As in-game host for The Raptors, Kat Stefankiewicz knows a good atmosphere. Here, she talks about how the team – and fan base – has grown, and how when not on the court she’s always looking for a place with a great vibe.
For Kat Stefankiewicz it’s all about the atmosphere. For 10 years she’s been instrumental in hyping up Raptors fans in the Air Canada Centre, first as a member and captain of the Dance Pak, and more recently as the team’s in-arena host. And lately, that atmosphere has been electric.
Since the team made the playoffs in 2014 – their first post-season showing since the 2007-08 season – the city’s reaction to Canada’s only NBA team has been feverish. Calcified by the patriotic and spirit-rousing “We the North” slogan, not to mention a Conference Final showdown with LeBron and the Cavaliers, the Raptors have enjoyed sell-out games, the rise of franchise players, and the regular courtside appearances by Drake, our very own Spike Lee. And at the centre of it all (when the team’s not on centre court, that is) is Kat Stefankiewicz.
“The games are one of my favourite parts,” she says of her job, which also includes a series of TV hosting gigs, admitting that she doesn’t actually get to watch the on-court play. “I love the high of the live experience, which takes me back to my theatre days. You’re out there and anything can happen.”
Stefankiewicz found herself at the heart of the basketball hype machine right out of school. She was passionate about both sports and performing as a child, and eventually her mother grew tired of shuttling her between baseball practice and the dance studio. So she gave young Kat an ultimatum: Choose one. “I had no idea how to combine my passions, so I picked performing,” says the Burlington native. It was few weeks after graduating from music theatre performance (aka the triple-threat program) at Sheridan College in Oakville that the Raptors Dance Pak was holding auditions. Stefankiewicz was leery but her mom encouraged her to try, if only to get some experience with auditioning. It was a good move.
She made the crew and by her third season she was named captain. By her fourth season with the team Raptors TV asked to follow Stefankiewicz for a day. Normal enough, she thought, except that she was being secretly auditioned for the in-game host spot the team was creating. Now, in addition game hosting, Stefankiewicz also hosts and produces the web series Raptors Rundown, and hosts NBA TV Canada’s Raptors Game Day and Bell Media’s Open Gym. She has also appeared in commercials, was Liv Tyler’s body double in The Incredible Hulk, is active with Raptors charities, and is a part-time spin instructor.
“This is my tenth season with the Raptors. Sometimes I think if I didn’t go to that audition…” she says, drifting off to contemplate what would have happened if she blew off that try-out. “The Dance Pak got me to where I am today.”
It’s this history with the team that gives Stefankiewicz the cred to comment on just how amazing the current in-arena atmosphere is these days. When she started, the scene was a little more subdued.
“When I was in the Dance Pak it was harder. We weren’t selling out the arena and when you’re trying to hype the fans, it was tough some games. It was empty some games,” she says. “When the team does better the fan base grows. It was very cool to see the entire city attach to the team. You see that outside the arena with Jurassic Park. It’s wild. I think I really appreciate the vibe because I was there when it was quiet. I do better work with a good atmosphere. It makes it more enjoyable.”
Another side effect of the Raps’ success is that the city is definitely on the radar now in NBA circles, helped, in large part by last year’s All-Star game, which Toronto hosted.
“It’s one of the favourite cities in the NBA to visit,” Stefankiewicz says. “[The players] absolutely love it. In the summers you’ll see players from other teams up here enjoying the city, as well. Like, when Drake has his OVO Fest they’re all here and they sincerely love it. And I know that on a lot of NBA teams the players go home for the summers but with the Raptors a lot of them are here still because they enjoy the city so much. They don’t hide. They’re out there eating on King West and shopping at Eaton Centre.”
The appeal, for both her and the players? “Toronto is a little bit of the whole world in one place.”
With such an admiration for the city she reps for the NBA, Billy wanted to know, where does Stefaniewicz go in the off-season? Regardless of where it is, you can bet on one thing, it’ll have a great atmosphere.
Hawker Bar’s provocative invitation.
In search of Toronto’s cosy corners
“I’m all about the atmosphere of a restaurant. If someone says we’re going somewhere I’ll Google it to see what it’s like inside,” Stefankiewicz says, revealing that despite her public profession she’s actually a pretty private person. “I love a restaurant that makes you feel like you’re not in a city.”
For her, the hometown spots that transport her from the day-to-day fall under the “hole in the wall” category – places like Hawker Bar and Baby Huey on Ossington, which she describes as “just raw and fun.” Or The Good Son, a cosy room on West Queen West with Brussels sprouts that “are to die for.”
Stefankiewicz is also a huge fan of Julie’s Cuban, a tiny, unassuming restaurant nestled among the row houses of Dovercourt. “I love that spot. It’s so quaint and it takes you out of the city for a minute. I tell people to go all the time.”
For really intimate drinks, she prefers the pocket-sized Cocktail Bar on Dundas West, which she regularly recommends for first dates, or The Shameful Tiki Room, a riotous throwback to the era of fun and rummy concoctions.
Girls nights call for a dinner at Figo, she says, “because it’s very girly and the atmosphere is amazing.” In cooler weather, she says the rooftop of Terroni in Rosedale, where they give you blankets if it’s cold, is a special experience.
And for dancing Stefankiewicz forgoes the large clubs for La Porte, an inconspicuous resto bar next to a dry cleaner on Ossington. “It’s a kind of hidden place. They have an awesome dance scene with awesome DJs all the time. I’m not a club girl – that’s why I love it.”
In Montreal’s Old Town, Modavie oozes Old World charm.
Montreal: Home away from home
Stefankiewicz says her dad grew up in Montreal so she has visited the city regularly over the years – not to mention times she’s travelled there with the Dance Pak. The reason she calls it one of her favourite cities in Canada? “It feels like you’re not in Canada.
She says one of her favourite stops in Montreal is a cosy speakeasy called Big in Japan Bar, a 1920s throwback that serves stiff drinks, plays jazz and draws an eclectic crowd. “It’s completely hidden with no signage and once you walk through the heavy velvet drapes you’re in another world. Make sure you bring someone you really like because you’ll be pressed up nice and close to each other all night.”
For lunch, Stefankiewicz enjoys Lola Rosa Café, a quirky café with great vegan and gluten-free options on the edge of the Université de Montréal campus. “The fall in Montreal is my favourite time to visit so I’m always craving the Ragout after a morning of shopping on Saint Catherine Street in sweaters and scarves,” she says. “If you peak in the drawers of your table they are jam packed with postcards and notes left from people that have sat in your spot. So fun! If there is a group of you get the gluten free/vegan nachos! So good but so big… but so good!”
In Old Montreal Stefankiewicz loves Modavie, one of the city’s hottest jazz bars and bistros. “I’m not a big meat eater so the fish options are delicious here, and according to my travel buddies so are the meat options,” she says. “I always try and get the window seat here as the restaurant sits on a cozy corner, perfect for people watching and soaking in the European vibes of the area, and it’s absolutely beautiful at Christmas.”
The best atmosphere of all: open water
But when it comes down to it, Stefankiewicz is most drawn to the water.
“I love the West Coast. San Francisco is everything I love in one place. And I always look forward to going to Vancouver and running in Stanley Park on the sea wall. I’m a bit outdoors girl but I love the city as well. I need the balance. That’s why I moved closer to the waterfront [in Toronto]. I need to see the water.”
Close to home, she is keen to try Cherry Street Bar-B-Que. “It’s super new, they have a patio and I’ve heard good things. Friday and Saturday nights are supposed to have a great view. I wish there was more here on the water.”