By Lyndsay Helfrich
In October 2022 Commissioner of the Canadian Elite Basketball League (CEBL) Mike Morreale announced that professional basketball would be returning to Calgary in the summer of 2023 in the form of the Calgary Surge. The Surge, previously the Guelph Nighthawks, are set to take the court on May 27, 2023 at WinSport Arena against the 2021 Champion Edmonton Stingers in the league’s first Battle of Alberta. While this prairie showdown might not yet carry the same weight as a meeting between the NHL’s Oilers and Flames or the CFL’s Elks and Stampeders, the CEBL and the Surge are betting that bringing professional basketball back to Calgary will be a hit.
Historical Note: The Calgary 88’s
The Surge may be the latest pro basketball team in Calgary, but they certainly aren’t the first. From 1988 until 1992 the Calgary 88’s of the World Basketball League ran the court at the Olympic (now Scotiabank) Saddledome, with future NBA assistant coach Chip Engelland on the court and championship WNBA head coach Mike Thibault behind the bench. In their five seasons in the WBL they went 151-78 and made the finals three times, though never managing to secure the title. The league unfortunately folded in 1992 before the 88’s could ever win their title and the remaining surviving Canadian teams formed the (first) National Basketball League, which folded two seasons later. Professional basketball has had moments in Canada, but the arrival of the CEBL has marked a period of sustained growth and success.
Usman Tahir Jutt and Jason Ribeiro, the two men responsible for bringing the Surge to Calgary, are certainly hoping to continue the winning tradition of the Calgary 88’s on the court and the tradition of success in Calgary off the court. By relocating the Guelph Nighthawks, the team is moving from one of the smallest markets to one of the largest, carrying out the CEBL’s goal of bringing teams to Canada’s biggest metropolitan areas. Per the Surge’s inaugural press release, the name Surge is meant to represent the “positive economic and social momentum” in Calgary and it’s “fast paced growth in areas like clean energy, digital transformation, and creative industries;” the name is also representative of the athletic, fast-paced style of play on the court.
In charge of providing the players to play this fast-paced style is General Manager Shane James. James is moving to Calgary with the team from Guelph, having served as Assistant General Manager of the Guelph Nighthawks for two seasons. Beyond his experience managing a team in the CEBL, James is a former hooper himself having played four seasons at Loyola University and professionally overseas. After his playing career ended, he launched the Canadian Youth Basketball League, helping to scout and develop Canadian basketball players. There’s no denying his credentials and knowledge of Canadian basketball talent, and the Surge are hoping that experience helps to jumpstart their tenure in Calgary with top talent in the Canadian-focused CEBL. With 70% of each team’s roster needing to be Canadian players, having an in-depth knowledge of Canadian players is important to building a competitive roster.
Sitting in the first chair on the bench is head coach Nelson Terroba. Terroba has an extensive coaching resume, including as an assistant and defensive coordinator of the NBA G-League’s Texas Legends. Terroba has coached in Canada before, both in the CEBL (Saskatchewan) and the National Basketball League (St. John’s Riptide). His identity as a defensive minded coach (a “technician” and “basketball nerd” according to Ribeiro) made him attractive to the organization as well as his commitment to building basketball and community in Calgary, both for the Surge on the court and in the city at large. The idea of him being a culture builder was integral to his being targeted by the Surge; while the team itself is not necessarily new, it is starting fresh in a new city with a new culture and new identity. As a coach he has a strong track record of developing players and as a culture builder, helping the Legends reach their first playoff berth in the 2020-2021 season. Terroba is hoping to put a well-balanced team on the court, one who plays hard at both ends of the floor and stays connected.
As far as players to actually wear the Surge uniforms, the current training camp roster consists of fourteen players which will be cut down to ten by opening night. On the roster is a mix of some returning Guelph Nighthawks players and new additions. The Surge have reached far and wide to bring in a collection of talent, including two players with NBA experience and seven with NBA G-League experience. Much of the roster has played in the CEBL before, overseas or in the NCAA’s Division I, providing an experienced group for James and Terroba to build their roster from.
Winning with Community
In an interview with The Intermission Sports, Jason Ribeiro discussed the on and off the court goals of the Surge. On the court, playing winning basketball is the goal. Like all great competitors this team has championship ambitions; they did not come here to lose. The Surge want to put a product on the floor that Calgary can get behind, a team to bring the city together. The logo of the team itself projects this very idea: the four points of the bird (an ode to the Nighthawks) are representative of the four quadrants of Calgary that the team hopes will be behind them. “We want to compete for the affections of Calgarians, we want to compete on the floor and play a very diligent, thoughtful and tough to play against style of basketball that’s really exciting but we also want to be a mainstay anchor in the community and that really matters to us. . .we knew that Calgarians were looking for something that spoke to them as Calgarians and as sports fans,” explained Ribeiro.
In that spirit, the team also hopes to win with the community off the court. While there is no doubt a lot of excitement around a professional team, it is not the intention of the Surge to take over as the main basketball story in the area according to Ribeiro. The team wants to help develop basketball in the Calgary area, but in doing so they do not want to overshadow any of the myriad grassroots organizations already in existence. The Surge want to be an ally to the diverse people Calgary and part of being a good ally is creating space for those already doing the work and doing it well. To that end, the Surge want to be “glue-guy” so-to-speak of the local basketball community; they aim to amplify and provide support by filling in the gaps and being the tide to lift all boats. Since the beginning they have been embedded in the community: they have done a city-wide tour of events, including an open house at Genesis Center, and the new mascot, a yet-to-be-named Red-tailed Hawk, was unveiled earlier this month at the 36th Annual Blackfoot Invitational Tournament at Siksika Nation. All of these events have been in an effort to hit the ground running, creating momentum and showing that there are actions behind their words on being a part of the larger Treaty 7 community.
Basketball has been a growing in popularity for some time both in Calgary and Canada, and while it is not new here, the Surge are hoping to be part of something special both on and off the court by bringing exciting basketball to the city and continuing to support and energize those around them. “Our goal is to amplify, amplify, amplify,” said Ribeiro, “whether it's our partners or sponsors, we want their story out there as we are telling a really unique story about Calgary together.”