As we prepare to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first Canadian women’s team to play in the Olympics, current Canadian hoopers continue to break glass ceilings.
At this point, it should be common knowledge: a Canadian invented the game of basketball. Ontario’s James Naismith changed the world when he decided it could be fun to throw a ball into a half-bushel peach basket, and, centuries later, Canadians are still making an integral imprint on the sport as a whole. From the creation of the game to the present day, Canada is a basketball country.
Due in part to the Senior Women’s National team making a splash on the international scene, as well as players holding it down in the WNBA, Canadian women in basketball have seen a recent resurgence. It feels like Canada is on the edge of entering the upper echelon of women’s basketball. There are more young women than ever heading to the US to play college basketball, and the Canadian interuniversity basketball scene—known as USports—is growing in popularity.
So, how did we get here? Let’s dive into Canada’s rich women’s basketball past.
Past: A Brief History of Canadian Women’s Basketball
The first Canadian women’s basketball team to become World Champions were the Edmonton Commercial Graduates (known as the “Grads”). Formed by a group of high school alumni from McDougall Commercial High School who wanted to keep playing together, the Grads won 502 of their 522 games—a 96.2 percent winning percentage, still a North American women’s sports record—from 1912 to 1940.
After the Grads beat the Cleveland Favorite Knits for the Underwood Trophy in 1923, they were invited to represent Canada at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris, where they won every game and became World Champions. Naismith himself called the Grads “the finest basketball team that ever stepped out on a floor.”
#Onthisday in 1923, the Edmonton Grads played the first of two games against the Cleveland Favorite Knits to win the Underwood trophy. They defended their title as World Champs for the next 17 years. pic.twitter.com/Le4LtL7U7E
— Historica Canada (@HistoricaCanada) June 12, 2022
Canada Basketball formed in 1923, but women’s basketball wasn’t made a permanent fixture at the Olympics until 1976. Since then, Canada’s best result was fourth place at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. They also won third place at the FIBA World Cup in 1979 and 1986.
Despite the time passed between those medals and now, Canada has remained a steady fixture in women’s basketball. After the WNBA was founded in 1996, it only took two years for a Canadian to make a roster, when two-time Olympian Kelly Boucher joined the Charlotte Sting.
Yet, the narrative shift for Canadian women in basketball has been most noticeable in the past decade. The National Team has now made the Olympics three times in a row, and there are currently three women on WNBA rosters, with more coming up in NCAA college basketball. In 2015, the team won gold at the Pan American Games at home in Toronto, and, most recently, they placed fourth at the 2022 FIBA World Cup in Australia.
I think it’s safe to say that Canadians in women’s basketball are here to stay.
Present: Canadian Women Break Glass Ceilings, On and Off the Court
On the international side, the Canadian women’s team is currently fifth in the world on FIBA’s rankings. A few months ago, they made the semifinals at the FIBA World Cup, with Bridget Carleton of Chatham, Ontario making it onto the tournament’s All-Star Five honor list.
Carleton, who plays in the WNBA for the Minnesota Lynx, is one of three Canadians currently suiting up for teams in the W. Kia Nurse (Hamilton, Ontario) will be playing her first season for the Seattle Storm after previous stops in Phoenix and New York. Natalie Achonwa (Guelph, Ontario) currently plays alongside Carleton on the Lynx.
In college basketball, Canadians are becoming a force across America. UConn’s Aaliyah Edwards (Kingston, Ontario) is on the tail end of the best season of her career, averaging 17.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 2.5 assists. She was also recently named Third Team All-American—a title that honors the best players in college basketball. Laeticia Amihere (Mississauga, Ontario) won a National Championship with the South Carolina Gamecocks in 2022 under legendary coach Dawn Staley, and she could move to the pros in the upcoming WNBA draft.
In 2022, every team who made it to the Women’s Final Four had a Canadian on the team: the previously noted Edwards (for UConn) and Amihere (for South Carolina), Alyssa Jerome (Toronto, Ontario) for Stanford, and Merissah Russell (Ottawa, Ontario) for Louisville. In the 2023 tournament, 29 Canadian women suited up for March Madness.
As much as these women are making history on the court, they are trailblazing off the court as well. Nurse, who is a Jordan Brand athlete, works in the WNBA offseason as a TSN analyst for the Toronto Raptors broadcast. She also founded Kia Nurse Elite, a youth basketball program giving players more opportunity to be seen by American scouts in order to kick start their pro careers. Achonwa got behind the analyst desk, too, for Sportsnet during the Canadian Men’s National Team Games in 2022.
These Canadian women are showing the world that they have a place in professional basketball. As the WNBA plans to expand, Toronto continues to be a hot destination to receive a WNBA franchise. Canadian fans will have the opportunity to support the W North Side when the Lynx face off against the Chicago Sky at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on May 13.
Tickets sold out in less than two days, and the game will be broadcasted in Canada on TSN and Sportsnet. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has already commented that this game is an opportunity to see how Canadian fans would support a team. Based on the climate after the Toronto Raptors won their first NBA Championship in 2019, Toronto seems like a better place than any to grow the women’s game to new heights.
Future: Canada is a Global Hub for Women’s Basketball
Nearly 100 years after the first women represented Canada at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, they have a chance to do the same at the 2024 Paris Games. The basketball gods work in mysterious ways—the collision of this anniversary and the growing strength of the current Canada program is a match made in basketball heaven.
All sights for the Canadian women are set on making the podium in Paris. Fuelled by the successes of their counterparts in Canadian hockey and soccer, the upward trajectory of Team Canada is inevitable.
On the professional side, though there are only three women on WNBA rosters right now, that number will grow. As young women in college basketball set new career-highs and better their draft prospects, the Canadian-WNBA Club is sure to expand sooner rather than later.
Then there is the possibility of a Toronto WNBA team. With support for the WNBA only growing North of the border—shown by that ticket sellout, TV broadcast numbers, and social media engagement—Toronto has a real chance of being next up in WNBA expansion. The idea of representing their home as a WNBA player is a fantasy now for Nurse, Carleton, and Achonwa, but they are sowing the seeds for Canadian players to defend home court in due time.
We are in a new era of Canadian women’s basketball. Thanks to the efforts of everyone from the Edmonton Grads and the early National squads, to Kelly Boucher and current players making their voices heard and demanding their rightful place on the basketball court—it’s only up from here for the North.
Research, where needed, courtesy of The Canadian Encyclopedia.