For the longest while, it seemed like pro basketball for St. John’s was a long shot — as in a full-length Hail Mary — but here we are, on opening day for the city’s third professional sports franchise.
The St. John’s Edge hit the court today in Charlottetown, P.E.I. for a game against the Island Storm 7:30 this evening. It’s the first of five straight road games before the team’s home opener Dec. 1 against the Niagara River Lions at Mile One Centre.
The idea for an NBL Canada franchise came about last spring, after the St. John’s IceCaps wrapped up their two-year run — and the American Hockey League’s presence — in St. John’s.
It was hoped a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League franchise would follow in the footsteps of the IceCaps, but that league, as of last year, had no expansion plans and no teams expressed an interest in relocating.
In the meantime, the NBL Canada was closing out its sixth season last year, with five teams in Atlantic Canada — Charlottetown, Sydney, N.S., Halifax, Moncton and Saint John, N.B.
In each of those cities, the basketball team is run in concert with major junior teams, and that’s the plan down the road for St. John’s.
Well-known hockey executive Glenn Stanford, most recently the chief operating officer for the IceCaps, was heading up a group that had been looking at acquiring an NBL Canada expansion franchise.
However, Stanford and the group withdrew their interest after failing to come to an agreement on a lease with Mile One.
Another group, headed by local businessman Tony Kenny, had also expressed interest, but in the end did not submit a franchise application to the NBL Canada.
Along comes Toronto promoter John Graham, who was well familiar with St. John’s having done business in the city over the years.
Graham put together the short-lived bid to have the Minnesota North Stars relocate their American Hockey League affiliate to St. John's back in 1989.
When that fell through, Graham worked on the deal to have the Toronto Maple Leafs relocate their minor league operation to St. John's.
Graham and his investors submitted an application to the league, but did not have an agreement with Mile One in place.
That part of the equation fell into place in early August when St. John’s Sports and Entertainment — overseers of Mile One — and the Graham group reached an agreement in principal.
The men behind Graham are Irwin Simon and Robert Sabbagh. Simon is a Glace Bay, N.S. native, who is chairman, president and CEO of the New York-based Hain Celestial Group, which, according to the Wall Street Journal, has annual sales approaching $2.9 billion and a work force of over 7,500. Sabbagh owns Bay Ridge Honda-Volvo, a Brooklyn, N.Y. automobile dealership.
Despite an ownership group in place, and a league that wants St. John’s in the fold, it would be mid-September before City Council approved the terms of a deal that would see an NBL Canada team play out of Mile One Centre beginning in November.
And that’s where the work really began. The first step was hiring Jeff Dunlap as coach, bringing with him a lengthy NCAA resume and most recently director of basketball operations at North Carolina State University.
Stanford has been behind the scenes putting the whole thing together, everything from setting up ticket sales and sponsorship, to ordering whistles and basketballs.
Dunlap, too, has been busy since arriving from Raleigh, N.C.
“I’ve had a lot on my plate,” chuckled Dunlap, who single-handedly has pieced the team together. “I’m pretty maxed out.”
The 12 members of the first version of the Edge left St. John’s Friday morning for Charlottetown. St. John’s plays again Sunday afternoon in Halifax.
Twenty players were in the Edge training camp last week at the Newfoundland and Labrador Training Centre. Among the 12 remaining are six Canadians, including Patrick’s Cove native Carl English, who was signed just this week.
“At the end of the day,” Dunlap said, “they’re all human and their dream is to play pro basketball at some level, to get their foot in the door, so every cut is hard.
“Were some tougher than others? Absolutely, especially when you get down to the last day or two. You try and look into a crystal ball and see if there is potential two or three months down the road.”
The condensed, two-week training camp was new for Dunlap, too, who was used to taking four to six weeks to prepare college teams for a new season.
The Edge has size in 6-10 players Rudolphe Joly of Quebec City and Jarion Henry, and 6-7 Grandy Glaze, a Toronto native. Glaze has suited up for the national team, and actually won’t play this weekend as he’s been excused to attend national team workouts.
“But we’ll be a perimeter-oriented team,” Dunlap said. “We have three or four pure posts, for sure, but we’ll be flying, pushing the ball up the floor, hitting shots on the sprint.
“We’ll be running with a purpose, and that’s what we’re starting to figure out now.”
Webcasts of NBL Canada games can be found at www.nblcanada.com