Ten years after playing his final game for the Rochester Knighthawks, Casey Zaph will return to Connors & Ferris Field at The Blue Cross Arena. On Saturday, Feb. 28, the Knighthawks will honor “Zapher” by enshrining him into the team’s Hall of Fame.
“I wasn’t sure it would ever happen because it has been 10 years,” said Zaph, who will become the Hall of Fame’s 13th member. “I really appreciate the fact that the team is recognizing me.”
Zaph earned a reputation as a hard-nosed, no-nonsense defender for some of the legendary Knighthawks teams of the last decade. For six seasons (2000-05), he patrolled the back end and helped Rochester advance to two NLL Championship Games. His tenacity and dedication to the team earned him an Unsung Hero Award and selection to the Knighthawks’ 10th Anniversary Team. In 79 games, he notched 66 points and 377 ground balls, and still ranks in the Top 10 in team history in penalty minutes.
Although compiling impressive numbers during his days in Rochester, Zaph said it was the fans he cherished the most about being a Knighthawk.
“My best memories are of meeting the (Knighthawks) Krew at Training Camp. ‘Knabber’ (Tim Knab) came up to me and had 10 people around me and they knew all about me,” said Zaph. “These guys do their research – it’s not just a fan club. They knew where I played and my stats in the summertime. They really welcomed me to the team. The cool part about Rochester is you go there and it’s just one big family.”
Knab’s favorite story goes back to the 2007 season and the Knighthawks Championship Game Viewing Party at Water Street Music Hall. Casey’s father, Neil, called Tim and asked if Casey could come to Rochester to watch the game against the Arizona Sting with the fans.
“That exemplifies Casey and the Zaph family as a whole. From Casey and (his wife) Sandi, to their kids, to his parents Neil and Patti, they love this team whether he is playing on the field or watching his team battle. He wanted to be among the fans of the Rochester Knighthawks and among his friends and his fans.”
Casey was a fan favorite from the moment he arrived in Rochester prior to the start of the 2000 season.
“Zapher was always the one who seemed to find that spark when the team needed one, and noticed when the game wasn’t going according to plan. That’s when he would take control,” said Knab. “It wasn’t always with a huge hit or stripping the ball away and scoring, but in ways we fans never saw. There are plenty of stories around the locker room about how No. 27 was not afraid to let anyone know how important this game was to him, and how it should be played.”
The team Zaph joined was fresh off an appearance in the 1999 NLL Championship Game, which was their third appearance in five seasons. It was a roster that included future Hall of Famers Duane Jacobs, Tim Soudan, Jeremy Hollenbeck, Randy Mearns, Mike Hasen, Pat O’Toole, Regy Thorpe, Pat Cougevan and a rookie named John Grant Jr.
“The guys we had there were ‘Dewey’, ‘Soudo’, Regy and John Grant. It was pretty amazing to play with those guys,” said Zaph. “For me it was Hasen. He was my future captain in Brampton where I won the Mann Cup. I basically followed him to Brampton. We became really good friends as well. Then there was (Head Coach) Paul Day. I played against him one summer, and he became my coach after that.”
Zaph was a memorable player early in his lacrosse career. Day, who now works as an assistant coach for Rochester, recalled one of his first encounters with the tenacious defender.
“The first time I remember Zapher was my last year playing senior. He was playing for Peterborough and I was playing for Niagara Falls,” said Day. “He started playing with Accursi, ‘Toller’ (Steve Toll) and those guys. I remember him going for a loose ball and he was just fast and physical. He got drafted by Buffalo that year in the first round. A year later, we got him in Rochester. He was one of our key guys. He played hard and he hit hard. He did whatever it took to win.”
With the Knighthawks, Zaph quickly established himself as one of the toughest defensemen in the NLL. Just ask 17-year pro Mike Accursi, who played alongside, but mostly against, No. 27.
“The thing I remember the most about when I played against him was that he was a fierce competitor. He was as mean as anyone I have ever played against,” said Accursi. “He was one of those guys you hated playing against. He would never stop. He was always going 110 mph. He would let you know every time he knocked you on the ground how it felt down there. He was not a fun guy to play against.
“He’s a guy you hated playing against, but a guy you loved playing with,” added Accursi. “Casey was a great team guy. He always came in great shape. He would fight for anybody and do anything for anybody. I think that’s just the way he lives his life. He’s a great family man and a great guy, but a fierce competitor. He was just a great teammate.”
It was during his days in Rochester that Casey built his family, as he and his wife raised Charlie and Maggie. Zaph, who still teaches and coaches at Humberside Collegiate Institute in Toronto, found a friend in fellow defenseman Mike Hasen during the road trips to Rochester. The two young fathers shared stories of lacrosse and parenthood.
“We drove together every single practice and on the weekends,” said Hasen, who now serves as Knighthawks head coach. “We shared a lot of stories. Our families kind of grew up together during that time. We would get together away from the rink every so often as well. He was good teammate, but also was a very good friend.”
On February 28th, Casey and Mike will share more stories as they celebrate Zaph’s induction into the Knighthawks’ Hall of Fame. Casey will also share another special milestone in his life that night with the fans and his former teammates.
“I turn 40 years old the day before,” he said. “How is that for a birthday present?”
The weekend is befitting of Zaph, who put his body on the line each and every night for the team.
“If anybody deserves it, it’s Casey,” said Day. “He could play in this era and be the same player and be just as good if not better. He had speed, could score goals and could hit.”
“For me, he was one of my No. 1 choices,” said Hasen. “He did so much for us as players and I think he did a lot for the organization, representing the city and himself really well.”