Establishing a winning culture within an expansion franchise is a slow and steady process. And while the new Rochester Knighthawks may not win the race to the NLL Cup in their first NLL season, the team’s patient approach of improving game-by-game could still bring their city, one with a rich lacrosse history, a championship in the coming years.
An 0-3 start to the 2020 NLL campaign is not what GM Dan Carey and the Knighthawks would have hoped for from their newly constructed team. But as Ryland Rees, the second-overall pick in the NLL Draft explained, building a connection with teammates and the city is a top priority, and developing that chemistry could then beget wins.
“It’s more than just creating a winning culture in our dressing room, but it’s about creating a winning culture in that community in Rochester,” Rees said. “That’s something that we’ve been working on: creating a tight-knit family in that dressing room. The more that we do that, the fans will keep rolling out, and the championships will start rolling in.”
As an expansion team, there are bound to be more difficulties for younger or less experienced players to adjust to the NLL game. When you look at the Knighthawks roster, of all the guys that have stepped on the floor this season, 11 players have less than five seasons of experience – most of which on the back-end or transition players.
That provides many teaching opportunities for seasoned-veterans like Shawn Evans, Pat Saunders, Dylan Evans or Paul Dawson. Rees has been one of the many up-and-comers that have praised the Knighthawks vets. But, as one of those veterans can attest to, mainly because he’s been on Champion’s Cup-winning teams in the past, he knows that establishing the team’s identity needs to happen before a consistent game plan is put into place.
“It’s important to establish what this team and what this organization is going to be,” Dawson said. “In the first year, you’re trying to establish a culture, what kind of players you want, what kind of organization you want, and that’s what we’re focusing on now.”
Even with the struggle to put a W in the win column, Head Coach Mike Hasen has not seen his players waver in practice since the day the team came together in training camp.
“We’ve got such a good young core that is trying to make a name for themselves,” Hasen said. “There’s no quit in practices; we’re going 100 MPH every practice. It’s going to take a little time, but things are starting to come together.”
Seeing a high-level of effort in practice is encouraging to see whether you’re a fan or a player. What’s even more important is that what’s being worked on in practice is beginning to be executed on the floor in real-game situations.
“There’s a little bit more confidence in everyone’s game, and I think it’s been showing on the floor,” Hasen said. “Our compete level has been good, the last two weeks, especially the past two weeks. We’re still having breakdowns, but they’re not as bad as they were the first week. We have moments – three- or four-minute spans – where we’re not playing our best. It’s a learning curve for us.”
Dawson, who has been with teams that have struggled as well as teams that have reached the pinnacle of the sport, is happy that the young core adjusted following a disappointing 14-4 loss to the Georgia Swarm.
“We know that there’s going to be bumps along the road, and that first game was a wake-up call,” Dawson said. “But then, if you look at the last two games, that’s more of where we are.”
The players and staff can stick to their script and say that things will eventually come together, and the reality is it’s true.
However, for fans in Rochester who are in the peculiar situation of seeing their beloved franchise that brought three consecutive championships to town leave for Halifax only to see this team come in to fill their shoes, those who know what it felt like to win so often will only take losing for so long.
That is, unless the new Knighthawks continue to put an improved product on the floor week in, week out, showing all of their fans that they won’t quit or take their foot off the pedal even when the wins aren’t coming.
“We try and preach some patience,” Dawson said. “We want to put a good product on the floor and I always tell fans we’re going to be competitive – I think we’ve shown that the last two games. [Winning often] might not happen right away, but we’re going to put a good hungry team out there.
With this team, there will continue to be growing pains, both metaphoric and physical, but from the top down, this organization understands that they are in this experience for the long haul. Champions aren’t born overnight, even the best of them. Coach Hasen and his staff have a long-term strategy in place, and we should see as the year(s) go on.
“We’re taking these 18 regular-season games as 18 lessons,” Hasen said. “As long as there’s an improvement each and every game, which we have had through the first three games – guys are buying in and believing; we know things will turn around here for us.”
If everything goes according to plan, this roster will have a wise group of decorated men that will be able to teach the next generation of Knighthawks what it takes to be a thoughtful successful team in the NLL.