The recent NCAA March Madness tournament featured a record 53 Canadians on the men’s and women’s sides, including men’s player of the year Zach Edey. But the flow of ballers is moving in the other direction too, with a growing number of U.S. players coming to Canadian colleges and universities, drawn by the prospect of high-level competition and unique experiences.
Canadian schools are welcoming these athletes with open arms, offering them extra eligibility to play so long as they have not filled their four years of eligibility in the U.S.
One of these athletes is SAIT men’s point-guard, Charlie Conner.
Conner relocated to Calgary from Washington, D.C. in 2017 to join the Trojans team, saying he fell in love with the city after a visit in April of that year.
“I found out about SAIT through one of my best friends. He was on the team the year before and said it was a different lifestyle up here and that we’d be living happily,” says Conner. “We used to play basketball at the local gym all the time and we always wondered how we would perform in college.”
Conner says he had a few opportunities in America to play basketball but was not content with the opportunities that were being offered to him. So he started seeking alternative options.
“I only had one true opportunity to play basketball at a school but it didn’t pan out. The coach said he had his roster filled for the season so I used to go to the open runs with the team. I actually had a junior college scholarship for basketball but I didn’t take it because I was a little cocky and thought I should be playing division I basketball.”
He says he was surprised by the talent and opportunities Canadian collegiate basketball could offer him upon arriving in the country.
“My first impression of Canadian basketball was that they can really shoot the basketball. The 3-point line was longer and it took me a while to adjust,” says Conner. “I was able to start playing college basketball at the age of 24 which is crazy. I am finishing my final year now and I’m a couple of months from 30.”
Conner has just completed his five years of eligibility with the Trojans, having aided the men’s team in five of their six back-to-back gold championships as well as leading them to their gold championship in the CCAA men’s basketball nationals tournament this season.
He says he has a few pieces of advice for American basketball players looking into relocating North of the border.
“If you can play and be valuable, they will give you the freedom to play how you want to play. That’s all that some people ask for and Canada gives that opportunity to see if you can really play this sport. I would say make sure you find a job and a place to live then everything else will come into play.”
Conner finishes his time with SAIT as the highest scorer the men’s team has ever had, bringing in over 1,500 points in his time spent with the team. He plans on applying for residency to remain in Canada and looks forward to the next chapter of his life – hopefully in basketball.
Many American basketball players have transferred to Canadian universities and colleges in recent years, taking advantage of the extra eligibility and the opportunity to continue playing the sport they love.
This influx of talent has had a positive impact on the quality of play in Canadian university basketball, with several teams rising in the national rankings due to the addition of these American athletes.
One team that saw a rise in ranking is Fort McMurray’s Keyano College Huskies men’s team, which is home to three American student-athletes.
One of these players is Las Vegas native Sean-Michael Clancey who recently completed his final year of eligibility with the Huskies who went undefeated in their regular season and finished fourth in the playoffs.
The 2023 CCAA men’s basketball player of the year says Canadian basketball gave him the opportunities to showcase his talents after facing a tough chapter of his playing career in America.
“A placement test called the ACT or SAT altered my progress of achieving NCAA sports, causing me to go junior college for two years. That’s when things started to take a decline.”
Clancey says he knew Canadian basketball would give him the opportunity to continue playing the sport he loved from the age of three and advance his skillset. He began playing with the NAIT Ooks, later transferring to the Huskies.
“There are so many talented people like myself sitting and waiting on an opportunity to play or go to school in the states that are just wasting their younger years to play college ball. College sports here in Canada has exceeded my expectations by far. I’ve had the time of my life the last three years playing.”
“The opportunity to showcase my talents and live out my dreams has been a true blessing.”
Clancey’s collegiate career is now over, but as he looks towards pursuing the sport in a professional capacity, he has one piece of advice for young U.S. athletes looking to further their playing career.
“The extra eligibility gives us, internationals, the opportunity to take our time and get on track with school as well as the fulfillment to play longer in our sport,” he says. “Canada is the new hot bed for up and coming basketball players – to live here and witness it from my own teammates and the people they have grown up with (has been) one of the coolest things about my experience here.”
Olds College men’s and women’s basketball coach Harrison Corolis says that although the adjustment for an American basketball player hoping to play in Canada can be hard at times, it’s all in the “business of basketball.”
“They’ve been playing it at such a high level with such high exposure, and a much more “hostile” fan base,” says Corolis. “They’re used to having tons and tons of people watching them, so they can handle the big game situations a little different, just because there’s such a large population down there.”
Corolis says this is an advantage for these American players as they already have the tools and experience to deal with the often “tight-knit” Canadian basketball environment.
“I think our basketball community here in Canada is quite small and fairly concentrated, so just the ability to play in front of a larger audience and being able to kind of handle that mental piece (of it) – that’s the advantage that they can bring.”
Although the Canadian basketball experience differs from the American one in terms of media coverage and appreciation, Corolis says the sport is only continuing to grow north of the border.
Corolis emphasizes that young American players should take the leap despite any potential concerns, assuring them that there are always coaches in the country who would be interested in their talent.
“Take a chance on yourself. If you’ve gone to one or two schools in the United States already, take a look north of the border. There’s going to be a school here that as long as you can play, there’s going to be somebody that’s going to value your talent. I know we don’t have the big media coverage or NCAA logo behind our programs, but we can provide something of value.”
Mount Royal University men’s basketball head coach Marc Dobell says that American players, along with all international players, are an excellent addition to any Canadian team.
Dobell has been coaching the USports team for the past 19 years after transitioning from the NAIT Ooks. The MRU Cougars currently have one American player on their roster.
Acknowledging the rise in young Canadian talent, Dobell still gives credit to international students for their influence and unique skillset they are able to bring to a team.
“Typically in the U.S. the kids start earlier. They get more touches of the basketball, more reps, more experience, and more experienced coaching early on. So you see kids coming from the US with maybe a little bit more polished experience.”
With the primary difference between the NCAA and Canadian basketball in terms of opportunities being the ticking time clock on their playing career, Dobell says that USports and other collegiate leagues offer the opportunity to extend their love for the sport.
“They’ve got a time clock where once they start playing, they’ve got five years to complete their four years. And, you know, if they take time off for whatever reason, then their time clock would run out in the NCAA. So there are opportunities to come up here where we don’t have a time clock. They can continue to play and it benefits their situation.”
Dobell says it is this one key benefit that often attracts young American talent.
“(Coming to Canada) can only benefit them – the Canadian education that they get (alongside the) extra eligibility to play. I don’t see any negatives to it.”