This time last year, the St. John’s Edge had eight players under contract for the 2018-19 National Basketball League of Canada season.
Today, there are two ball players — Canadians Junior Cadougan and Murphy Burnatowski — who are signed, sealed and delivered for a looming NBL Canada campaign.
While it should be noted the start of this year’s schedule has been pushed back to Boxing Day, a full month after the opening of the 2018-19 season, it’s still safe to say the Edge are behind the eight-ball in piecing their roster together for a third season in the NBLC, and facing the prospects of rummaging through the bottom of the barrel as other teams get their pick of the crop.
Fear not, however, cautions Edge owner Irwin Simon, who blames the late start to building a roster — my words, not his — to the delay getting a new lease deal to play out of Mile One Centre.
“I didn’t sign anybody until I knew for sure we were staying in St. John’s,” Simon said this week. “That was the big thing. I wouldn’t do that to people.
“I didn’t want to make commitments,” he said before acknowledging, “and as a result, there might be some price that you have to pay for that.”
The Edge and ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers came to an agreement to lease Mile One for an unprecedented 10-year period, announcing details last week at City Hall.
For the Edge, the work began promptly, starting with lifting the interim coach tag from Steve Marcus’s office name plate. Marcus is officially the top dog now, after being thrown into the fire last year when Doug Plumb quit as coach with two games left in the regular season.
Marcus not only survived, but thrived, leading the Edge to the league final before injuries finally caught up on the hobbled St. John’s roster.
“Sometimes,” said Simon, “it’s better to go with the known instead of starting all over again.”
It’s different with hockey’s Growlers, who have players signed to multi-year contracts, and others coming down from the AHL’s Marlies.
With the NBL Canada crowd, it’s usually a new bunch every year, save for a few designated as protected players.
“The big thing this year, which is going to be different, is we’re going to build around a solid team. Will there be one or two ex-NBA guys? Yup, it’s a possibility. But we’re going to sit back and evaluate and make sure we have the right combination of players. We don’t want to be a team of one or two individuals. It’s a team this year.”
In the case of St. John’s, three players from that 2019-20 protected list have signed elsewhere — Kyle Johnson in Iceland, Dez Lee in Qatar and Russell Byrd in Romania.
“But,” Simon says, “there are a lot of good players out there.”
Things will be different this year, hints Simon. Last season, a tote board was needed to keep track of the players coming and going on the Edge roster.
“What we started with, and who we ended up with,” Simon wondered, “what was it? Three or four players?”
No, things will be different, where the “team” — to quote the overused expression — will have no ‘I’ in it.
In the world of pro hoops, success — or lack of — can sometimes come down to the often-egocentric resident star (it is what separates basketball from just about every other sport).
That star last season was Glen Davis, the ex-NBA champion who played half a season with the Edge and was, most of the time, dominant.
But word is Davis is being wooed by the London Lightning, where Plumb has wound up as the new coach.
No worries, however, as Simon promises there have been other former NBA players reaching out to him about St. John’s and the NBL Canada.
“No. 1,” he says, “they know for two years in a row we’ve gone deep in the playoffs (to the Central Division final in the inaugural first year, and the league championship last season). No. 2, they hear we treat players right here in St. John’s.”
Fine, but come on. Surely ex-NBA guys can’t be ringing the phone off the hook looking to land in Newfoundland, can they?
“You know,” Simon said, refusing to play his hand and name names, “some of these guys have to find work. It’s amazing how many of these guys who had big contracts, still need work.
“They’ve reached out, but whether they come or not, I’m not sure.
“The big thing this year, which is going to be different, is we’re going to build around a solid team. Will there be one or two ex-NBA guys? Yup, it’s a possibility. But we’re going to sit back and evaluate and make sure we have the right combination of players.
“We don’t want to be a team of one or two individuals. It’s a team this year.”
Simon was also non-committal towards Newfoundlander Carl English, the face of the franchise in Year 1 and a big reason why pro hoops took off in St. John’s.
English has been working out, and is said to be keen on returning to the hardwood this season. But he languished through a miserable 2018-19 campaign, one that saw him miss two months after surgery on his thumb, one that saw him continue to suffer through ankle woes, and one that saw him end the year with a torn quad.
And he’s now 38-years-old.
“Carl is a great person, a great athlete,” Simon said. “He is St. John’s … he was the anchor of our team.
“I think the big thing is, as I’ve said, is a team is made up of a group of individuals and not one person. And he had a tough year last year from a medical standpoint.”
So while there are a lot of question marks heading into the new season, Simon maintains there is one certainty — his commitment to St. John’s.
A Glace Bay, N.S., native, Simon is the new owner of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Cape Breton Eagles. With Sydney’s NBL franchise — the Cape Breton Highlanders — closing up shop this year, it would have been easy for Simon to relocate his basketball team in Newfoundland back home.
“To be where I have a hockey team, and where I have a big infrastructure in place with that team,” he said. “But I’ve always wanted to stay in St. John’s, where the fans have been very loyal, very committed, where they love what we do.
“That was my No. 1 choice, my No. 2 choice, my No. 3 choice.”
But there have been some ominous signs. The Edge’s office was shut down after last season, with virtually every employee let go or laid off. But Simon says, again, it goes back to not having an agreement signed, and the uncertainty of there even being a team this season.
“I have a big infrastructure of people, and Rob (co-owner Rob Sabbagh) has an infrastructure of people. We basically used my son (Trevor), who is a second-year student at the University of Southern California studying sports management, and some of his colleagues.
“So we didn’t use much of the staff in St. John’s during the summer. But we’re staffing up right now. We’ll have a staff and office.”
Okay. But what about the troubling talk of a trail of unpaid bills to local suppliers?
One, Dan Warren of Media Magic Video, who put together the team’s video packages last season, went so far as to go public with the following Facebook post: “Great, the Edge have a 10-year deal (with Mile One Centre) … now if they would only take their head out of the sand, and pay me for the work I did last year, that would be great!”
The post drew plenty of chatter.
“It’s not that we have money issues. Part of what happened here is the way (last) season ended, not knowing if we were coming back. So far, we’ve invested millions of dollars into this team and in two years, we have lost money both years. But there was never, ever, ever a discussion of we’re not going to pay people.”
Simon cites this to a breakdown last year when the Edge and Growlers shared office personnel.
“I think there was not always the best bookkeeping,” he said. “But I will tell you if we owe someone money, we have every bit of intention to ultimately pay them … to make sure they are compensated.”
Simon is adamant the Edge do not have cash concerns. In fact, he says, the team may be one of the best-financed outfits in the NBL.
“It’s not that we have money issues,” he said. “Part of what happened here is the way (last) season ended, not knowing if we were coming back.
“So far, we’ve invested millions of dollars into this team and in two years, we have lost money both years.
“But there was never, ever, ever a discussion of we’re not going to pay people. It was a discussion, from an economic standpoint, of why this makes sense anymore.
“There are no money problems, but up until two weeks ago, there was a question of whether we were going to be part of the St. John’s community.”
For the Edge, training camp starts the first week in December and Simon says there will be a team on the floor.
Good news for a team that’s seen its fair share of drama in the two short years it’s been in St. John’s.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort