On Christmas Day, two months had passed since the joint announcement from the Professional Lacrosse Players Association and the National Lacrosse League, that agreement was reached on a new seven-year collective bargaining agreement, and the 2008 NLL season was back on after the October 15th lockout by the owners. With training camps done and opening-night rosters finalized, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the before-and after picture of the NLL as I see it.
It is a natural inclination to ask, in the wake of any labor dispute, what was accomplished by either side. Certainly the players' intent, strategy, resolve and wisdom were questioned during negotiations, primarily by individual owners, but also by some professional sports observers and commentators.
The Toronto Rock's Brad Watters, whose record includes two failed NLL franchises, a Canadian Football League flop in the Ottawa Renegades (he's just been named COO of the CFL's Toronto Argonauts, reporting to President Mike "Pinball" Clemons --- good luck Double Blue) and a bankrupt 2006 Men's World Lacrosse championship in London, Ontario, punctuated NLL Commissioner Jim Jennings' announcement of the League's cancellation of the 2008 season thus: "I'd say if you asked the players, 85% of them would have accepted the raises … I think their leadership advised them it [the owners' threat to cancel] was a big bluff, and the big bluff has come back on them. Have a fun winter."
Calgary owner Brad Bannister was even more magnanimous: "We take these guys out of fringe lacrosse leagues, pay them $2,ooo American, or more, a night [???], … put them on TV … made them local celebrities … Kids ask for their autographs … Girls chase them around bars … And they're willing to jeopardize that?" And in the same interview, "It's a shame when a few egos have to get in the way."
A Rochester newspaper sports columnist, after the cancellation announcement, opined "… if the … players could vote today, I'm pretty sure they'd opt to play this season by a lopsided margin. They … should take pride and satisfaction in knowing they're pioneers paving the way for future pro lacrosse players."
Excuse me? Did these guys have access to some secret poll? Are the players such ingrates as Banister implies? Fringe leagues? Canadian box lacrosse leagues have operated continuously, give or take a World War or two, for more than 70 years, even in Alberta. The (solid gold original) Mann Cup is the most monetarily valuable ($25,ooo+) trophy in North America, first presented in 1910. The Minto Cup was donated by Canadian Governor General, Lord Minto, in 1901. And any "pride and satisfaction in knowing they're pioneers" would ring pretty hollow if the PLPA had a history of unquestioning acceptance of ownership demands.
Was this really about money, as the owners insisted? One of the players' key demands, studiously ignored by the League in its public pronouncements, was an accounting of the monies set aside under previous collective bargaining agreements, for players' pensions and benefits. The PLPA consistently maintained that they had little if any dispute with the League about salary increases on offer. And in the final agreement, the players accepted a seven-year deal, two years longer than the owners had demanded.
And let's not forget that it was the owners, or at least some of them, that told Commissioner Jennings to try to get back to the table with the PLPA, who had never left, after the owners' deadline had passed.
The real fall-out will be felt by these same owners, and to a lesser extent the Commissioner. The expansion Boston Blazers have postponed their entry into the League until 2009. The 2007 Champion's Cup finalist Arizona Sting initially announced a one-year suspension of operations, but their roster has disappeared in the dispersal draft, even Head Coach and General Manager Bob Hamley has left for a job on his pal Bob McMahon's Colorado Mammoth staff, and the franchise is now up for sale. The ownership group of the champion Rochester Knighthawks is in the throes of an acrimonious re-shuffling.
I wonder if the Boston owners and Head Coach Tom Ryan will be able to start over again and rebuild a team that never got to play a game. I think that the chances of the Arizona group getting anywhere remotely near their asking price, or even covering their operating debt, are squarely in the "zero-to-nil" range (think Syracuse Smash). How healthy can you portray your league to be when the champion team is mired in financial disarray and infighting? These situations debase the value, real or paper, of every NLL club, and I believe the owners can forget about $5 million expansion fees for several years.
There has been no announcement, 'labor certainty' notwithstanding, of any TV deal for this season.
