After the first two weeks of the 2021-22 National Lacrosse League season had unfolded, the Rochester Knighthawks weren’t in a bad spot. The Knighthawks were 1-1 to begin the season, and their first loss on the year was a closely contended game to arguably the best team in the league in the Buffalo Bandits.
What would come next for the Knighthawks, though, was a little unexpected.
Just two weeks into a very promising start to the season, veteran goaltender Evan Kirk was placed on the holdout list for the remainder of the 2021-22 campaign. A free agency pick-up for the Knighthawks in September that made waves across social platforms was now gone in the blink of an eye.
As discouraging as the move seemed in the moment, Kirk remains on the roster and is committed to stay with the team next season, however, it created a grand opportunity for young goaltender Rylan Hartley to step up.
“He was happy for me to get this opportunity and he said, ‘Basically take this opportunity and run with it and do all you can,’ and that’s exactly what I keep trying to do,” Hartley mentioned when asked how he and Kirk have communicated as the season has progressed.
Days after the Kirk announcement, the Knighthawks were back in action against the Albany FireWolves and Hartley was set to make his first start of the year and first since the 2019-20 season.
Originally drafted by the San Diego Seals in the second round (15th overall) of the 2018 NLL Entry Draft, Hartley opted to continue his junior career with the Junior “A” Orangeville Northmen in 2018 and 2019 before hitting the pros. In the summer of 2019, Hartley was selected by Rochester in the third round of the 2019 NLL Expansion Draft and re-signed a one-year contract for the 2021-22 season with the Knighthawks on June 9, 2021.
In his first full season in the NLL in 2019-20, Hartley was in the mix with two other goaltenders fighting for a starting spot in Steve Fryer and Craig Wende. Each split equal time in the crease, with Hartley appearing in five games while sporting a 1-3 record and a 14.7 goals-against average. Never in his pro career was Hartley dubbed the starter for his team until that very moment that Kirk was inevitably placed on the holdout list.
To no surprise, Hartley has delivered despite the Knighthawks current 3-5 record.
While getting his first start of the 2021-22 campaign against Albany back on Dec. 18, Hartley made 32 saves on 36 shots to notch his first win of the season and first since Feb. 29, 2020. After a little bit of a debacle on the floor, Hartley’s ejection early in the fourth quarter opened the door for fellow netminder Joel Watson to make his pro debut, getting 11:54 of action and making 10 saves on 13 shots in the relief effort.
Despite it being the first game that Hartley was 100% the go-to guy in the crease, there were no nerves from the young netminder because of who he still had in his corner.
“I was actually really excited. Before that game ‘Kirky’ messaged me and I talked with him.”
Hartley then went on to add, “He gave me a heads up as to what was going on. Throughout the beginning of training camp, just talking to him, he showed me so many different things of how to go about the game, what to watch for and some film.”
In the grand scheme of things, Hartley played 48:06 in his first start of the year and allowed only four goals slip past him against a team that defeated Rochester during the preseason a few weeks earlier. Despite the victory in Hartley’s first start of the year, the texts and the clips from Kirk never stopped and Hartley still receives messages from the veteran after every game.
“Still now, ‘Kirky’ is sending me clips and he’s still texting me and giving me his advice with his years of experience. Going into the game I was ready for it. I was excited and I know that he was excited for me.”
From that first start on, Hartley has been a steady presence for Rochester, keeping them in every single game with extremely close score lines. As Hartley has racked up another win since that first game, he’s went on to log 329:17 in the crease, a 2-4 record all the while making 237 saves in his seven appearances.
It doesn’t go unnoticed to Hartley that Kirk doesn’t have to continue to help him after each and every game, however, the young goaltender knows just how special it is to receive those messages to have the feeling that Kirk is still right there on the bench helping guide this Knighthawks roster.
“He texts me immediately after the games. That’s a big veteran and he’s already on there letting me know what he’s seen or what I should be looking for. He’s always letting me know that he’s happy for me with seeing how it’s going and how I can improve.”
Hartley then finished with, “To see his name on my phone after a game, he’s still on this team even though he’s not on the bench. Evan Kirk is still on this team and is a Rochester Knighthawk.”