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Toronto South: Tampa area is home to Blue Jays and Raptors with TFC nearby too

The We The North rallying cry had its horizons expanded when the Toronto Raptors temporarily relocated to Tampa, Fla. Now the NBA team is getting some Canadian company in the Sunshine State.

The We The North rallying cry had its horizons expanded when the Toronto Raptors temporarily relocated to Tampa, Fla. Now the NBA team is getting some Canadian company in the Sunshine State.

The Toronto Blue Jays will kick off their 2021 home schedule Thursday against the Los Angeles Angels at TD Ballpark in nearby Dunedin. Toronto FC will soon join their sporting cousins with a home opener at Orlando's Exploria Stadium — about a 90-minute drive from Tampa — on April 24 against Vancouver.

We the North? More like Toronto South.

Border restrictions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic have forced several Canadian teams to play so-called home games in the United States. In an odd quirk — and an unexpected treat for snowbirds and sports fans in the state — Toronto teams have set up shop in Florida on a temporary basis.

Lee Godfrey lived in the Ontario capital for 18 years before moving to Florida six years ago. The longtime Blue Jays/TFC fan lives about an hour's drive from Dunedin in Bradenton, Fla. — where Canada's men's soccer team recently held a camp and played a World Cup qualifying game.

"From all the places that the Toronto teams could have picked — they could have gone elsewhere — to decide to come to this (area) is awesome," he said.

Tampa has been a sports hotbed in the past year thanks to the Super Bowl champion Buccaneers, Stanley Cup champion Lightning and American League champion Rays.

In mid-December, the Raptors started playing home games at Amalie Arena, home of the Lightning. The Blue Jays' spring home has always been in Dunedin but normally the team heads north in late March.

In this pandemic-affected season, some 22 regular-season Blue Jays home games — three homestands, at least for now — will be a nice bonus for a local fan base that's used to Grapefruit League pre-season matchups.

"It's definitely weird," said Toronto native Collin Young, a snowbird who lives in Bradenton. "It goes with the territory of COVID and everything being different."

A return to Sahlen Field in Buffalo, N.Y., is expected when the Florida heat and rain becomes problematic later in the spring. Toronto's fourth homestand is set to begin June 1 against the Miami Marlins but the Blue Jays have yet to confirm where it will be played.

A timeline for a return to Toronto remains uncertain. The Blue Jays hope to play at Rogers Centre at some point this season but it's hard to predict when government clearance might come.

The city has been a COVID-19 hot spot in Ontario, a province that recently began a four-week shutdown due to a third wave of the pandemic that's being driven by more infectious variants.

Less than three per cent of Ontario adults are fully vaccinated. Down south, where any Floridian aged 18 and up is eligible to get a vaccine, about 18 per cent of state residents are fully vaccinated.

A COVID-19 hot spot last summer, Florida's numbers have come down significantly since a holiday spike over the new year. The state has since relaxed many of its restrictions.

However, Florida still had 5,556 daily cases and 70 deaths on Tuesday. Ontario had 3,065 cases and eight deaths the same day.

Full-capacity sporting events are returning to Florida. The UFC, for example, will have a sellout crowd of 15,000 on hand April 24 for its UFC 261 card in Jacksonville.

The Blue Jays, meanwhile, in a similar plan to spring training, are hosting fans in a limited capacity at the 8,500-seat TD Ballpark. The team plans to increase capacity slightly to 23 per cent (about 1,950 seats) for regular-season games, a Blue Jays spokeswoman said in an email.

The Raptors also have recently allowed limited crowds at their home games. However, unlike in Canada, there is limited television coverage in Florida on major networks for the Canadian teams.

On the soccer front, CF Montreal will also call Florida home for the time being. The Major League Soccer team's home opener is set for April 17 in Fort Lauderdale against Toronto FC.

Canada's national soccer teams have also been active on state pitches.

The women's side played at the SheBelieves Cup in Orlando last February while the men's team was in Bradenton.

In individual sports, Canadian golfer Corey Conners was third at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month in Orlando and Canadian tennis player Bianca Andreescu reached the final of last week's Miami Open.

Eduardo Encina, a sports reporter with the Tampa Bay Times, said that on the sports front, the last year will be remembered locally for its successes and as a time when the city had its "arms out for everyone."

"Combining that with the year the sports teams who play here had during the pandemic — the Stanley Cup, the Super Bowl win and the Rays making it to the World Series, and WrestleMania too to a certain extent — it felt like the eyes of the sports world were on Tampa Bay," he said.

"That includes the Raptors and I think that'll include the Blue Jays as part of that."

Hopes were higher for the Raptors this season, but Canada's lone NBA team has struggled. The club will finish its 2020-21 home schedule in Tampa.

Manis Benson, her husband Josh, and their two young daughters live in a condo near Amalie Arena.

"We were just walking the dogs one night and we didn't even get to see who it was, but one of the players was in the convenience store," she said. "It's just funny, I came from Toronto, and then to have them here is kind of random. But it's pretty awesome."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 7, 2021.

With files from Canadian Press sports reporter Lori Ewing.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press