In a year when the Canadian Elite Basketball League (CEBL) mainly hopes for a return to normal playing conditions, commissioner Mike Morreale’s long-term plan for the league is in some ways a dream deferred.
Morreale confirmed this week he has ruled out expansion of the seven-team league until at least 2022 because of the complications brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. His vision of a coast-to-coast pro circuit with about 12 franchises in most major Canadian cities is still a long way off.
“Our goal is to return to some sense of normalcy,” Morreale said. “So that means returning to all of our seven markets in a more profound way … and we understand that could mean limitations on fans at the outset.”
The CEBL is working with two sets of plans for its 2021 season, with a preference for regular-season home games in its seven existing markets and fan attendance dictated by public health requirements.
Plan B is to create at least two regional bubbles, followed by a national playoff bubble, if teams can’t safely travel between provinces during the regular season.
“You keep all the balls in the air, but you have your priorities,” Morreale said. “And priority A would be to return to our markets.”
Free agency begins Feb. 1
The league is planning to release its 2021 schedule in March, though Morreale would not say when the season would tentatively begin and end. Teams will begin shaping their rosters when free agency begins on Feb. 1, with a 30-day grace period to re-sign players from their 2020 Summer Series rosters. After that, players are free to sign with any team.
The annual U Sports player draft is tentatively planned for April, and training camps will begin eight or nine days before the start of the season.
“A lot of our players are in game shape from playing overseas,” Morreale said. “Within 10 days or so, teams are are good and ready to go.”
The draft will likely have a three-round format with the Saskatchewan Rattlers, who struggled to a 1-5 record last season, having the No. 1 pick.
Xavier Moon, the league’s two-time reigning MVP with the Edmonton Stingers, will be among the most coveted players in free agency.
“More than likely, I’ll be back (with Edmonton),” said Moon, adding he’ll definitely return to the CEBL in some capacity this season. “The level of professionalism is top-level, for sure. The level of play is top-level, too.”
Moon and several other players raved about the league’s COVID-19 safety protocols in 2020, when the CEBL became the first pro league in Canada to return to play during the pandemic.
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“They did an amazing job to just keep players safe,” said Guillaume Bouchard, a forward with the Niagara River Lions who \was Canadian Player of the Year in 2019. “It was super-well-managed.”
While the bubble tournament was a physical strain for some players, with six regular-season games packed into a short span of time, some were simply happy to be out of lockdown.
“I’ve never spent so much time without playing basketball for the past 10 to 15 years,” Bouchard said. “Just being able to play … was something I was really grateful for.”
Though plans for expansion are delayed, they’re still very much on Morreale’s mind for 2022 and beyond.
Winnipeg, Halifax and St. John’s are all high on his list of potential markets, and the league is eyeing at least one franchise in Quebec and possibly more teams British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario.
“Year Two and the Summer Series was a huge leap for us,” Morreale said. “Year Three, I think, will be even bigger. I do believe it will be the catalyst to a league that will be around for a long, long time.”