Road To The Olympic Games

Aquatics

Acquiring Canadian stars top priority for Toronto's new pro swim league club

In September, the Canadian club and Tokyo will compete in the second season of the International Swimming League as expansion teams. For Robert Kent, co-owner and general manager of the Toronto franchise, the process of preparing his team for its debut started Monday.

Team has exclusive negotiating window to secure homegrown swimmers

Olympic medallist Penny Oleksiak and other Canadian swim stars will be sought after for Toronto's new ISL franchise during an exclusive negotiating window that runs until Feb.15. (Darko Bandic/Associated Press)

As general manager and co-owner of Toronto's expansion franchise in the International Swimming League, it's time for Robert Kent to sink or swim.

It is his task to put a team together in time for the start of the league's second season, which begins in September. Toronto and Tokyo were announced as expansion franchises in December.

And he's hoping he can secure some of Canada's top swimming talent to wear the team's colours.

"It's my first day at work," Kent told CBC Sports on Monday. Originally from North Battleford, Sask., Kent is a former competitive swimmer who most recently was an investment banker in China Construction Bank's Toronto headquarters. "For 25 years I worked on Bay Street [in Toronto] and just before Christmas I resigned to take this job.

"Literally, this morning it starts with me at my kitchen table with my laptop sending out a ton of emails."

As expansion franchises, Toronto and Tokyo have been granted an exclusive window until Feb. 15 to negotiate with swimmers from their respective nations, and Kent said his top priority is to secure the likes of Canadian stars such as Penny Oleksiak, Kylie Masse and Kayla Sanchez.

Those three, along with 10 other Canadians across four teams, swam in the league's first season. 

WATCH | Toronto's Penny Oleksiak anchors Energy Standard to win in ISL finale:

Canada's Penny Oleksiak and Kayla Sanchez helps their team to victory on the final day of the ISL final. 4:36

"I did bump into Penny [Oleksiak] and a few of the girls when I was in Vegas [for the finals]," Kent said. "I was just saying 'hi and how are you,' letting them know a Canadian franchise is coming.

"Planting the seed without getting into it because at the time I didn't know if they were aware with what was coming."

For now, the league is still sorting out how to fill the remainder of the 10 rosters, though founder Konstantin Grigorishin said an announcement should come by the end of January. All swimmers signed one-year contracts prior to the inaugural season, so all are free agents.

Hosting events

Kent said the plan is for Toronto to host at least two events next season. No dates or venues have been announced, but Kent said the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre, built for the Pan Am Games in 2015, is the ideal choice, though he's not had any discussions with the venue's officials yet. 

"It's pretty much the only one that works," Kent said. "Hopefully we'll have no problem selling that out. At its biggest, and it depends how it gets configured, it could hold about 6,000 spectators.

"We still have to see which weekends are available and how they coordinate with the rest of the league but we'll be making a big deal of it when we firm up the two dates."

"One nice thing is that we will have a huge boost starting in September, only a couple weeks after the Olympics have ended," Kent added.

The league's second season will see a jump from seven events to 27, spread out until its conclusion in April 2021. Clubs will be required to participate in at least 10, which include the regular season, playoffs and grand finale.

There will also be breaks in December and March for other scheduled events on the world swimming calendar.

This isn't Kent's first foray combining swimming and business. In 2014 he was one of the founders of the Global Swim Series for competitive open-water swimming.

"Two areas of the franchise I'm working on [are] swimming and business," Kent said. "Hopefully I'm able to put those skills together and come up with a strong franchise for the league.

"We're starting with a great product. These are the best Olympians and top world champions. It's not like the minors; swimming hasn't done something like this before which could be considered odd. It's one of the most popular sports in the world and second most popular in the Olympics."

As for a team name, Kent would only say that a list has been narrowed down.

"That's the very first question everybody has asked me," Kent said. "I have a list of 150 names, it's down to three or four and I have one that I like that's been pretty popular. 

"I haven't put that publicly out there yet but hopefully that's something we can announce very soon."

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