Nevertheless, fewer teams, with enriched rosters, will mean better competition. John Tavares of the Buffalo Bandits is poised to break Gary Gait's goal-scoring record, quite likely in the midst of a season-opening home-and-home series with the Knighthawks. The incoming crop of rookies has blue-chippers as well as a sleeper or two. Seeing some live action may be a road-trip proposition, rather than an adjustment in television viewing routine, but that's not really such a bad thing. The loss of TV ad revenue and exposure, however, is a bad thing, and does nothing for the NLL's "brand".
OK, this is my Biblical reference for the season; it does, however, highlight the defining feature of the NLL West for 2008. The 2007 Champion's cup finalist Arizona Sting are, for all intents and purposes, no more. The decision to 'go dark', and subsequently put the franchise up for sale, will almost certainly mean the end of the NLL in Arizona.
The majority owner of the NHL Coyotes and, more importantly, the Glendale / Jobing.com Arena said, in announcing the sale, that he never set out to be in the pro lacrosse business when he bought controlling interest in 2006. This says to me that, all stated hopes that a new owner will keep the Sting in Arizona aside, it will not be a priority for the building owner to make dates available for lacrosse. With all the valuable player assets gone in the dispersal draft- who really believes that any "rent-a-player", starting with Dan Dawson, will be interested in returning from a comfortable new team to an uncertain future with a homeless franchise - what is left to sell, beyond the proverbial bag of balls? A new owner will never recover those most desirable players in an expansion draft, not to mention Head Coach and General Manager Bob Hamley, newly installed behind the Colorado bench.
The Portland Lumberjax are the winners of the Dan Dawson sweepstakes, and wasted no time getting his signature in a 2008 contract. Don't be at all surprised to see an announcement before the end of this season, that "Dangerous Dan" has signed a multi-year deal. Dawson, along with fellow former Sting-er Derek Malawsky and his 22.5 goals per season career average, will add much-needed punch to an offence in which only Ryan Powell scored more than 20 goals last season. Entry Draft wheeling and dealing brought veteran defenders Spencer Martin and Mike Kilby from Minnesota, while forward Kelly Hall went to the Swarm for two draft picks which yielded Cory Conway, and Peter Jacobs from Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, to go along with first-rounder Tyler Codron. The 'Jax also kept rookie Joel Weber as a third tender behind Dallas Eliuk and Matt King, bringing their total of entry draftees signed to the opening-day roster to four. Keep an eye on Jacobs; this young Mohawk left-hander can light it up. He lead the Akwesasne Jr. St. Regis Indians in goal-scoring this summer with 28, ahead of the more-heralded brothers Jeremy and Jerome Thompson, as the Indians made the OLA Jr. A post-season in their first season of operation. He is also currently on the roster of the U-19 Iroquois Nationals, whom he lead with 10 goals and 6 assists on their way to winning the Elite High School division title at the inaugural MadLax Capital Classic in Alexandria, VA last month. Keep an eye out for the "Lumberjack plaid hoser shirt" jerseys this season as well.
Edmonton Rush fans were treated last winter to some of the best home-game spectacles in the league, and a break-even season in Rexall Place. But just two road wins did not prove to be enough to secure a play-off berth in the West (though it got the Toronto Rock into the East post-season, albeit against Rochester). Veterans Chris Gill and Dan Stroup lead the offence last year, and they should get more help this from a healthy A.J. Shannon, and the newly-acquired Mike Accursi and Kyle Goundrey. The shift of the swift Jimmy Quinlan to transition, and the addition of young defenders Mike Grimes and Ian Hawksbee, strengthens the 'back door'. Matt Disher has come over from Minnesota to form a veteran tending tandem with Curtis Palidwor; "Dish" could prove even more valuable, should Palidwor run into a slump.
