Pro women's league, female head coach on Thomaidis' wishlist for Canada women's basketball

Head coach Lisa Thomaidis and Canada Basketball announced a mutual split last week following a disappointing Olympic appearance, but the woman who saw the program grow from a niche national interest into a medal threat hopes that upward trajectory only continues.

Departing coach hopes team continues on current trajectory despite tough Olympics

Canada's Olympic basketball team head coach Lisa Thomaidis, centre-back, oversaw the program's rise to fourth in the world before her departure after Tokyo 2020. (Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images)

As basketball's profile in Canada rose significantly this millennium, so did that of the national women's team.

And since 2001, Lisa Thomaidis was along for the ride — for nine years as head coach following 12 years as an assistant.

Thomaidis and Canada Basketball announced a mutual split last week following a disappointing Olympic appearance, but the woman who saw the program grow from a niche national interest into a medal threat hopes that upward trajectory only continues.

"I remember thinking back in 2012 when we went to the London Olympics and knowing that would be the first time our team had been on national TV. And now to the point where we've been on national TV every year," Thomaidis said in an interview with CBC Sports on Monday.

"I think that being able to play competitions in Canada and play before a home crowd is something that seemed unfathomable 10 years ago."

Under Thomaidis, the team achieved its best-ever ranking of No. 4 heading into the 2021 Olympics.

And after two straight quarter-final exits in 2012 and 2016, the team's expectation was to finally play for a spot on the podium in Tokyo. Instead, it failed to advance past the group stage with a 1-2 record that included losses to Serbia (now ranked ninth) and No. 3 Spain.

Canada maintained its ranking of fourth despite the heartbreak.

WATCH | Canada's Olympic dreams end with loss to Spain:

Thomaidis, 49, said "the next logical step" for Canadian women's basketball would be a domestic professional league — something that each of the top-three ranked nations (U.S., Australia, Spain) claims.

"They're able to spend time together and they're able to develop their athletes and we are really putting the development of our athletes into the hands of other programs," she said.

The Canadian Elite Basketball League — Canada's first and only pro league partnered with Canada Basketball — recently completed its third season, with the champion Edmonton Stingers now off to play internationally in the Basketball Champions League of America.

The success of the men's league could portend good things for a women's companion, though its long-term financial viability must still be proven.

As Canada Basketball reloads for another Olympic run in less than three years, Thomaidis said she has "no idea what will happen next."

"It will be interesting to see what direction they take because I think certainly we've been able to accomplish a lot given some of the limitations that we have."

Coaching search wide open

In the near term, the priority for the program is finding a replacement for Thomaidis ahead of its World Cup qualifier in late November.

There's another international window in February with the World Cup coming quickly in September 2022.

Thomaidis said she didn't give recommendations for who might take her place on the bench, nor did she have any idea in whose direction Canada Basketball was leaning.

In-house candidates may include Thomaidis assistants Carly Clarke, Ryerson's women's head coach, and Steve Baur, the former Acadia men's coach.

Tamara Tatham, who competed in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics as a player, is the head coach of the University of Toronto's women's team and serves as an assistant on the national U-19 squad. She may be a candidate as well.

WATCH | Canada picks up lone win at Tokyo 2020:

Canada Basketball employs separate coaching trios on each of its age-group teams, meaning there's a large selection of in-house candidates, in addition to the likely many from outside the organization who would be interested in taking the helm of the fourth-ranked team.

A connection to Canadian basketball, even if the candidate, like men's coach Nick Nurse, isn't Canadian, would likely be integral, if not required.

Thomaidis said she'd like to see a woman step in as her replacement.

"Canada Basketball has taken the lead on this over the last number of years, having so many of our national-team coaches be women. And the message that that sends internationally, I think, has been huge," she said.

Focus on Saskatchewan basketball

In the meantime, Thomaidis is transitioning into fandom while refocusing on her duties as head coach of the Saskatchewan Huskies women's team. The Dundas, Ont., native said a main reason for the split with Canada Basketball was her difficulty juggling both jobs at once.

She said the move may still have happened even with more success in Tokyo.

"I think if I continued on, it really would have been just kind of riding on fumes of whatever we had accomplished. But at the same time, it probably would have been a natural stepping away point as well."

Thomaidis said she plans to get more involved in the Saskatoon basketball community with her newfound free time.

The Huskies' season begins at the end of October with a pair of games in Manitoba against Brandon. Saskatchewan, which won the national title in 2020, remains the defending champion after the 2021 playoffs were cancelled due to the pandemic.

"It's been great getting back out there. The student athletes are just so keen to be together and to be working hard," Thomaidis said.

As for the WNBA playoffs, Thomaidis said she's riding with the last Canadian standing — Kia Nurse and her Phoenix Mercury, who are up 2-1 in their best-of-five semifinal series against the second-seeded Las Vegas Aces.

"Got to be cheering for the Canadians, for sure."

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