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Toronto sports fans choose exhibition hockey over final Jays homestand

Toronto Maple Leafs Clark MacArthur (left) and Ottawa Senators Jared Cowen (2) collide during second period NHL pre-season action in Toronto on Monday September 19, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

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Toronto Maple Leafs Clark MacArthur (left) and Ottawa Senators Jared Cowen (2) collide during second period NHL pre-season action in Toronto on Monday September 19, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

TORONTO - The arrival of fall is still a couple days away, but sports fans in Toronto already seem to have turned the page on another season.

With the Maple Leafs returning to the ice at Air Canada Centre on Monday night, more people paid to attend a pre-season hockey game than one of the final baseball games of the Blue Jays season. A lot more.

Despite falling a little shy of a sellout, the Leafs drew about 65 per cent more people than the Jays attracted to Rogers Centre down the street: 18,556 to 11,178.

"It's Canada and hockey's the thing here," said Leafs forward Tyler Bozak, who scored twice in a 4-2 win over Ottawa. "It's been a really long summer, we didn't get into the playoffs last year, so I'm sure a lot of the fans were kind of itching to get out here and see our first game. I'm a huge Jays fan, I went to a lot of games this year and I've got some buddies on the team.

"They're playing pretty well right now, it's too bad they're not in the race. I still love getting out and watching those guys."

For the Blue Jays, it was the second-lowest attendance they've received at home in 2011. On a rainy Monday night, they pulled out a 3-2 victory under the dome against the Los Angeles Angels—the opener of their final series at Rogers Centre this season.

Baseball players know where they stand in the city and weren't surprised to learn the Leafs came on top in the fan department.

"I know that Canada is pro hockey and they're just starting up," said Blue Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia. "So I'm just as pumped as everybody else. If I didn't have to goaltend tonight I would have been at the game as well."

The Blue Jays were coming off a weekend series with the New York Yankees which drew over 100,000 fans over three games, but overall they sit 24th in attendance among the 30 major-league teams this season with an average of roughly 22,000. Last season, the Leafs sold out every game at their 18,819-seat arena and finished fifth overall in the NHL—behind teams who play out of larger buildings.

"It's the best place to play in the league," said Leafs forward Colby Armstrong. "It's unbelievable the support we get here. It's like the best feeling ever. If you have a chance to come play here, it's amazing. It's the best."

On Monday night, recently acquired defenceman John-Michael Liles had his first chance to play in Toronto since joining the Maple Leafs. A veteran of 523 games and the oldest player on the team at age 30, he even found himself impressed by the stage.

Since being acquired in a trade at the draft, Liles has been using a baseball analogy when talking to friends in Zionsville, Ind., about the move.

"I loved playing here as a visitor and playing here as a Maple Leaf, I don't know that there's really words that I can use to describe it," said Liles. "It's just a pretty amazing feeling. I definitely had some nerves going tonight, but we'll work through those as the pre-season goes on. The fans here are fantastic, it's a great hockey city.

"Back from where I'm from, not many people know a whole lot about hockey, so the best description I can give people that I usually say is it's like playing for the New York Yankees. Everybody seems to get it then."

Sports fans in Toronto will be faced with another choice on Tuesday night. The Leafs host the Philadelphia Flyers while the Jays and Angels play the second game of their four-game series.

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With files from Gregory Strong.

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