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Hockey town? Calgary Surge set CEBL attendance record at the home of the Flames

The question loomed large when the Calgary Surge moved from Guelph in the 2022 off-season: Can a basketball club succeed in a city that’s long been established as a hockey town?

And, ultimately, can Calgary be a basketball city?

Tuesday night at the Saddledome — home of the Flames that’s adorned with red and yellow banners showcasing an NHL championship and other achievements — Calgary Surge president and vice-chairman Jason Ribeiro got his answer.

The team set a Canadian Elite Basketball League (CEBL) attendance record with 12,327 fans at the ‘Dome.

“It’s a bit surreal,” Ribeiro said.

“Not only did Calgary get its answer about what basketball means to this community and what basketball has meant to this community over time, but I think the rest of the country now understands just how far this sport is reaching.”

Despite the fans’ big show of support Tuesday, the Surge lost to the Edmonton Stingers, 97-79.

A group of people under fluorescent lights.
The Calgary Surge began its second season with a loss to the Edmonton Stingers on Tuesday. (Supplied/Calgary Surge)

There is basketball history in Calgary. It’s brief — and less celebrated — but it exists nonetheless.

In 1992, the Calgary 88’s, the city’s first and only other attempt at hosting a professional basketball team, faded away after a four-year run.

At halftime during Tuesday’s game, the Surge management made sure those in the crowd knew of that history. The players came out of the break wearing throwback 88’s jerseys instead of their regular phoenix “peace” jerseys.

John Hegwood, a man who wore that 88’s uniform in its original form, took to the court at half time to greet the sellout crowd.

“The significance of that moment for me was really, really impactful,” Ribeiro said Wednesday. “Last night was the closing of the loop for us in more ways than I think people realize.”

Hegwood was picked in the ninth round of the 1982 NBA draft by the San Diego (now L.A) Clippers. 

A man waves to a crowd of people
John Hegwood, a former Calgary 88’s player, was introduced to the crowd at halftime. (Supplied/Calgary Surge)

He went on to play professional basketball and eventually established CYDC, a youth basketball program in Calgary that many, including current Calgary Surge guard Mathieu Kamba, graduated from.

There isn’t another ‘Dome game on the slate for the Surge this season. Instead, the club returns to WinSport, where they’ll welcome fans from across Calgary in a more compact setting.

That arena has a 3,200-seat capacity. It was packed in sold-out fashion during four of the 10 Surge home games in the team’s inaugural season last year. 

In comparison, the Saddledome has room for 19,289 fans during a hockey or lacrosse game.

The record attendance for the CEBL came in the league’s sixth season.

“I think the Saddledome audience has also been demanding basketball. You don’t get to that number just on Surge alone,” Ribeiro said. 

“This is not just about the Surge, this has not happened overnight, this has been happening for decades, and we’re standing on a lot of shoulders.”

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