Maritimes a perfect place to start a Canadian pro women’s basketball league

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Many years ago, I stood after practice with the University of Toronto women’s soccer team and heard a discussion the coaches were having. The USports (then called CIAU) women’s soccer playoffs were happening and Dalhousie University advanced by beating schools in Ontario and Quebec.

“No fish towns should be beating Ontario schools,” our head coach said haughtily.

That comment stayed with me for a long time. I come from the East Coast and I had acquaintances and former teammates on that squad. I also know of the incredible athleticism that lives and grows there. So the rise of a regional women’s professional basketball league, the Maritime Women’s Basketball Association, doesn’t surprise me. 

Canada is the only elite FIBA-associated basketball nation that does not have a domestic league for women’s basketball. But in 2020, as the world was trying to cope with a global pandemic, Brad Janes was plotting how to bring elite women’s basketball to the Maritimes. He asked Tasia McKenna to be his co-conspirator and serve as commissioner of the league.

McKenna, a former star at Lakehead University, is a high-performance coach and was the technical director of Basketball Nova Scotia. Her day job is as a program manager at Canadian Women and Sport (CWS) where she is responsible for creating the gender equity playbook used by sports organizations all over Canada. 

McKenna recalls that Janes literally drew out his plans on a napkin for what was required to start a sustainable women’s basketball league on the East Coast. There would be six teams, four in Nova Scotia and two in New Brunswick. The pandemic meant that tip-off would not be until May 2020, but the wheels were in motion. And the word was spreading like wildfire through the basketball community. 

WATCH | MWBA giving Maritime women a shot at basketball glory:

From sea to court: MWBA giving Maritime women a shot at basketball glory

The MWBA’s inaugural season climaxed with a thrilling weekend championship, an incredible moment to witness the greatness of women’s basketball in the Maritime provinces.

Anna Stammberger is one of the best basketball players in Canadian history. The Olympian and former head coach of the Dalhousie Tigers women’s team hails from Kensington, P.E.I.

“It’s exciting, but it’s a long time coming,” Stammberger told me in the St. Mary’s University gym that recently played host to the championship weekend. “Canada is way behind everybody in the world. Romania, Bulgaria, Chile … every country in the world has a professional or semi-professional national league that women can compete in until they’re not good enough to compete anymore.” 

“For the women’s sport to grow in Canada, it can’t just be a Toronto or an Ontario thing,” said Vanessa Wallace, a program coordinator with CWS who played at the University of Toronto. She is not from the Maritimes but was working the event as a volunteer. “The Maritimes, in this case, are leading the charge, in a way that considers the women’s experience and making it as accessible as possible.” 

The championship game between the Halifax Hornets and the Halifax Thunder was possibly the most riveting final game I have ever watched. The Thunder had a flawless record this season but the Hornets would not let up. The Hornets clinched the first Legacy Cup with 87-84 win.

The weekend was a success, but the energy around the league and the possibilities in the future — including an expansion to P.E.I. — are what is most impressive. 

It is of note that considerations for the league went beyond the court. In addition to having a top-tier league for women to play in, McKenna felt it was imperative to seek advice from community members. From that came four pillars: Black Lives Matter, No More Stolen Sisters (awareness of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls), Pride (in support of LGBTIQ2S+) and Violence Against Women awareness. The four patches were placed on hoodies that the league sold at the venue. They sold out. 

Trena Empringham is the coalition coordinator at the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre in Kjipuktuk (Mi’kmaw for Halifax). She has known McKenna for years and offered guidance and support. She is also an athlete and lives the connections between sport and social justice.

“When I saw the logo for No More Stolen Sisters on the MWBA website for the first time, my heart leapt into my throat,” Empringham wrote me in an email. “I had a variety of emotions: sadness that we are still fighting this fight, fear of how this pillar will be accepted (or not) but most importantly hope.”

Empringham’s daughter is an assistant coach with the Halifax Hornets. So this is a family that has basketball in its blood and typifies why the collaboration with communities matters so much. 

The Thunder and Hornets put on a thrilling final, with the Hornets winning 87-84. (David Gallant)

League embraces athletes with family

“I believe that the MWBA approached the development of the league/association with the deliberate intention to be a powerhouse of collective women’s voices for change and, as a result, have set the standard for organizations who follow them that anything less is unacceptable,” Empringham said.

As the weekend progressed, I watched a lot of incredible basketball. I spoke with so many phenomenal women, including Jasmine Parent, a mom of three and Instagram influencer with more than 107,000 followers. When Parent went to accept her medal, her two daughters ran up with her.

Kelly Vass is a player with the Moncton Mystics, and is one of eight moms on that team. The Mystics have a kid and baby squad of 17. Kelly Vass’s daughter wore a shirt that said: “That’s My Mom.” This is a league that doesn’t disregard athletes when they have a family, it embraces all of them. 

The league MVP is Haley McDonald. The 24-year-old is a player at Acadia University. After collecting her trophy McDonald spoke about what it means to play elite-level basketball at home.

“For me, this is huge,” she said. “I get to play in front of my family and friends and colleagues. The basketball community in Nova Scotia is big and it’s growing.”

She reflected on how important it is for the younger players and fans to see this level of basketball in this region. McDonald said it would have been game-changing for her if she grew up knowing she would have a place to play.

“I am a member of one of the pillars that the league encompasses, so to have an inclusive spot like this — and see other people like me here — and just to know that we are all welcome … that’s the type of thing we want to see,” she said.

Stammberger says there is a lot of passion and interest in “fish towns” for women’s basketball.

“Just come and watch,” is her advice to the rest of Canada. 

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