By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
In case you missed it – and it was easy to miss – the Saskatchewan Rush once again are the champions of the National Lacrosse League.
The Rush defeated the Rochester Knighthawks, 15-10, Saturday night, to take the best-of-three series by two games to one. It’s the third championship for the team in four years, and it lost in the finals in the fourth year (Georgia, last year). What’s more, Saskatchewan – then known as Edmonton – lost only two regular-season games in 2014. So the Rush could have won five in a row with a little luck.
It was an entertaining deciding game. The Knighthawks scored twice early in the fourth quarter to narrow the Rush lead to 11-10, but Saskatchewan then got the next four goals to wrap it up. Jeff Shattler had four goals for the Rush to wrap up MVP honors, while Mark Matthews had a quiet eight assists if that’s possible. Evan Kirk outplayed Matt Vinc in goal when it mattered most, and it is hard to say how many neutral observers saw that coming.
The result on Saturday meant that the Edmonton/Saskatchewan franchise and Rochester both have three titles in this decade. A year from now, we’ll all have to hand out the “team of the decade” label that comes with the territory.
The end of another season is usually routine at this point in the NLL, but this ending does feel a little different. This summer, the league will be headed in a new direction – putting even more of its past in the rear view mirror in an attempt to change its fortunes from a sideways or down arrow to an up arrow.
The league has been stuck at nine teams since 2012, and by most standards it has an odd collection of cities. The list includes Buffalo, Rochester, Toronto, Uncasville (Conn.), Atlanta, Saskatoon, Calgary, Denver and Vancouver. That’s four Canadian markets and five in the U.S., which is a good way to be ignored by American television outlets. That’s part of the reason why I had to watch the championship finale on a tablet via Twitter starting at 9:30 p.m. Eastern. (For some reason, my smart TV refused to show me the Twitter feed of the game on the big screen.) Nothing against the conference champions’ play this year, but it’s tough to picture a matchup between Saskatoon and Rochester making hearts race in advertising agencies in New York.
Nick Sakiewicz was hired as Commissioner to do something about that, and we will see the first big steps arrive this fall when Philadelphia and San Diego arrive in the league. Both have great ownership, and the cities will improve the American marketing footprint. Still, there’s some risk involved here, mostly with the San Diego franchise. The Seals are not playing in a city with a strong lacrosse background, and they are geographically isolated from the rest of the league. The team apparently will receive plenty of marketing muscle, and there’s little competition for the sports dollar in the immediate San Diego area during the winter. But the lack of lacrosse tradition in that part of the world is troubling.
I also get the impression that the league isn’t exactly embracing a sports tradition that goes back more than 30 years. That can mean anything from a new trophy for the league champion to the lack of updates on the league website’s history page past the end of 2016. (I’d complain about the lack of information about roster moves from day-to-day, but that’s been an issue for a long time.) This approach may appeal to younger fans who are merely looking for an exciting night out on the weekend. But I’m a big believer that history helps gives sporting events a context that supplies meaning and emotion. If you don’t believe that, consider the reaction of the Washington Capitals’ fans to their first championship in 44 years of operation.
Expansion also will shake up the status quo among the teams of the NLL. The league only has had room for something close to 200 players for the past several years. With the addition of two teams, we can add more than 40 to that total. I’m not sure we’ll notice much of a difference in the quality of play, but the good players will be a little better compared to the new “average” player. That could mean some records will be in jeopardy.
In addition, all of the existing teams are going to lose a couple of players in the expansion draft. Unrestricted free agents will have two more options when it comes to signing with a team in the offseason, and those teams will be starting at zero in terms of salary caps. The process didn’t affect many rosters when the NHL went from 30 to 31 teams last season, but a jump from nine to 11 teams might be significant. We’ll have to see what it all looks like when training camps open, but next season certainly has a chance to be unpredictable.
That’s certainly the case in Buffalo, where we still wait for a decision to be reached on the fate of the team’s management and its roster. We still don’t know if general manager Steve Dietrich and coach Troy Cordingley will be back. Any group of executives running the Bandits will have decisions to make this year. Does Mark Steenhuis come back next year? Is Mitch Jones a candidate to head West for personal reasons? Who will be lost in the expansion draft? To that last point, Vaughn Harris, Craig England (who has an injury asterisk attached) and Zach Higgins seem like good possibilities – unless the expansion teams go for kids.
That adds up to a lot of page-turning by the league as whole and its teams. For the first time in a while, the National Lacrosse League has a chance to make some progress on the U.S./Canadian sports scene. It’s never going to be in the Big Four (MLB/NFL/NBA/NHL), but it heads into the future now hoping to find a bigger niche with the public. It will be fun to check back in a year and see how well it did.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB.)
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