When the WNBA announced in January that it would be bringing a preseason game between the Minnesota Lynx and Chicago Sky to Toronto, Canadians everywhere rejoiced not only at the opportunity to see first-hand women’s professional sports in a place where they have rarely played, but to welcome back one of their own, too.
Lynx wing Bridget Carleton — a native of Chatham, Ontario, a city about three hours southwest of the provincial capital — will become the first Canadian to play in a WNBA game on home soil.
“I’m so excited,” Carleton said Wednesday in Minneapolis during the Lynx’s Media Day, less than 72 hours after finishing her EuroLeague season in Spain. “I’m just starting to process that it’s actually happening.”
As part of the celebration, she threw out the first pitch at Friday night’s Toronto Blue Jays game.
Lynx F and Chatham, Ontario native Bridget Carleton threw out the first pitch at Blue Jays game tonight in Toronto ahead of the Lynx playing the Sky in tomorrow's WNBA Canada Game. pic.twitter.com/nYUyeIImm5— Canis Hoopus (@canishoopus) May 13, 2023
It’s a unique spot for Carleton, who grew up in Canada without the opportunity to see women’s professional sports played in her home country, and now is a member of one of the teams playing in Canada’s first WNBA game.
“I’m excited to be part of the Minnesota Lynx and WNBA experiencing what Canada is like, but also, Canadians being able to experience what the WNBA is like,” she added. “So I see both sides of it, and I’m just super excited to be a part of it and to obviously play in the game.”
She knows she isn’t the only one who is eagerly awaiting the 4 PM local time tip on Saturday afternoon, and credits recent success for Canada’s basketball teams as an accelerant for fan interest. When the W opened ticket sales on March 8 to celebrate International Women’s Day, the league sold the entirety of Scotiabank Arena’s nearly 22,000-ticket capacity in less than 10 minutes.
“There’s so much excitement around women’s sports in Canada. I think with the success of the Raptors, them winning a championship a few years ago, Canada basketball is on the rise, and our national program is doing a lot of great things in the community, especially in the Toronto area,” Carleton said. “Obviously with the ticket sales of this game, that’s clear. The numbers show that the people are excited. ... The City of Toronto, I think they’re invested in sports. The rise of women’s sports is kind of a new thing. It’s almost like a culture around it and people want to be a part of the culture.”
Among those 22,000 will be plenty of Carleton fans making the trip northeast up the 401 and 403 from Chatham to Toronto.
“I think the whole city of Chatham is going,” Carleton said with a huge smile. “My parents texted me today and said they’re trying to rent out a space for us to gather after the game for 100 people.”
Carleton hasn’t been home since she was honored at her high school last fall, cementing her status as a hometown hero.
“Everyone knows everyone [in Chatham]. They’re proud of the ‘Chathamites,’ as we call ourselves, that go on to do big things. And that’s in sports, in the arts, the doctors that come out of Chatham, everything that comes out [of Chatham]. People are really celebrated here,” Carleton said in a sit-down interview with Canis Hoopus last October. “It’s cool to be recognized in Chatham because I am proud to be from Chatham and I always love coming back here. So to have that community still supporting me is really cool.”
Whether it’s in Chatham, at Iowa State, in Tokyo, Minneapolis, or now back home in Ontario, Carleton’s hometown has always supported her wherever she plays, and there’s no doubt she’ll feel that love along with nearly 20,000 strong welcome home the lone Canadian to suit up on Saturday.
“It’s going to be probably overwhelming and I’m preparing myself for that. Just to see so many familiar faces in the crowd. ... I probably won’t be able to talk to half of the people I want to talk to, not enough hours in the day, but just to see so many familiar faces, it’ll be really, really special,” she said. “Especially playing for the Lynx, a franchise I’ve played with, this is my fifth year now. To have the Canadians see this side of me or see this part of my professional career is pretty cool. So I’m excited about that.”
Although it’s a preseason game that won’t have any bearing on the WNBA season standings, the game’s impact will be felt for a long time north of the border. Thousands of young girls across Canada will see either in-person or on television a WNBA game in their country, which will undoutedbly be an inspiring moment.
