Toronto welcomes WNBA with open arms for first ever game in Canada

A huge step for Canadian women's basketball was taken on Saturday afternoon.

The energy inside Scotiabank Arena was electric on Saturday when Toronto hosted the first ever WNBA game on Canadian soil. (Getty Images)
The energy inside Scotiabank Arena was electric on Saturday when Toronto hosted the first ever WNBA game on Canadian soil. (Getty Images)

The WNBA played its first ever game in Canada on Saturday afternoon in front of a sold out crowd at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.

It was a preseason exhibition match between the Minnesota Lynx and the Chicago Sky, as the WNBA prepares to begin its 27th season next week. This was only the third time the WNBA has put on a game outside of the United States.

The buzz around the day started even before they announced that the game would be coming to Toronto, as fans of women’s basketball have been rallying around getting a WNBA expansion team in Canada for a long time. As many had pointed out in the lead up to Saturday, basketball is growing in Canada at an exponential rate.

The Canadian senior women’s national team is currently ranked fifth overall in the FIBA world rankings and the team placed fourth at the women’s World Cup last year. There are four women currently on WNBA rosters and more coming up in the NCAA ranks. The WNBA broke viewership numbers in Canada last season, as more games were available to watch than ever. It’s safe to say Canada was ready for this moment.

For one player on the Minnesota Lynx roster, this was not only a historic moment, but also a homecoming. Bridget Carleton of Chatham, ON., had never played a professional game in her home country before Saturday’s match up, and despite just returning to North America from her overseas season last Sunday, she was not going to miss this moment.

In her press conference Friday afternoon, just hours after landing in Canada with her team, Carleton told the media that her grandmother was attending the game — she had never seen her play professionally before. She knew the emotions would come, and she was preparing herself for the moment, absolutely beaming the whole way through. When she addressed the crowd at centre court before the game and received a standing ovation, the emotion was palpable.

All week, whether it was at Toronto media events or press coverage back in Minnesota, all eyes and ears have been on Carleton. She noted how excited she was that young kids would get to see live professional women’s basketball in Canada, knowing that she didn’t really have that experience growing up. The occasional Detroit Shock game, and looking up to Canada Basketball greats like Kim Gaucher and Miranda Ayim, were all she got, and while she still made it to the WNBA, she wants more for the next generation.

Her teammate Naphessa Collier also mentioned that women’s basketball is more accessible than ever to young fans, saying that when she was younger she only really looked up to male players because she had no way to watch women’s basketball.

Carleton’s teammates rallied around her to celebrate this moment, which saw her become the first Canadian to play a WNBA game in Canada. Kayla McBride checked on her as they drove over to practice on Friday, knowing the emotions would be running wild. When Bridget threw the first pitch at the Blue Jays game Friday night, Collier complimented her form.

Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve noted before the game that whenever the team asks anything of Carleton, she delivers. Coach Reeve was confident that Bridget would take the leap she is ready to take this upcoming WNBA season after getting a top-five All-Star nod at the World Cup. As far as representing Canada, Carleton is the perfect role model for young girls aspiring to pursue basketball.

The moment was just as big for the Canadian basketball community — the crowd at Scotiabank Arena was filled with young girls in WNBA hoodies. Fans were screaming. The WNBA merch at the in-arena stores was sold out before halftime.

For Nakissa Koomalsingh, founder of Hoop Queens — a Toronto-based non-profit organization that provides opportunities for women and girls to play basketball — growing the game has been on the agenda for a long time. She knows how many barriers there are to keeping women in sports, admitting that this game today and eventually having a WNBA game in Toronto would help inspire young players. She hopes and trusts that expansion in the WNBA would involve Toronto.

The Chicago Sky — who ended up winning the exhibition game 82-74 against the Lynx — were excited to be a part of the historic day “despite not having a Canadian on the team,” in the words of head coach James Wade.

"The energy was amazing. When we came out, the seats were filled to the top and they were cheering already. I was blown away," Wade said. "You guys have something special here, in Toronto. I saw so many Maple Leafs jerseys, baseball jerseys and thought 'The WNBA deserves that too'."

Kaleah Copper, the Sky’s All-Star, was excited to be a part of the legacy of women’s hoops in Toronto. She knows first hand through close friend and fellow Philly-native Kyle Lowry that Toronto is a great atmosphere for basketball. Growing up in Philly, she never had the chance to see the WNBA live, and is happy the kids in Toronto got to see not just Americans play a WNBA game, but Canadians on the court too. As she said, “when you see it, you can be it.”

Wade was incredibly enthusiastic about his win, claiming Scotiabank Arena to be “his house,” saying that he is the first and only coach to ever win a WNBA game in Canada. He said the franchise was honoured to be asked to be here and knows the achievement of playing this game is something they will remember for a long time.

From the moment the game was announced in January, to when it sold out in twenty minutes on International Women’s Day, to the standing ovation that was given when the game ended on Saturday afternoon, Toronto showed out for the WNBA, and the WNBA showed out for Toronto.

As Ari Chambers would say, “The WNBA is so important.”

If this was a test to see if Toronto could support a WNBA team, it's safe to say it passed with flying colours. Maybe next time the WNBA rolls into town, it’ll be for good.