Richard Petko went from rebuilding a town to starting a professional basketball league and somehow it seems like a natural progression.
The Canadian real estate developer and his business partner, Michael Skrtich, were renovating store fronts and constructing an apartment complex as part of a facade improvement incentive program in Thorold, Ont., when they also saw an opportunity to bring a sports team to nearby St. Catharines.
From 2015-18, the Niagara River Lions operated out of the Meridian Centre as a member of the National Basketball League of Canada. Petko, 49, eventually grew frustrated with what he viewed as a poor business model and decided to branch out on his own to form the Canadian Elite Basketball League.
The CEBL head office is part of the new look in Thorold and has established a presence in the community as opposed to being “cocooned off in some ivory tower somewhere” such as downtown Toronto, Petko said.
Petko and CEBL commissioner Mike Morreale — a former CFL player — instituted six teams for the inaugural season in 2019: Fraser Valley, Edmonton, Saskatchewan, Guelph, Hamilton and the River Lions, who Petko brought to the CEBL after his three-year commitment to the NBL-C expired.
The Ottawa BlackJacks were added ahead of the 2020 campaign, which ultimately became a tournament played without fans at the Meridian Centre.
The CEBL has made it known they would like to expand further and are now keen to enter more big markets.
“There was always that kind of idea you could have a league in junior hockey league cities,” Petko said. “I don’t think that can work. To be big-time, to get good players, to get proper media you have to be basically where the CFL is, at least at a minimum.”
To that effect, Petko suggests that locations such as Calgary, Winnipeg, Montreal, and Quebec City would be ideal. However, he emphasizes that they want to partner with groups with sports and entertainment experience and all the infrastructure in place to run a team.
“Those are the best partners to have. Not just some rich person or five people that want to do it as a fun thing to do,” Petko said. “I’ve come from that when it comes to the NBL-C and I’ve seen that it doesn’t work.
“It took three or four years of running the River Lions to learn how to run a basketball team and we don’t have the time and we don’t need to go through that — starting something and to have an owner learn for three or four years when there are groups out there ready to run.”
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This past summer, the league was forced to pivot from the format of a season that spans from May to August, played in front of spectators in its regional markets. Instead, the Summer Series featured 26 games over a two-week period, with some of those contests appearing nationally on CBC television.
The league is hoping to return to its regional model next season. A schedule is expected to be released early in the new year, but likely without any additional teams as Petko says groups are “kicking our tires” and waiting a year to see how things play out post-pandemic.
‘This isn’t a charitable organization’
Whille the league is approaching a break-even point, Petko is direct in stating what he set out to achieve.
“If money isn’t made, this league will end up in the dustbin of history,” he said. “This isn’t a charitable organization, this isn’t something that [I’m] going to throw a few million a year into a bucket just so there can be a professional league in Canada for the next 20, 30 years.
“It has to become part of the sports culture and that doesn’t happen unless you make money. It’s what came first, the chicken or the egg. I guess in this case, the league came before the profits but without profits, there will be no league.”
Following what was widely regarded as a successful tournament, the league remained in the news cycle with the hiring of former Canadian national team members Jevohn Shepherd and Andy Rautins as general manager and assistant general manager, respectively, by the Ottawa franchise.
Shepherd and Rautins, both 34, were each looking for an opportunity to transition from their professional playing days, something Morreale can relate to.
“When I look at Andy or Jevohn, it’s funny because it somewhat mirrors my personal experience which was playing professional sports until I was 36 and then wondering what the heck am I going to do next,” said Morreale, now 49. “My opportunity came with the [CFL] players’ association within a month or two of retiring and that led me on my path to where I am now.
“So part of [our] developmental process is getting people who are willing and able to work hard, have passion, that understand what the CEBL is all about, that put aside their selfish ways and then selflessly do their part to help grow the sport.”
This time last year, Rautins was preparing to embark on one of the best opportunities of his career.
A star at Syracuse University and drafted by the New York Knicks in 2010, the shooting guard would likely still be draining three pointers for Greek powerhouse Panathinaikos if it weren’t for the abrupt end to the season and what he described as dangerous conditions as teams continue to travel around Europe on commercial flights.
“It was a short-lived experience, but I think ultimately the league made the right decisions. The cases were starting to get a little bit out of control at that point,” said Rautins, who returned home three days after the EuroLeague pressed the pause button in March.
Though he hasn’t ruled out a return to the court, Rautins now turns his attention to the city where he put down his roots with the national team more than a decade ago.
“The fact that it was Ottawa, the [team] president, and that I have the opportunity to work with Jevohn is a no-brainer for me,” said Rautins. “It’s going to be a special thing that we’re going to try to build in Ottawa.”