The San Diego Seals are working toward taking the ultimate step this season and face a critical early test this weekend to see who’s best in the West.
An NLL expansion team in 2018-19, the Seals once again loaded up on veteran offensive firepower during offseason free agency for the second straight year.
Last year, San Diego was able to sign left-handed sniper Dane Dobbie away from the Calgary Roughnecks. This year, the Seals doubled-down on their championship aspirations by inking right-handed superstar Curtis Dickson, again from Calgary, and Philadelphia righty Kevin Crowley, the Wings’ all-time leader in points (242 in 47 career games with the expansion Wings).
Dickson will be making his return to Calgary’s WestJet Field at Scotiabank Saddledome on Friday night for the NLL Game of the Week on TSN (9 pm ET/ESPN+) and is unsure what to expect from Roughnecks fans after leaving for San Diego.
Dobbie went through the same thing last season returning to Calgary, and received a nice welcome back with a video tribute.
“A little bit nervous but also excited,” says Dickson, the Roughnecks’ all-time leading goal-scorer with 458 tallies in 177 career games. “It’s going to be a mixture of emotions heading into the game. I’m hoping for some cheers.
“I know there was a warm reception for Dane last year so I expect something similar. Once that ball drops and it’s game on, I will be the enemy and I expect nothing less. Calgary fans are incredibly knowledgeable and passionate.
“I spent a lot of years playing in that building. I’m excited for the opportunity. I can enjoy it but at the same time I have to remember we are there to grab two points in a very important game.”
Both the Seals and Roughnecks are 2-0 this season.
“It’s a very important game,” says Dickson. “It’s easy to look past games early in the season because you have so many left to go. But we have to look at every game like it’s Game 18 and we are fighting for that last playoff spot. The West is going to be tight this year and we know we have a massive target on our back, so we need to come out ready to play right off the bat.”
Despite the two wins, San Diego has struggled to find consistency in its game on both ends of the floor.
In the season opener at New York, the Seals held a 13-7 fourth quarter lead before almost giving the game away and escaping with a narrow 15-14 victory.
Dickson scored a game-high five goals (and eight points) while Dobbie recorded one goal and five assists and Crowley had two goals and two assists.
In Game 2, San Diego’s home opener at Pechanga Arena versus Saskatchewan, it was the opposite. The Seals trailed 10-3 late in the third quarter before mounting a seemingly improbable comeback, eventually winning 13-12 on Dickson’s overtime goal.
Again Dickson scored a game-high four goals and eight points, netting three goals in the fourth quarter to key the comeback. Dobbie again recorded one goal and five assists while Crowley had three assists.
“We are definitely looking for more consistency.” Dickson says. “Playing a full 60 [minutes] in this league is so important because every team is able to take advantage of any sort of lull. I thought we were good most of game one as an offense but obviously game two there is a lot of room for improvement on those first three quarters.”
Forwards Wes Berg (San Diego’s leading scorer last season with 84 points) and Casey Jackson as well as second-year players Mac O’Keefe and Tre Leclaire have been adding to the offense. The Seals are also expecting Austin Staats (37 goals and 79 points in 2021-22), who has not yet played this season, back for Friday’s game in Calgary.
“Playing on our offense is a lot of fun, any time you get to play with guys of that caliber it makes your job a heck of a lot easier,” says Dickson. “Getting Austin back this week is just icing on the cake.”
Dickson is among the league leaders like usual this season, second in goals (with nine) and tied for third in points (at 16).
“I think that’s just a testament to the guys around me,” Dickson says. “When you are playing with guys of that caliber, they make your job a lot easier. The ball is dropping for me now but with the depth we have, it can be anyone on any given night.”
Veteran San Diego defender and team captain Brodie Merrill, in his 18th NLL season, is getting an up-close look at Dickson this season as a teammate instead of checking him.
“Being around Curtis, you see and appreciate his elite skill and all the little nuances to his game that may not be obvious,” says Merrill, who entered 2022-23 with an NLL record 2,662 career loose balls and is currently tied for seventh on the all-time games-played list at 261.
“He also brings poise, confidence, a veteran savviness and an even-keel demeanor to the locker room. I’ve always noticed that playing against him and watching him over the years; he really thrives in the big moments and takes his game to another level. We saw that on display against New York and Saskatchewan.”
The Seals brought in Dickson and Crowley, and Dobbie last year, with the aim of winning an NLL Cup. Dickson and Dobbie have rings from Calgary’s championship in 2019. Dobbie also won in 2009 with the Roughnecks.
Crowley, in his 12th season, and Merrill, who has added 17 loose balls this season to his career total, have not lifted the Cup despite their long and distinguished careers.
“I think for any player there is a sense of urgency and personal motivation,” Merrill says. “Certainly as you get older it gives you more perspective. Making it to a final early my career [in 2008 with Portland], I remember thinking I’d have many more chances.
“Over time you gain a better understanding of how difficult it is and how much that has to come together for it to happen. I think the guys all recognize that we have been knocking on the door and we have a good opportunity to take that next step.”
Dickson, also in his 12th season, is in San Diego to try and assist Merrill (and Crowley) in achieving the ultimate NLL goal.
“Brodie is the definition of the player you love to have on your team but absolutely hate to play against,” says Dickson. “His leadership skills are unmatched and he still gets it done on the floor. The fact he is still doing what he’s doing at this point in his career is incredible.
“We know Brodie is still looking for that first championship and anyone that has played with him knows how much it would mean to him to win one.”