Canada's Bridget Carleton (6), left, passes around South Korea's Hyeyoon Bae (11) during women's basketball preliminary round game at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Saitama, Japan. Bridget Carleton made the Transatlantic trip home from Israel for this week's Canadian women's basketball camp. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Charlie Neibergall

Canadian players say domestic women’s league needed now more than ever

Canadian players say domestic women’s league needed now more than ever

TORONTO — Bridget Carleton made the Transatlantic trip home from Israel for this week’s Canadian women’s basketball camp.

The 24-year-old joined Israeli team Ramat HaSharon only three weeks ago, adding Israel to Australia and France as stamps in her basketball passport in less than three years playing pro.

Carleton is also a small forward for the Minnesota Lynx, and like most WNBA players, plays abroad during the winters both to supplement her WNBA salary and just to play in what would otherwise be months of down time.

“I might as well play while I can, and I don’t think I could go like six months, seven months without playing,” Carleton said after practice Thursday. “I might as well play as much as I can while my body still feels good, and I love it as much as I do.

“So, it’s cool experience. But ideally, if there was a domestic league here, it would be ideal, I could play here.”

After years of pleas for either a women’s domestic league or a WNBA team in Canada, Drake entered the conversation last week, posting on his Instagram story: “@WNBA I need a Toronto team.”

The need for a domestic league seems particularly glaring three months after Canada’s disappointing preliminary-round exit at the Tokyo Olympics. Every country in Tokyo has a domestic league except Canada.

“Probably every single country in the world has a domestic league other than us,” said Denise Dignard, Canada Basketball’s general manager of women’s high performance.

She said she has “planted the seed” with Mike Morreale, commissioner of the Canadian Elite Basketball League, in hopes that a women’s league could piggyback on the domestic men’s league that began play with six teams in 2019, and has since grown to nine.

Dignard said the key issues that came out of the Tokyo post-mortem were better development and more time together as a team. The Canadian women had just a few weeks together ahead of the Olympics, as players were scattered all over the globe when COVID-19 struck shortly after they clinched their Tokyo berth.

Three-time Olympian Natalie Achonwa, one of the WNBA’s most vocal advocates for player rights, remains optimistic about better opportunities for Canadian women.

“All the battles that I’m fighting, everything that I do is never for me. It’s for those that come after me,” the Minnesota Lynx forward said. “And do I hope it’s next year? Always. But we’ve been saying that for the last five years.

“I’m always optimistic that, hey, maybe it’s next year, maybe it’s next month, who knows? But as long as we keep pushing the envelope forward, eventually it will happen. Eventually, the pay will be better in the WNBA and we don’t have to go overseas (in the off-season), eventually we will have an WNBA team, eventually we will have a league. As long as you keep not only speaking it into existence, but doing the work for it to happen.”

The 28-year-old from Guelph, Ont., credited Canada Basketball’s new CEO Michael Bartlett for wanting to elevate “what women’s basketball looks like in Canada.”

The Canadian women were on a roll when the global pandemic struck, going undefeated in Olympic qualifying. Japan, who went on to capture silver at their home Olympics, were among the teams Canada beat.

The team spent a couple of tough days in Tokyo after their elimination. They gathered for a long meeting — Dignard said it was like a “healing circle.” Carleton said there were tears.

“It also allowed us to lean on each other in that moment,” Achonwa said. “It’s kind of like a mourning process that you go through … in the sense of mourning the time, the time that you spent and sacrificed to get to these peaks in your career, and when they don’t go the way you want, it’s hard to feel like you lost that time.”

Tokyo Olympian Kayla Alexander had the longest trip home, flying in from Dynamo Novosibirsk in Russia for the camp that’s being held on the Raptors practice court at Scotiabank Arena.

Other than high schoolers Lemyah Hylton, Ajok Madol, Cassandre Prosper and Toby Fournier, plus Achonwa because she’s not playing overseas this off-season, every player travelled from outside the continent to attend the camp.

The next competitive action for Canada is a FIBA World Cup qualifying tournament, Feb. 10-13. There are four global tournaments with four countries apiece, with the top three from each earning berths in the World Cup, Sept. 22 to Oct. 1, 2022, in Sydney, Australia.

Qualifying won’t be easy. While the FIBA men’s World Cup has 32 countries, the women’s version was reduced from 16 teams to just 12. The host city will be announced Nov. 18 and draws for the four qualifiers are set for Nov. 23. Canada remains No. 4 on the FIBA world women’s rankings.

Dignard said a global search for a women’s head coach is ongoing. Longtime coach Lisa Thomaidis and Canada Basketball agreed to part ways last month.

Canadian assistant coach Carly Clarke ran Thursday’s session.

Would Achonwa prefer her next head coach be a woman?

“I’m always for pushing that representation matters,” she said. “But I know a big push right now is that we need a professional coach, we need someone that’s going to push our program forward at this level. And so for me, it’s whoever is best for the job is where I’m looking at at this point.

“I think there’s plenty of great women professional coaches out there. So, if it is one, that’s great, but kind of where we are in this evolution of our women’s program is we need to win. And so, whoever is going to be able to take us over that hump is who I’d love to fill the role.”

A big message in camp has been around qualifying for the 2024 Olympics — the women have played in three straight Games, but Achonwa stressed that qualifying is far from a given. But she added it’s also been a fun week, particularly for the young players in attendance. They did an afternoon of outreach at MLSE LaunchPad. They’ll watch Saturday’s Raptors game against Detroit from an MLSE box.

“It’s making this experience, to represent your country, something that you feel not only proud to wear the jersey,” she said. “But also to come into an environment that is fun, that you’re enjoying yourself, that you really look forward to.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 11, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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