sports teams without splitting allegiance.”
Gilbert Ngabo is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @dugilbo