San Jose Stealth President / GM Johnny Mouradian set NLL seismographs off last season, engineering the trade that brought Colin Doyle from Toronto. This fall, Mouradian partnered with Steve Luzco and Bill and Denise Watkins to buy the club from the original ownership group. Steve Lukzo and Bill Watkins, Board Chairman and CEO, respectively, of high-tech firm Seagate Technology, took the company private in 2000; the new owners wasted little time in announcing plans to increase the team budget by 20%, primarily to finance TV game production, and cut ticket prices.
With the business side of the house in new order, Mouradian and Head Coach Walt Christiansen looked to the on-floor product, to build on last season's NLL West finals appearance. Entry draft first-rounder (fifth overall) Frank Resatarits of Hamburg, NY was half of the scoring one-two punch, with fellow first-rounder Merrick Thomson, last spring at U-Albany, and a first-team All American. Resatarits has an excellent background in the box game, having played from 2004 to 2006 with the OLA Jr. A St. Catharines Athletics, scoring 89 goals in those three regular seasons, including 43 in '06. The key to success, however, lies with 207 NLL Goaltender of the Year Anthony Cosmo, just signed December 18th. Though rumored to be "on the bubble" of the 23-man roster limit before Cos's return to the fold, former U-Mass star Sean Morris, reunited with pal and former team-mate Jeff Zywicki, could also make an impression if given an opportunity.
The Calgary Roughnecks have striven mightily to the repeat their 2004 Champion's Cup performance for the Saddledome faithful, but have come up short of a return to the final the last several seasons. Notwithstanding owner Brad Banister's ham-handed PR during the lock-out, the 'necks front office have been willing to make big changes, bringing in GM Kurt Silcott from Buffalo, and sacking founding Head Coach Chris Hall last winter after a string of mid-season losses. Silcott reached out through his Bandit roots to sign Troy Cordingley last summer to be the new Head Coach, then followed that move up to bring in Terry Sanderson. These two "dressing-room legends" will make for some lively pre-game and between-periods 'motivational chats'. The core of the offence has returned, augmented by rookie Dane Dobbie, an Elora, Ontario product (same hometown as Kasey Beirnes) who played for the BCLA perennial powerhouse Jr. A Burnaby Lakers. Another ex-Bandit, third-year attacker Jeff Shattler, is poised for a breakout NLL season, and multi-year Goaltender of the Year Steve "Chugger" Dietrich, as long as he stays healthy, will give the 'Riggers' the best backstopping since their championship season.
Even after more than a full season has passed, it seems strange to write about the Colorado Mammoth without mentioning Gary Gait. But the 'Tuskers' have been doing pretty well, even without their legendary leader. 2002 NLL Coach of the Year Bob McMahon is installed behind the bench now, joined recently by former Arizona honcho Bob Hamley. Though gunners like Dan Carey, Captain Gavin Prout and Brian Langtry, and goalie Gee Nash, might get more media attention, Colorado has assembled the best 'transition team' in the West, maybe even in the League, keyed by fleet former Princeton Tiger Josh Sims, the best athlete in either the NLL or the MLL. He was joined last season veteran by Jim "The Axe" Moss and rookie Nenad Gejac, making them the toughest transition as well. Last year's third-most productive offence with 209 regular-season goals, behind Rochester and Calgary, the Mammoth got 38, or 18%, from transition, as compared to 28% from their powerplay.
With the Arizona Sting out of the picture, the post-season game of musical chairs becomes a matter of which team, singular, is left without a seat. Everybody became stronger off of the dispersal, but if the Lumberjax fail to make the play-offs with Dan Dawson, they face some tough questions. I expect the Mammoth / Stealth home-and-home series to determine who finishes first, with Calgary and Portland settling third and fourth spots between them.
The NLL East did not escape lock-out impact, as the expansion Boston Blazers announced soon after the settlement of the new CBA that the team's debut would be postponed until 2009. All of the expansion- and entry-draft preparation, collegiate scouting, and team-building by Head Coach Tom Ryan became moot.
