Opening day has arrived for the Island Storm after more than two weeks of training camp.
The Saint John Mill Rats visit the Eastlink Centre for a 2 p.m. matinee today following the longest off-season in franchise history. It comes after the National Basketball League of Canada pushed the season start date back this season from its traditional early November beginning.
The team started training camp on Dec. 19 with 15 players. It added a couple along the way before getting down to the maximum of 12. It has led to competitive practices as players battled each other to win a job.
"It's finally here," second-year guard Rashad Whack said of the opener. "It's exciting to get out there with everybody on the same team."
He joins guard Billy Rush, forward Mike Martin and centre Nick Evans as the four returning players.
Brandon Robinson and Nick Okorie are key guys who did not return from last year's team, which lost to Halifax in the division final.
Whack said the Storm would miss those players, but added head coach and vice-president of player personnel Joe Salerno brought in talented guys to fill the void.
"I think we have all the right pieces," Whack said. "We definitely have the weapons that we need to be a successful team this year."
The Storm went 0-2 in preseason and while Salerno has heard concerns in the community, he cautioned not to put too much emphasis on the record.
"These games, for us, have really been used as an evaluation tool," he said.
It provided an opportunity to see if guys fit with the team. The squad is not where it wants to be defensively, but Salerno said he sees signs they can get there.
He envisioned a high-scoring team with plenty of guys who can score the rock.
"Brent Jennings has had an outstanding camp," Salerno said. "He's a very exciting player."
Jennings, acquired in the Okorie trade with London during the off-season, is expected to team with Whack to give the Storm a potent wing duo.
"Rashad and Brent can be as good of a scoring combination as any team in the league," Salerno said.
The team has two good ball-handling point guards in Gary Gibson and Malcolm Grant. Gibson has been dealing with an ankle injury in camp and Salerno expected he would be a game-day decision.
Up front the Storm is looking for Martin and Evans to play key roles early.
Robert Nortmann is one of the Storm's new faces this year, but has experience in the league. One of four Canadians on the roster, Nortmann said he could play the three, four or five, depending on the matchups, while bringing toughness, physicality and energy.
"It's a great feeling," he said. "I'm excited to be suiting up on opening night. It's been a long time coming and I'm just really excited for it."
Salerno is looking for his players to settle in today after playing undisciplined in the exhibition games. He wants them to play with controlled aggression.
The players understand they're not a finished product, but believe they can have a strong season.
"Everyday we're building. Each day we're adding another piece to the puzzle," Nortmann said. "I know if we play the pace we want to play, play smart and work hard on defence, we'll be alright."
Former Storm captain and fan favourite Al Stewart is now with the Mill Rats.
A look at the Island Storm's opening night roster.
Kenny Otieno *
National Basketball League of Canada
Format - Eight teams are divided into two divisions, playing a 40-game regular season with each team qualifying for playoffs.
Atlantic: Halifax Hurricanes, Island Storm, Moncton Miracles and Saint John Mill Rats.
Central: London Lightning, Orangeville A's, Niagara River Lions and Windsor Express.
The Island Storm starts its fifth season today. The first two years the team played in Summerside while the past two they have called Charlottetown home. Here's a look at their past records.
Season W L Pct. Playoffs
2014-15 19 13 .594 Lost in semifinal
2013-14 22 18 .550 Lost in final
2012-13 26 14 .650 Lost in final
2011-12 12 24 .333 DNQ
All-time regular season record - 79-69.
All-time playoff record -18-18.