The Edmonton Oilers in the 1980’s, the Bulls in the 1990’s, the New York Yankees in the 1990’s, The New England Patriots since the early 2000’s, the Toronto Rock at the turn of the millennia, and the Edmonton/Saskatchewan Rush over the last five seasons.
What do these teams have in common?
They were all dynasties in their respective sports that not only demolished the rest of their divisions and the league for longer than four seasons, they ultimately transformed the way the game was played, the way teams were built, and the way that fans perceived the sport.
In the NLL, Les Bartley’s Rock squads from 1999-2003 and Derek Keenan’s Rush squad from 2014-present have not only won their division in at least five consecutive seasons, they also represented their respected conferences in the NLL Finals – not the 2014 Rush – each year, winning the majority of the time they made it to Champion’s Cup. Their continued success in their time makes them the most legitimate dynasties in the league.
It would be hard to find a player on Les’ teams during that stretch that wouldn’t tell you how he revolutionized the game of box lacrosse. Dan Ladouceur was part of the Toronto Rock during the team’s remarkable stretch including after Bartley stepped down after the 2003 Champion’s Cup and the club went on to win a fifth Champions over seven years in 2005. He recalls the impact Les’ coaching adjustments made on the upstart club.
“Back then, we were on the cutting edge of things,” Ladouceur said. “We were probably one of the only teams to do video regularly every week. The coaching was great. But the biggest thing was keeping that core group of guys that Les Bartley and company kept together. Having that closeness lends itself to success year after year.”
No matter which sports dynasty you look at throughout history, there was always a core of talented players who had a tremendous comradery. Putting skills aside, which is hard to do when discussing dynasties, having a bond with guys who each player is familiar with year after year no doubtably raises that team’s level of play and thus begets further success, as shown with both the Rock and Rush.
“I always said that, in our days in Toronto,” Ladouceur remarked. “When we had to go to after parties or sign autographs for fans, it didn’t matter who you left the locker room with. It wasn’t like you’re waiting for a buddy; whoever you walked out with was your chum for the night. The next guy was just as comfortable with the guy beside him.”
That special bond those Rock players formed over the years that helped lead them to five straight division titles and four NLL Champion’s Cups from 1999-2003.
It would have been hard to conceive in the aftermath of that run – and their extended run until 2005 – that any team could replicate what the Rock did in that span. Yet, Derek Keenan, who was a player, assistant coach, and for a brief time in 2004, the head coach of those Rock teams, has been able to reconstruct many of the critical aspects of what they had in Toronto and has been able to reach similar, if not more impressive, heights.
Since 2014, the Rush have won the Western Division title, and since 2015, the Rush have represented the Western Conference In the Champion’s Cup.
Keenan, who has played the role of GM and head coach since joining the Rush in 2009, has found a way to bring in players who are not only extraordinary talents but men who also formed tight-knit friendships as the Rock had.
“To be honest,” the Rush’s Ben McIntosh said. “This is one of the closest teams off the floor I’ve ever been a part of, and that’s having played [competitive] sports 26 years. This team is our family. Anyone would take a bullet for the other guy, and no one on the team is selfish. Everyone has one goal in mind: to win.”
Winning has been the product of Keenan and his staff’s implementations on and off the turf over the course of the last five seasons, but wins haven’t always brought a championship to the Rush.
“I think this time with the Rush has been really special because of the way we built it,” Keenan stated. “I look at a year like 2014 where we didn’t win, and we didn’t even make the final. But, you can still go, ‘that was a really good team.’ But that’s what can happen. That might have been – aside from not having Ben McIntosh – that might have been our best team.”
Out of all that his former teams in Edmonton/Saskatchewan have accomplished, however, Keenan held most of his praise for the 2018 Rush.
“This year, what I’m really proud of is how our guys rebounded,” Keenan said. They focused from the very beginning of training camp til’ the very end on what the goal was. There was very little wavering of what it was. Let’s face it; we were the most consistent team all year, we never last a game in our division. We were pretty dialled in. This was a special year because it was pretty much the same team, with a few tweaks, but it was basically the same guys who suffered that defeat to Georgia [Swarm], and they were focused.”
Ladouceur shared similar sentiments of the Rock after they were denied a three-peat for the first time, yet came back more poised than ever to reclaim the champion’s Cup.
“When we lost after falling short of the three-peat, and you find yourself back,” Ladouceur said. “It’s so similar to what Saskatchewan did this year. To be able to recover from that, learn the lessons from that. Sometimes you lose, or you win two and the third [time] you might start to take things for granted. So, to be able to come back and go, ‘ you know what, let’s go back to what we did do to have success.’ I think that’s when we knew this group is special.”
There’s no denying that the world is watching the next special NLL team write their names in the history books. The questions are: how long can the Rush keep this going? And, will they surpass the Rock as the greatest NLL dynasty of all-time?
“We’re a pretty young squad,” Rush forward Robert Church said of how long this winning culture can last. “We’re built for success for at least the next couple of years. Everyone is still motivated. No one is content with what we’ve done. Everyone is ready to win hopefully three more and not take four years this time.”
Only time will tell if the Rush can go on to win four titles in five years or five titles in seven years or do even better than that. What can be said, is that this Rush team is proving that the intangibles are as much of reason for the team’s success as anything else. As long as they continue to play for each other with the mastery they have since 2014, there is no doubt that this club could become the supreme NLL dynasty.