Had this decision, to take a full year/season after the awarding of the franchise to prepare a launch, been announced in circumstances other than post-lockout, say, immediately after the team-naming and before either draft, it could, and would, have been hailed as prudent management, a sound business decision. As things stand, all it has caused is speculation about whether the team will ever play a game.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Swarm are poised to become the success story of the year, and put Head Coach Duane "Dewey" Jacobs in the early running for NLL 2008 Coach of the Year honours. I'll explain why a little later.
The New York Titans put up some impressive offensive numbers, their 195 regular-season goals the fifth-best total in the league, in bringing NLL lacrosse back to the Big Apple, including four home games at Madison Square Garden. But the only NLL East rivals they could beat were the Toronto Rock, twice, and the Chicago Shamrox. They made their number-one entry draft pick pay off, grabbing Surrey, BC native and Delaware Blue Hen middie Jordan Hall, and signed two top free-agents, scorer Jeff Ratcliffe from the Wings and NLL career face-off leader Jamie Hanford from Colorado, as well as former Toronto-via-Boston D-man Patrick Merrill. Starting goalie Matt Vinc was not signed yet at the roster declaration deadline, making Erik Miller the starter-on-paper.
I had a chat this summer (before any news about dispersal drafts) with two-time Mann Cup-winning coach Jamie Batley of the Peterborough Lakers and Chicago Shamrox, who said that he hoped to strengthen his Second City squad with some free-agent singings. He did sign restricted free agent Kevin Fines from Toronto, and retained unrestricted FA's Rusty Kruger and Chris Panos, but otherwise did pretty well, grabbing two more "Boro' Boyz", forward Lindsay Plunkett and defender Scott Self, from Arizona. Starting tender Brandon Miller, who made me look good with an All Star '07 season, will again be backed up by Derek "D-Rock" Collins. Two youngsters to watch are Ottawa's Callum Crawford and Akwesasane's Andrew Lazore, both getting an full-season opportunity to show their goal-scoring stuff.
The Philadelphia Wings finished 2007 tied with the Toronto Rock at 6 - 10, but lost the play-off spot on the goal-differential tie-breaker. GM Lindsay Sanderson subsequently lost the head coaching gig, eventually to be replaced by ex-patriot Canadian Dave Huntley. The former Johns Hopkins Blue Jay and 2006 Team Canada assistant was also a team-mate of Wings co-owner Mike French on the 1978 Men's World Championship-winning Team Canada, and is co-founder, with Gary Gait, of the Lacrosse NDP. The Wings took veteran and former Goaltender of the Year Rob Blasdell in the Arizona dispersal, and signed entry draftees Merrick Thomson from Stoney Creek, Ontario (No. 2 overall from Albany) and Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan's David Mitchell (No. 25 from Cornell). They have big shoes to fill with the losses of shooters Jeff Ratcliffe and Sean Grenhalgh. Geoff Snider, feisty defender, loose-ball hawk and draw-man extraordinaire, re-signed after the roster deadline.
The Toronto Rock made the play-offs last season under rookie Head Coach Glenn Clark, only to be humbled (as was pretty much everyone else) by the Rochester Knighthawks in the first round of the play-offs. 2008 will be the final season in the pro indoor playing career of Captain Jim Veltman, and the Air Canada fanatics would like nothing better than a return to the Champion's Cup glory as a swansong for their beloved "Scoop". It is not to be.
Veteran and multiple-All Stars Cam Woods and Peter Lough, both NLL team captains in their own right, will shore up the defence, and Elora, Ontario's Kasey Beirnes is a solid offensive contributor whose career stats (1.7 goals and 3.27 points per game) compare favourably to the recently-retired Matt Shearer, and will share the right-handed side of the offensive load with Blaine Manning, providing some inside power to complement "scat-backs" like Josh Sanderson, Aaron Wilson and Ryan Benesch. Rookie Nathan Sanderson, a late cut by the Mammoth (and cousin of Josh), is a former OLA Jr. A scoring star for the Orangeville Northmen, and has the pedigree to show well.
