The hours spent toiling in home gyms and running down city streets will finally pay off when the Rochester Knighthawks return to action in just under 10 months.
From Peterborough, Ont., to Port Coquitlam, BC, the players reacted with shared enthusiasm after receiving the news they had been waiting for. On Thursday, the National Lacrosse League announced that the 2021-22 season will face off the weekend of December 3-4.
“I’m extremely excited after the league announcement,” said Knighthawks alternate captain Shawn Evans. “We have been away from the sport we love for far too long. I can’t wait to get back with my teammates and the fans, who have suffered just as much. You might want to circle the December 3-4 weekend as you will be in for a treat. The NLL is back!”
The Knighthawks will embark on their second season after their inaugural campaign was cut short because of COVID-19. The pandemic also ended a memorable season for goalie Craig Wende. The netminder waited 23 years to start his first NLL game and earn his first professional win. The time off has been anything but a break for Wende, who built a home gym to stay in shape.
“Finding out that there’s a start date is super exciting,” said Wende. “After having the NLL shut down over a year ago, to see a date in place gives me hope to be back in Rochester playing in front of our amazing fans! The work myself and others have been putting in won’t stop as we get closer to December.”
Fellow alternate captain Curtis Knight echoed that statement. Knight returns to the team after finishing second on the Knighthawks in goals (15), assists (31) and points (46).
“It will mean a lot to get back on the floor,” he said. “It’s something we’ve all put so much time and effort into over the years. To finally get back to a game we’re passionate about will feel good. I’m most looking forward to seeing the guys again and just being in that competitive atmosphere. December can’t come soon enough.”
The last time the Knighthawks were in action was during the longest road trip of the season in early March. Rochester traveled to play back-to-back games in San Diego and Colorado. That four-day trek would be the final time the entire team would be together.
“We played our last game together as a team just over a year ago,” said Turner Evans. “A lot of things have changed since that game, and I know our group is chomping at the bit to get back on the floor and light up Blue Cross Arena in 2021-22.”
Evans, who enters his fifth season in the NLL, spends two days a week in the gym working out with teammates Holden Cattoni and Thomas Hoggarth. He supplements his lifting days by getting in cardio work in his hometown of Peterborough.
WATCH: GM DAN CAREY ON THE RETURN OF THE NLL IN 2021-22
“Guys across the league have been putting in the work and time to train during this extended offseason,” said Evans. “I know on opening weekend there is going to be some fast-paced and electric lacrosse. I haven’t gone a full year without playing a competitive game of lacrosse since I was probably 5 years old. So, to say I was excited about the announcement would be an absolute understatement.”
On the west coast, second-year defenseman Ryland Rees has remained laser-focused on making a return to lacrosse.
“Finally hearing a start date for the upcoming NLL season was the best news I have heard in a really long time,” he said. “To put on the Rochester jersey, play in front of the fans, and be able to compete at the highest box lacrosse level again is something I have been waiting for since this pandemic started.
“I have been training at my home gym and my local recreation center since the season was canceled, hoping it would start up again. Playing in both the NLL and the PLL (Premier Lacrosse League), there is no offseason where I can stop training. I am constantly pushing myself to be the best lacrosse player, teammate, and athlete I can be to benefit the team to the best of my ability.”
Rees took the NLL by storm in his first season, recording 11 points (4+7) while being one of just four Knighthawks rookies to appear in all 12 games during Rochester’s inaugural campaign. Rees was rewarded with NLL All-Rookie Team honors and recognition as the Knighthawks Defensive MVP.
One of his mentors was team captain Paul Dawson, who will return for his 15th NLL season. He has experienced almost everything you can in a professional career, including winning back-to-back championships. However, the pandemic created a new set of circumstances for everyone in pro sports, including Dawson.
“I don’t think anyone in any league has had almost a two-year layoff,” he said. “It is definitely unique, to say the least.”
Dawson has remained motivated over the past 12 months, changing his workouts to mirror more of an in-season mode than his usual offseason routine, so he is ready to peak in time for training camp. With a date now set for opening weekend, Dawson said Opening Night will be one for the ages.
“It is going to be amazing. Watching sports is a release for people,” he said. “It’s a chance to leave the real world behind and go enjoy yourself for a couple of hours and watch the sport you love. I can just imagine the energy and emotion that is going to fill the arena that weekend.”
Rochester’s team on the floor during the 2021-22 campaign will have many new faces, as Knighthawks general manager Dan Carey made significant moves since the team last played. He acquired forwards Thomas Hoggarth and Jeff Wittig, and defensemen John Wagner and Matt Gilray.
The Knighthawks also signed NLL veteran defenseman and Penn Yan, NY, native Mike Manley. Rochester then selected high-scoring forward Ryan Smith with the third-overall pick in the 2020 NLL Entry Draft to top it all off. There is certainly a lot to be excited about in Rochester.
“The new additions have strengthened our roster,” said Carey. “There is a lot of excitement from our staff as well as players to see how they are going to impact our team. We didn’t just add depth to our roster; we added high-quality talent that will make our team better.”