By: Cole Shelton
For the second year in a row and for the fourth time in seven seasons the London Lightning are the NBLC champions. The Lightning beat the Halifax Hurricanes in seven games to end a phenomenal series and cap off arguably the best season in NBLC history.
A lot happened this year including a new commissioner, the St. John's Edge joined the league and Carl English decided to come home. Along with all that, the parity in the league was great as no one truly knew who was going to win when any team played. It was overall a phenomenal season. "Just really happy," said deputy commissioner Audley Stephenson of how the season went. "When I look back at my tenure started as deputy commissioner I really wanted us to focus on consistency. Consistency on how we showed our product, consistency as a league and terms of how we rep the brand and that is something I really wanted to get better at, not that we are terrible at it. There are always areas of improvements, we have covered the bases, and we have got really good at our internal processes, as a league, the response of the board of governors of how they supported the initiative of the league. It has been phenomenal. I have the unique vantage point of seeing the inside and the outside and I am super excited about putting things together properly together inside. What that does it prepares us to deliver a better overall product."
A better overall product has been put forward and that is part to very talented basketball players coming to the league, and the league making it a league that players want to come play. With all this happening the talent in this league was at an all-time high in year number seven. "It is phenomenal," added the deputy commissioner. "I go back to year one and the minimum number of Canadians per roster was two, so you had a roster of 12 players and two were Canadians and 10 were imports. We are almost at the halfway mark in terms of Canadians per roster and we haven't missed a beat and we are just as competitive. The parity in the league this year is phenomenal. For the most part, you can go into a game and you can circle who you think is going to win but there is no guarantee who will win. That just makes for a really exciting product, the game has gotten faster, guys have gotten bigger, faster, stronger, and just more talented overall."
While the talent and the play were great this season there is a lot of reasons to be excited of the next several years in the NBLC as more teams get added to the fold and players continue to improve. "For me personally, I am coming from a guy who was attracted to the league in year number one and came in as a volunteer who just wanted to help and recognized the opportunity to work in basketball in Canada are very rare and don't come often. To continue to see new teams added, and possibly more, and really start to solidify itself, and that is where I draw a lot of excitement from," said Stephenson of what he is most looking forward to in the next couple of years. "We have had conversations at the board level of being a legitimate destination for professional basketball for Canadian players and if they want to do that they can do it in their own backyard. That is also really exciting, I have heard in many instances with Canadian players that it is really cool that they can play pro in Canada and are grateful of this league. Again, being a platform for Canadian talent is huge for us."
Having Canadian talent is huge for the NBLC to grow and attract fans but something that is equally as important is expanding into new Canadian markets, and that is exactly what the NBLC did this year as the Sudbury Five will be playing in the 2018-19 NBLC season. Hitting the northern market is huge for the NBLC. "The Sudbury (expansion) is huge for a couple of reasons," said Stephenson. "Obviously, again in a new market, and basketball is growing a ton in Northern Ontario. If you look at the Toronto Raptors, for example, they have become Canada's team, but the Sudbury community supports the Raptors as well but they are four hours away but it is still Canada's team to them. Now you have a basketball explosion going on in Canada with talent and interest, and it now provides the league with a new market. The other part of what makes Sudbury really exciting is the model. That model. SW Sports and Entertainment, they are the owners of the Sudbury Wolves. Now you have an entertainment company who is familiar with sports in Sudbury, who has the infrastructure in place. We talk about negotiating dates for your home games, and that is an easy conversation to have because they are talking to themselves. They will probably use aspects of the hockey side and can leverage that. Bring over staff, marketing, database of season-ticket holders who are hockey fans and not hard to bring them over to watch basketball as well. If we see success in how they do things, we could very well others piggyback and see other hockey franchises jump in the world of basketball and that is a really exciting point for us."
Obviously, the league is always looking to improve and there is room for improvement but just this season alone the league took tremendous strides and is continuing to grow and make the right steps to make this league a destination for players around the world. Just making things better is all the league can hope for going forward. "Just continuing to improve and get better at refining our processes," said Stephenson of what the league is looking to do going forward. "We are always looking to put our best foot forward and it often gets really easy to get caught up in what you are doing but continuing to look at the big picture. For us, it continues to be that way and we want to go out West. I do expect we will be looking to establish some franchises as well and it is a good time for this league and I think there are lots of reasons to be very optimistic, which I am, but also be excited as well. At the end of the day, I am a fan of this league and I am excited to continue to contribute to the landscape of basketball in Canada."
The NBLC had another phenomenal season this year and will look to parlay that success into next season and beyond. It is an exciting time for basketball in Canada and the NBLC is a huge part of that.