Preview National Lacrosse League Hall of Fame writer Neil Stevens’ recap of the 2016 NLL Champion’s Cup Finals below after the Saskatchewan Rush became just the sixth team in league history to win back-to-back titles following their Game 2 win over the Buffalo Bandits.
“Derek Keenan is taking the time to appreciate the enormity of what his Saskatchewan Rush accomplished in edging the Buffalo Bandits 11-10 to win the NLL championship Saturday night,” Stevens writes.
“That goal Jeff Cornwall scored with 12 seconds to go, you don’t see that every day,” Keenan said. “It was incredible.”
The capacity Saskatoon gathering of 15,182 spectators ate it up as ravenously as they had in feasting all season on a sport many of them had never previously followed. Not one NLL player is from Saskatchewan, but Rush players have been adopted in the hearts of the prairie province’s sports fans.
“The place just exploded when he scored,” Keenan said. “It was a crazy game, back and forth. It was a heavyweight bout with punches and counterpunches. We just kept getting off the mat. I really feel good for the people there. The support they gave us in our first season there was amazing.”
Keenan has played or coached lacrosse for 50 years, but the way fans embraced the Rush in their new home was beyond his expectations.
“It’s kind of like they were sitting there waiting for something like this to happen,” he said after returning to his home in Oshawa, Ontario. “We took a good team there, our staff did an amazing job marketing the team, and there was a lot of word of mouth in the city. It was much like the way people out there support their CFL football team. It is backing from the province and not just the city. People drive hours to get to the games.”
Most of them drove home happy Saturday night.
The team had won the 2015 championship as the Edmonton Rush six months after Keenan lost his wife, Wendy, to cancer.
“I think I’m enjoying this a bit more,” Keenan said. “Last year was a tough year, very emotional. This year, we struggled a bit early on but, in the end, we pulled it out. We beat a really good team, too. Buffalo is a really good team.”
Cornwall commutes to games from British Columbia, where he’s a math teacher. In his spare time, he hangs out at an outdoor lacrosse bowl practicing shooting on breakaways. He got one shot on goal Saturday, on a breakaway. It went in, and the Rush are repeat champions. It might never have happened had Buffalo’s Dhane Smith not fallen. Ryan Benesch took a high shot that went over the net, caromed off the back boards and flew all the way out to the center of the playing surface. Smith fell as he began chasing the ball, Cornwall got the ball ahead of him and raced away to score.
“He’s a defensive guy who doesn’t get a lot of chances to score, so when he gets one, he wants to make it count,” Keenan said.
Goaltender Aaron Bold made every one of his 47 saves count — Buffalo outshot Saskatchewan 57-54 — and was named Champion’s Cup MVP.
“He was dialed in the whole playoffs,” Keenan said. “I could see it from the last game of our regular season against Rochester. In practices and shoot-arounds, he was just really, really focused. When he’s at his best, he’s tracking the ball extremely well. He doesn’t guess. He doesn’t jump around. He made saves Saturday that were indicative of that. He stuck his arm out, stuck a leg out. He was just excellent through the whole playoffs.”
Avoiding injuries and having all hands on deck for the playoffs helped the Rush go all the way.
“For some reason, our team was blessed that way this year,” Keenan said. “We’ve been fortunate.”
Keenan also is fortunate, thanks to his astute managerial moves, to have the first, third and ninth picks in the nine-team league’s annual entry draft in September. Would he consider trading any of the picks for…