The Canadian Elite Basketball League is now the biggest pro sports league in Canada.
With the addition of three expansion clubs for the 2022 season, the CEBL has more Canadian-based teams (10) than the NHL, NBA and MLB combined, and more than the CFL (nine), CPL (eight) and MLS (three).
The Montreal Alliance, Scarborough Shooting Stars and Newfoundland Growlers may not be getting in on the ground floor, but they're accelerating the league's rise to the top.
Annie Larouche, vice-president of operations for the Alliance, previously spent 25 years with the CFL's Montreal Alouettes.
She said the CEBL has the potential to grow at least as big as its football counterpart.
"There's lots of awesome people in this league. And it's a solid structure. There is a vision. Everything is thought about. And definitely, definitely basketball is huge in Canada," Larouche said. "Here in Montreal, we haven't had a professional team for at least 10 years and people are very excited. So yeah, I do believe that."
The CEBL's fourth season begins with three games on Wednesday, including the Alliance's inaugural contest in Hamilton against the Honey Badgers. The Shooting Stars debut Thursday with a visit to Guelph, while the Growlers wait until next Friday to open their schedule at home against Edmonton.
You can live stream every game during the 2022 season on CBCSports.ca.
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What's in a name?
Though the three new clubs hail from distinct pockets of the country, they share similar team-building visions focused on community, Canadian basketball and competition.
It begins with the team's nickname. Larouche saw the icy reception her city's MLS side received when it rebranded plainly to 'CF Montreal.'
The CEBL team instead surveyed community members for suggestions. Among the rejected options was 'Poutine.'
Larouche's hairdresser suggested Alliance, which works in both French and English.
"When I was younger, we would play in the park, and regardless of age or disability or gender, everyone would play together," Larouche recalled her hairdresser saying. "So when she was saying that, I was like, [Alliance] is it."
The Growlers — named after a Newfoundland dog — relied on what they know works, copying the local ECHL team's name. The clubs are both owned by Deacon Sports and Entertainment.
"It's almost like a European model in a lot of ways, [like] with FC Barcelona," said Deacon president Glenn Stanford. "It's a brand that everyone is aware of here."
Stanford said he hopes the CEBL team, like the ECHL squad, becomes a reflection of the community.
"Newfoundlanders, by our reputation, are very hospitable people and very friendly people. And I think the players are going to see that," he said.
Sometimes, a name just sounds good. Shooting Stars owner and president Niko Carino said there's nothing more to the name than you see at first glance — the obvious basketball reference mixed with a metaphor.
Made for Canadians
Carino said the Shooting Stars were created as a passion project to fill a gap his 16-year-old self was missing.
"Organizations like this would be really helpful for that kid that aspires to be involved in the sport at a very high level other than playing," said Carino, who co-founded Drake's record label OVO.
Carino said the challenges in preparing for the Shooting Stars' inaugural season have been minimal, but that the toughest part of his job is something to which other sports executives may relate — "telling talented guys that there's no space on the team." The Shooting Stars recently signed the rapper J. Cole, who has one year of professional basketball experience in the newly formed Basketball Africa League.
In a league where 70 per cent of all players must be Canadian, it wouldn't be possible to form 10 teams without a depth of talent.
And if Carino is forced into tough cuts, that just means there's further room for growth. The league's three-time MVP, Xavier Moon, and its reigning top Canadian, Lindell Wigginton, both signed NBA contracts during the recently completed regular season.
The Shooting Stars also added former NBA talent in the front office with Jamaal Magloire being brought on as vice president and senior adviser.
"[The CEBL is] definitely a hotbed for NBA talent and players that are either trying to make it back to the NBA or players that are aspiring to be in the NBA," Carino said.
They're competitors on the court, but Larouche, Carino and Stanford agreed that all league stakeholders maintain one goal.
"We want to make this league grow. We want to make it the biggest professional Canadian league. And so we all need to work together in the same direction," Larouche said.
There's never been an NBA player out of Newfoundland, though Carl English enjoyed a solid overseas and national team career.
The Growlers made two eye-popping hires to start off their team in Canada's Coach K — Steve Konchalski — who spent 45 years head St. Francis Xavier University, as senior adviser, and Patrick Ewing Jr., as head coach.
Stanford said it's only a matter of time before the province produces an NBAer.
"We've already talked to the [provincial] basketball association, even though it's a short season, about what can we do to do player clinics, what can we do to do coaching clinics? How can we help you in setting all of this stuff up?" Stanford said.
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Since there's so much turnover, expansion teams shouldn't have too much trouble competing right away. The Ottawa BlackJacks reached the semifinals in their inaugural 2020 campaign.
The newest teams expect nothing less.
"It's important here that people feel a sense of belonging in Montreal. There's no love for losers," said Larouche.
"I don't want to sound like the overachieving kind of guy, but obviously, I want to win."
Stanford added that he doesn't expect his team to be a doormat for the rest of the league.
"We expect to play the games to win. I don't think we're just happy to be in the league and happy to play some games."
Shared vision, indeed.