Sports coverage tends to focus on major league teams, but every day in Toronto people make fun (and sometimes wacky) activities an important part of their lives. Sporting Goods looks at some of these.
The sound of hatchet meeting plywood rings through the quiet Junction Triangle neighbourhood that Toronto’s Backyard Axe Throwing League calls home. From outside of the league’s unit, part of an old warehouse accessed from an alleyway, a mishmash of hipsters, bikers, and grown-up punks can be seen packing the part of the room closest to the floor-to-ceiling windows. Most are men, but there are several women, and almost everyone is holding a beer can or a Tetra Pak of wine.
Behind them, four people hurl axes of various sizes at freestanding wooden targets near the back wall, urged on by cheers and jeers from their rambunctious cohorts.
There’s a lot to love about axe-throwing. There are sharp objects being vaulted through the air at high speeds. There are hooligans of all denominations, boozing together like buddies. There’s even a certain feeling of privilege, since the league remains a private social club.
This, dear readers, is a very special place indeed.
Throwers get five points when they hit the bullseye, and then three and single points respectively for the two outer rings. Daring throwers looking to come back from behind can attempt to hit one of the small circles above and on either side of the target for seven points.
The magic began five years ago when Matt Wilson drunkenly discovered his passion for throwing axes into wood. He soon organized a crew, laid out some ground rules, and started an organized league in a west-end backyard.
This year marks the Backyard Axe Throwing League’s first in its new indoor space—which makes the name somewhat misleading but means year-round access to axe-throwing fun.
While somewhat more complicated than this, the rules of competition can be summed up as follows:
- Throwers compete against one other person at a time, each in front of their own target, side by side.
- Each thrower gets three rounds of five axes each. Depending where their axes land on the bullseye target, they can score five, three, or single points per axe. Two small circles painted above and to either side of the bull’s eye represent a special seven-point area, known as the “clutch.”
- The player with the most points wins. Points are also added up over the season to determine standings for playoffs.
“We generally say you should lead with your opposing foot [from the one you’re throwing with], but everyone has their own way of doing it,” says Wilson, surveying the night’s diverse crew of tossers like a proud parent. “As long as you keep the axe straight and follow through, that’s the main thing. It’s all physics.”
Some incorporate a hop into their throw for extra power, while others—particularly those of larger stature—seem to throw just fine from a standstill.
Axe-throwers face off against one other one person at a time, throwing three rounds of five axes each. The person with the most points wins.
The league boasts more than 90 people, spread over three nights of the week. The big dogs (i.e. the league’s O.G. members) come out on Tuesday, with slightly less experienced hurlers competing on Monday and Wednesdays.
Member Jen Benedict, a strong thrower whose goal is to be the league’s first female winner, says she was hooked as soon as she threw her first hatchet.
“As soon as you throw it and it sticks [in the wood], you’re addicted,” she says, noting it feels somewhat less hardcore to be playing indoors. “I think it was more fun in the rain.”
Thrower Sean Carter—who responded to a jeer from the crowd by saying he was “cartwheel-drunk”—says he fears not the mixture of alcohol and axe.
“If someone walked in front of these people [throwing the axes], we’d deem them a moron and they wouldn’t be allowed back,” he said, his red face beaming and his classic Jays cap slightly askew.
Much like the art of axe-throwing itself, Wilson takes safety very seriously. He says that’s part of the reason he only allowed friends and friends of friends to join the league for several years—he wants to make sure everyone who comes out has the wherewithal to stay safe.
“We had a couple people come try it that were acting ADD, not really paying attention to what was going on, and we didn’t invite them back,” he said, noting the only injury he’s seen in his five years was gleaned while sharpening, not throwing, an axe. “Nobody is supposed to stand with their back to the targets. People are good at policing each other. If we’re not safe, it could ruin what we have.”
Wilson’s mostly deadpan demeanor makes it hard to tell how much humour he sees in the bizarre spectacle surrounding him. He insists he’s a genuine axe-throwing enthusiast—not just in it for the irony.
Regardless, he begins each throwing session by leading those assembled in an enthusiastic chant of the league’s somewhat ridiculous oath:
Remember primal man,
Who only had his hands
Who forged in fire and steel
The tools to kill his meal
We honour him this day
And pray our axe to stay
And with the jubilant bellow of a grown man blowing through a ram’s horn, the axe-throwing begins.
Photos by Corbin Smith/Torontoist.