At the Junction loft space where members of the Backyard Axe-Throwing League meet, there’s a painting against the far wall with tournament results from the past two years. In 2011 and 2012, each of the League’s four weekly divisions—axes fly on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday—played five such tournaments, their victors recorded for posterity on the wall. And for the Monday-night league, those results suggested something of a tug-of-war.
Throughout 2011, all but one of those tournaments was locked down by a player who goes by Jon M. Through 2012, however, a series of challengers gradually loosened his iron grip on the podium. Finally, another Monday-night player, Stefan, would end that year as Jon M’s heir apparent, with two wins, back to back. With a third win, we’d be talking about a changing of the guard, so to speak.
But we’ll come back to that.
By all indications, the game played in this West Toronto space is unique to Toronto, even Ontario—even Canada, possibly. Born at the cottage one lazy summer, the first hatchets started connecting with tree bark, veterans recall, on an afternoon in 2006, when it was too cold to swim. Later, Matt Wilson, a west-end bartender who runs the league, brought the game to the yard behind Duff’s Wings, near College Street and Manning Avenue.
Between 2006 and 2011, when the League moved to its current home at 213 Sterling Road, the traditions, structures, rules, and even the culture of axe-throwing as a sport started coming together. The area behind Duff’s, veterans of the League say, had a long, narrow back yard, divided into two sides, which functioned as arenas. One side was called “Fire,” while the other was called “Ice.” Wall paintings indicated which side was which. A pair of large targets were affixed to the wall to absorb the impact of each axe.
Inside, Duff’s patrons would occasionally hear a heavy thud, followed by another, then another.
Over time, word of mouth began to spread—no doubt aided by Duff’s patrons wondering what the hell all the commotion was about. The bartenders and security guards of Toronto axe-hurling’s first wave were eventually joined by others—insurance adjusters, actors, firefighters, and even on-duty Toronto police, players say. The broad appeal of this simple, Zen-like pursuit—with all its focus, aim, and release—was beginning to swell the League’s numbers. By 2011, even employees of big corporations, like TD Bank, were lining up for a toss.
At an axe-throwing tournament held by the Monday-night league this week, the score was dead even. Jon M and Stefan upped the ante, shifting to the heavier, long-handled monstrosities used to break a tie. Strategically, these are used only when a single point is needed to break a stalemate. Bulky and unwieldy, they’re harder to control, further testing a player’s aim and strength. In many cases, a successfully pitched long-handled axe will sail through the air and hit its mark, only for its heavy handle to weigh it down, pulling it from the wood.
Long-handled axes had already been a source of heartbreak earlier that night. But by the end of the final round, all that remained was for Stefan to land just a single tie-breaking throw. Just one. If he did, the game would be over.
He threw the axe, and it stuck in the target. And then it was backslaps and toasts all around.
Win or lose, it’s probably best to stay friends when axes are involved.