I asked Bridget Carleton on Media Day about what seeing the WNBA Toronto game in-person will mean to girls across Canada.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) May 12, 2023
Here was her answer ⤵️ https://t.co/GKY3HE7ajS
“It’s one thing to know about the WNBA, to hear about it. But it’s another to go to a game to see it, to see the shoes that you could potentially be in in however many years,” Carleton told Canis Hoopus this week.
“To go to a game as a kid, to go to a WNBA game, it’s just so inspiring. And that can mean so many different things to so many different people, to know that you could do anything through sport, if that’s what you choose to do, if that’s what you love to do, and that’s what you want to do,” she continued. “And not even just athletes, the jobs, the opportunities, the management positions. You know, there’s so many great things about sport and so many opportunities through sport, even not just as an athlete. So I’m excited for people just to see that and be a part of it and experience it and to come to the game and to enjoy it and to continue to grow the game in general.”
A key part of that growth effort in Canada is improving the access to women’s professional sports across the country.
“When I was growing up, it was hard to watch even NCAA games in Canada. Impossible to watch WNBA games, but now there’s better, obviously, viewing opportunities, so people are able to see it and watch it. And I think that’s what’s driving this excitement around it. Social media obviously helps,” Carleton said, before acknowledging how access to high-level hoops helped fuel her career.
“I was lucky growing up. I had my mom to look up to, who played Division II basketball, but a lot of people, especially in Canada, don’t have access to those kinds of things in our backyard. Our senior team, we don’t ever play in Canada. We train there, but we don’t ever play games in Canada, or very rarely. And so if we do, that’s a big moment for basketball in Canada, especially on the women’s side.”
Carleton’s hope is that Canada Basketball and the WNBA can capitalize on the growth movement Saturday’s game is sure to catalyze, and to continue to support the young athletes rising through the ranks in Canada.
“As far as continuing to grow the game in Canada, I think with our national team, especially, obviously our men’s national team is continuing to rise. Our women’s team, we got fourth at the World Cup this past September and it’s continuing to get better and better. There’s so many great athletes that are in the NCAA that hopefully are going to be in the league one day,” Carleton said.
“So just continuing to get better and better, and that’s fun to be a part of. But there’s that excitement like I talked about before around women’s basketball and the culture around it. I think that’ll just continue to grow, especially with this new generation with social media. I’m happy to be an ambassador of that along with (Seattle Storm guard) Kia (Nurse) and (Lynx forward) Natalie (Achonwa), those are two of my great friends, and to have them kind of through this process, I know they’re not playing the game with me. But we’re always talking and communicating and trying to lead the way for Canadian Women’s Basketball, especially. So it’s super, super special and I’m so excited. It’s gonna be pretty fun and overwhelming.”
Carleton also hopes that an event like this becomes a key inflection point in the country’s pursuit of landing a WNBA expansion team in The 6ix.
“I think [getting a team would] be huge. There’s no opportunity to play professional women’s sports in Canada right now. Obviously, and that’s not the case in all the other countries, not all the other countries, but a lot of other countries around the world,” she said.
“So I think not only having a professional team in Toronto or in Canada would be amazing for the players that are playing or the culture around it, but the next generation of athletes, boys and girls who can look up to women that do this in the professional ranks and be successful playing basketball. And that should be the norm. It’s not as accessible in Canada because it’s just not around us, like I said. But to have that in our backyard will be special.”
Carleton was once one of those young girls on an eager search for inspiration, which BC found in her mom and the high school players her mother coached. Would that Bridget Carleton have believed everything she would go on to accomplish in basketball?
“She wouldn’t believe you, for sure. I’ve never truly believed what I was able to do through the sport of basketball. I always had dreams and goals and aspirations, specifically with the National Team, but never did I actually think it was going to happen,” Carleton told Canis last fall. “But she’d be really, really excited and super proud of it.”
After growing up in Canada with big dreams, Bridget Carleton has since lived a basketball journey spanning 15 countries across five continents. The next stop on that wild ride is a return home on Saturday afternoon, where she will be ready to show girls across Canada what is possible when a childhood dream has proof, and hopefully inspire the start of thousands more basketball journeys.