After the Rochester Knighthawks lost to the Buffalo Bandits 12-8 in a back-and-forth affair on Saturday, Dec. 11, the team was ready to get back to work and rally as they looked ahead in their upcoming schedule. However, just days after a loss that taught them how close they are to being a top-team in the National Lacrosse League, the Knighthawks were hit with an unfortunate setback.
Just five days later, Knighthawks general manager Dan Carey announced that the team had to place goaltender Evan Kirk on the Holdout List for the remainder of the 2021-22 season.
Carey’s official statement read in part, “Evan, unfortunately, has a work commitment that will prevent him from competing with us for the remainder of the current season. We thank Evan for his contributions to the Knighthawks this season and hope to see him return to the organization at a time when he is able to do so.”
Kirk was a free agent pick-up for the Knighthawks on Sept. 1, 2021, as he was signed to a one-year contract for the 2021-22 campaign. When the news hit that Rochester had acquired the nine-year veteran and former NLL Goaltender of Year, it made waves across social platforms and people slowly began to realize just how good Rochester was going to be heading into its second season in the league.
It showed throughout preseason just how much of an impact Kirk would make on the team from their first practice on. Kirk addressed the team without warning at their first practice together and then remained a steady presence for the team in the crease. Whether he was starting in net or helping teach young goaltender Rylan Hartley what it takes to be in this league, everyone knew just how important Kirk was going to be for the Knighthawks this season.
All accolades aside, Kirk was already having a solid start to the 2021-22 campaign. In his two starts with the Knighthawks, Kirk was 1-1 while making 85 saves on 108 shots he faced in the crease. After the first week of play he ranked in the tops in the league in saves with his 43 stops against the New York Riptide.
The major difference with players in the NLL compared to those in the other four major sports is that players aren’t just players. They’re your everyday policemen, firefighters, accountants, teachers and more, and when duty calls, they sometimes are required to make difficult decisions to keep their dreams and their playing careers alive. Unfortunately, that’s what Kirk had to do, temporarily hanging up his pads to continue his pursuit of a career in law enforcement in the province of Ontario.
However, as one door closes, another always opens.
As the Knighthawks will most definitely miss Kirk and his guidance for the remainder of the 2021-22 campaign, it’s opened the door of opportunity for Hartley to come and make his mark.
Over the weeks of preseason and the first couple of weeks of regular season, Hartley had the chance to take in whatever Kirk was willing to share. And that was arguably the best part about Kirk being added to the Knighthawks roster. There was no true competition, only a want to help and to lead. Inevitably, Kirk knew his accolades would name him the starter for this Knighthawks roster, however, he still gave his time to teach Hartley, and practice squad goaltender Joel Watson, whatever they wanted because he was once in their shoes.
As Carey has admitted that the team will miss the intangibles that Kirk brought to the table, Hartley was more than ready to accept the new opportunity at hand.
“Just a great guy, a great leader, a good mentor,” said Carey on the character of Kirk. “There were a lot of intangibles that ‘Kirky’ was bringing to our team. It was definitely a bit of a shock to everybody, but it wasn’t to the point where we were hanging our heads and feeling sorry for ourselves.”
Carey then went on to add, “We knew that Rylan Hartley was ready for that opportunity and was wanting to take advantage and step up.”
In Rochester’s first game without its star netminder, they notched a 17-6 win over the Albany FireWolves.
For the third straight week, forward Holden Cattoni paved the way for the offense with a team-high nine-point effort with four goals and five assists, while rookie forwards Ryan Smith and Charlie Bertrand each notched a hat trick and turned in two assists. However, six more goal-scorers went on to find the scoresheet last Saturday and Carey knew it was just a matter of time before the Knighthawks offense would begin to find a groove.
“Our offense played really well as a unit. Overall, it was great and there’s still some things that we can clean up, however, we knew that this was coming and that there was going to be a point where our offense just clicked.”
Along with the powerful offensive output that the Knighthawks put up against Albany, their defense and goaltending didn’t seem to miss a beat. As Hartley got his first start of the 2021-22 campaign, he made 27 saves on 31 shots and notched his first win of the season and first since Feb. 29, 2020 against the Riptide. After a little bit of a debacle on the floor, Hartley’s ejection early in the fourth quarter opened the door for Watson to make his pro debut, getting 11:54 of action and making eight saves on 11 shots in relief effort.
In the grand scheme of things, Hartley played 48:06 in his first start of the 2021-22 season and only allowed four goals slip past him against a team that defeated the Knighthawks during the preseason a few weeks earlier.
It’s certainly fair to say that Hartley, along with the rest of the Knighthawks squad, is ready for him to step up and make a name for himself in this league. In fact, Hartley’s own team may be just as excited as he is for this newfound opportunity.
“He’s one of those guys that if you know him then you root for him. He’s just a positive and happy guy that works his butt off, he’s got so much energy and it’s contagious to see how much fun he has. He takes a bunch of shots in practice, he’s bouncing around the locker room and he’s just so fun to be around.”
Carey then finished by saying, “I think that’s easy for our guys to rally around, to know there’s a guy that deserves an opportunity and it’s somebody that they want to see have team success and personal success as well.”