The Minnesota Swarm, it says here, are poised to join the Knighthawks and the Bandits as a legitimate contender for the NLL East lead. This past winter and spring, I had the opportunity to watch first hand, the team-building finesse of Swarm Head Coach Duane "Dewey" Jacobs, as he shaped an Iroquois Nationals line-up that would scare the hell out of Coach Gary Gait and the NLL All Star side that was Team Canada, in the final of the 2007 World Indoor Lacrosse Championships in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Dewey was particularly adept at persuading several of his key younger players to "step outside their comfort zone" and accept the roles he assigned them. There was no better example of this than Cody Jamieson, scoring leader of the two-time national JuCo champions Onondaga Community College Lazers, and fresh from being awarded the national JuCo Athlete, not just Lacrosse Player, of the Year. "Jammer" happily contributed on defence and in transition, and took his scoring opportunities when they came. He and his Six Nations Arrows Jr. A team-mates would go on to win the 2007 Minto Cup.
The Swarm traded with Boston for the Arrows' Craig Point, another OCC Lazer and the Nationals' goal-scoring leader in Halifax, taken by the Blazers at No. 3 overall in the entry draft. They also drafted (in the second round) and signed Arrows defender Chris Courtney, and selected former Arrow Andy Secore from the Sting dispersal. With 2007 scoring leaders Ryan Ward, Sean Pollock, Dean Hill (with another strong showing for the Iroquois in Halifax) and Mike Hominuck all back, and the ddition of Point, I expect the Swarm goal production, in particular the power-play, to show a marked improvement. 2007 NLL Defender of the Year Ryan Cousins and starting tender Nick Patterson anchor the back side.
John Tavares would dearly like to win a Champion's Cup with the Buffalo Bandits before he retires, especially since he is a lock to break Gary Gait's career scoring record right at the start of the 2008 season. Tavares' remarkable productivity and consistency might flag just a bit some time after he breaks GG's record, but the Bandits are well-equipped for that possibility, with Kevin Dostie, Brett Bucktooth, Delby Powless, Roger Vyse, Cory bomberry, Dan Teat and Mark Steenhuis, and now former Wing Sean Greenhalgh has been added to the offensive mix. Akwesasne's Brandon Francis made a roster spot for himself with his box-lacrosse face-off skills, and the Bandits are also hoping that former Sting-er Craig Conn's knee comes around before the end of the season.
Mike Thompson emphatically established himself as the starter in goal last season, and Ken "Suitcase" Montour returns to the Bandits fold to provide back-up. The "D" is still formidable, even after the departure of Kyle Couling (enough that Troy Bonterre and Daryl Seymour were released).
What are GM Jody Gage and Head Coach Ed Comeau and the Rochester Knighthawks supposed to do for a Champion's Cup encore? Besides repeat, how about signing Shawn Williams to the first five-year contract in pro indoor history? Why not sign three rookies, 2007 OLA Jr. A All-Stars Matt Lyons and Matt McLeod of the Orangeville Northmen and Andrew Potter of the St. Catharines Athletics, while veterans Scott Evans and Bill Greer are still coming to formal terms? Oh, and don't forget a front-office ownership feud. It's almost (but not quite) enough to distract us from the fact that John Grant Jr. is the reigning pro indoor AND field MVP.
There are some big "If's" to the outcome in the NLL East this season:
If starting goaltenders, most notably Rochester's Pat O'Toole, can go injury-free;
If Sean Greenhalgh can mesh with the chemistry / alchemy that can be the Bandits offence;
If Craig Point and Andy Secore can pick up offensively in Minnesota where they left off in Halifax, with familiar faces like Dean Hill, Travis Hill and Chris Courtney, and Coach Jacobs, around them;
If the Toronto Rock can consolidate the tenure of Coach Glenn Clark with a return to contending form;
If Dave Huntley can lead the Wings back "out of the wilderness" to the NLL post-season.
Feel free to add to my list. I expect Rochester to dominate, with Buffalo and Minnesota doing their best to dethrone them, with Toronto and Philadelphia battling for the final play-off berth again.
December 26, 2007
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