It’s hard to believe that the team that just won the NLL Cup with an MVP-worthy candidate Dane Dobbie, one of the best goaltenders in the league in Christian Del Bianco, and a host of many other uber-talented players and coaches could have experienced much adversity. The Calgary Roughnecks that just reached the pinnacle of the sport are far from the team they were at the beginning of the season.
Before the season began, defensemen Curtis Manning was still recovering from an injury, forward Jesse King went down with an injury, and forwards Curtis Dickson and Wes Berg were still negotiating their contracts – not to mention losing defenseman Tyson Bell early in the year. Both sides of the ball were heavily restricted because of the immense talent that was missing, but this collective unit that is the Roughnecks had no quit.
Whether it was the veteran staples, the young guns or the newcomers, everyone who was able to suit up for the start of the season knew there were big shoes to fill according to veteran Rhys Duch.
“When you’re missing key parts of your team, everyone has to step up and play a bigger role,” said Rhys Duch. “We have young guys that played like veterans, and we have a good veteran core as our leadership group.”
“All of us came together, and I think it was that adversity that brought us together.”
It’s a lot to ask of young and/or less experienced players to step on the floor in replacement of reliably-gifted, battle-tested players. Equally, it’s a lot to ask of core veteran players to log even more minutes or player harder and smarter than they already were to make up for the absences. But when adversity struck, the focused, “never quit on the guy beside you” mentality that was instilled by head coach Curt Malawsky, and his assistant coaches Rob Williams and Bob McMahon kicked in, and that allowed all of the players to grow on the floor as the season progressed.
In some cases, had it not been for the injuries and absences, a few of these players probably wouldn’t have gotten the amount of playing time that they did. In retrospect, enabling players to take advantage of those opportunities gave the Roughnecks tremendous depth once the likes of Dickson, King, Bell and Manning returned.
Malawsky and the staff knew they had to rely on the available roster to pull this team through a tricky time. Looking back, Malawsky understands how vital it was to give some of those guys such great responsibility early on.
“We were in a tough spot early in the year,” said Malawsky. I think what [missing those players] did was it tested us to battle adversity right from the gate. I really think that brought the boys together and taught them how to work together. When guys had to work through tough situations down the stretch – to make the playoffs, then through each round of the playoffs and to through the championship – it made an impact when the chips were down.”
Led by their captain Dan MacRae, the old-look Roughnecks jumped out to an impressive 3-1 start to the 2019 season because of the complete team effort, and the outstanding play of Dobbie.
Unfortunately, even with Dickson returning to the lineup by the end of that streak, the Roughnecks cooled off, then levelled out on a mid-season stretch where they went 3-8 beginning with a three-game losing streak. However, the mental fortitude of this club didn’t allow for this season to unravel completely according to Malawsky.
“When you lose a couple, you can deviate from your plan,” said Malawsky. “Maybe sometimes you can panic and start looking at the standings. Kudos to the assistant coaches and GM Mike Board. We stuck to what we believed in, and it was a recipe for success with our group.”
As the season wound down and the Roughnecks were hoping to clinch a playoff spot instead of the lurking Colorado Mammoth, King returned to the lineup, and at that point, all the pieces began to click.
Whether it was gritty defence from guys such as Greg Harnett or Mitch Wilde, or the tenacious ball-scooping ability and skills of Zach Currier or the offensive support of players like Riley Loewen, various Roughnecks up and down the roster were picking up the pieces for their teammates and helping each other out to achieve the collective goal: to win an NLL Cup.
To win an NLL Cup, the entire organization has to have the same mindset, the same attitude and the same passion. As the year wore on, all of those qualities sunk in deeper with this club. GM Board may have the title suggests that he makes key roster decisions that bring guys like that in who can breed success together, but he’ll be the first one to tell you it’s a collective effort.
“We all work together on these kinds of things,” said Board. “It’s always a group effort to make decisions. We’re confident about the decisions we’re going to make because we make them together.”
Before offseason acquisitions were made, Board, the coaching staff and players were part of discussions in regard to bringing players on to join the team. With everyone on board for who would click with the core in place, the recipe for success was there. Del Bianco knows that it was more than just the connectivity of the players on the floor that allowed this team to mesh with such success.
“There’s not enough you can say about the characters we have in that dressing room,” said Del Bianco. “Even with the different personalities, it all clicked. We were like a giant family.”
Having won the NLL Cup with that particular group of players and staff, the Roughnecks will, unfortunately, have to adapt to the ever-changing rosters with expansion continuing this offseason. Between letting players go into the expansion draft, free agency and potential trade opportunities, keeping this group as intact as possible will be urgent to continue the success of this club.
Furthermore, with the target now on their backs as champions of the NLL, King understands they’ll be added pressure to perform and turn that effort into wins.
“Knowing that we just reached the ultimate goal, there’s now that expectation that we do the same in the following years,” said King. “Being able to set that expectation with new guys coming in [next year] is going to be something that’s very important for us.”
Whatever happens over the summer and into the fall before the 2020 NLL Season, this Roughnecks team is going to cherish this winning moment for as long as they can. For this family that faced a handful of significant obstacles, this victory tastes sweeter than an ordinary championship win.