Hamilton Honey Badgers will be back at FirstOntario Centre in July


They were already at the starting line, clutch in, engine revving, but now they’re officially off and running.

Public health officials in the four provinces involved have dropped the green flag, signalling their approval of the Canadian Elite Basketball League’s return-to-play plan.

Commissioner and CEO Mike Morreale said in a league statement that CEBL teams would be among the first Canadian franchises to welcome fans back to arenas.

But, he cautioned Thursday, those fan-welcoming teams might not include the CEBL’s four Ontario teams, among them the Hamilton Honey Badgers.

The Ontario government is still finalizing its live-audience regulations for return to play and, Morreale suggested, that might not happen until midsummer. The last Ontario-based game of the regular season is Aug. 8 and the ensuing playoff tournament will likely be staged out of province. The Hamilton Honey Badgers start their schedule with three road games — beginning in Edmonton June 26 — and open at FirstOntario Centre on Saturday, July 3, their first of seven home games.

“We approached this with the return to play in all our markets being the top priority and knowing that Ontario will be the last province to allow fans in,” Morreale told The Spectator. “It’s highly unlikely we’ll see fans in the buildings in Ontario and we were prepared for that. But if things change, we’ll work with the province and local health authorities and be ready to go.”

Ontario’s reopening plan has three stages, based largely on full and one-dose vaccination percentages. Step 2, which involves outdoor sports and leagues cannot begin until at least July 2, but indoor sports such as basketball, fall under Step 3, which could be implemented no earlier than July 23. No specific number of fans has been mentioned.

Morreale said the CEBL has sent a request to the Doug Ford government to permit the Ottawa BlackJacks to allow 300 fully vaccinated health care workers into their first three home games. That ask is predicated on the Toronto Maple Leafs gaining permission for 550 health care workers in Scotiabank Arena for their Game 7 playoff loss. If it gets approval for Ottawa, the CEBL hopes to replicate that scenario for games in Hamilton, Guelph and St. Catharines.

It’s not yet been determined exactly how fans will be allowed into arenas for games in Edmonton, Saskatoon and Fraser Valley, B.C.

The CEBL has a single owner, Richard Petko who also owns the Niagara River Lions. With last summer’s no-fans-allowed “Summer Series” shortened schedule in St. Catharines, and four of the league’s seven teams probably not able to sell many, if any, tickets this year, that’s a significant two-year deprivation of revenue.

Addressing that, Morreale told The Spectator, “When we established the CEBL in 2019, we knew we’d be making investments in the league for years. This doesn’t change that. But it certainly amplifies the investment.

“But at same time, the eventual return on investment by committing to play even without fans is greater than the cost of the investment.”

After physical exams on Wednesday, the Badgers open training camp Thursday morning at FirstOntario Centre.

Hamilton Honey Badgers president John Lashway acknowledges that his team will be hard-pressed to put any significant number of fans into FirstOntario Centre before the end of the schedule.

“But we’ll be ready to go, as soon as we get the green light for fans,” Lashway said. “We believe our league and our team can play a role in re-invigorating our market. We believe people want to get out and have fun together in the collective experience that basketball brings, and the sooner the better.”

And, he points out: “We’ll be the first team in playing in Hamilton since March of 2020.”