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Potential and Perseverance: Aaron Woods’ Journey to the NLL

Ted Lasso would likely take one look at Aaron Woods and say he “smells like potential.”

The Halifax Thunderbirds’ 28-year-old rookie has potential in spades, with one National Lacrosse League broadcaster even calling him a phenom.

Just don’t call him a “28-year-old rookie,” though.

“I think I was sick of the phrase the first time I heard it,” Woods chuckled.

Don’t get him wrong. Woods is as gracious and grateful as he could be for everything he has experienced since being called up to the Thunderbirds’ active roster on January 31.

Woods’ journey to the NLL is one of hard work and perseverance. He cracked a pro lineup 10 years after some players do. Those who go the NCAA route don’t play in the NLL until after they graduate from college, when they’re around 22, but players who choose to attend university in Canada – think Latrell Harris or Chris Boushy – can enter the league at 18 years old, ready to make a difference. It’s no secret that youth is valued in pro sports, and age is a touchy subject – just think how many times you hear guys in their late 30’s called an “ageless wonder.”

“I think when I hear that phrase, ’28-year-old-rookie,’ I have mixed feelings,” Woods mused. “It reminds me that it took me a lot longer than most to find my way to the NLL, but at the same time I think it is a testament to the hard work and dedication I have put into the game to get where I am now.”

As a Jr. C player for the Clarington Shamrox in his teens, Woods, the pride of Courtice, ON (pronounced like Curtis), never felt that making the NLL was a realistic dream. He only played lacrosse because it was fun.

“I had a few opportunities with the Whitby Jr. A team, but never really got an opportunity to have an active roster spot with them,” he said. “The NLL was never really a thought that crossed my mind. It was more that I really enjoyed playing and we had a good team. A lot of great teammates, coaching staff and training staff were a part of that organization. So, really, I was able to show up every day and have a ton of fun and I think that’s what I was mainly focused on.”

Woods was part of a Shamrox team that won the Meredith Cup championship in 2011 and 2012. He then led the team in scoring in 2014 (87 points in 15 games, 28 more points than the second-leading scorer) and 2015 (93 points). Woods finished second in 2016, his final year of junior eligibility, but added another championship to resume.

CALGARY, AB – FEBRUARY 18, 2024: The Calgary Roughnecks against the Halifax Thunderbirds at Scotiabank Saddledome on Sunday. (Photo by Jenn Pierce/NLL)

Overlapping his time with the Shamrox was his education at Carleton University in Ottawa, where he studied environmental engineering and played for the Ravens in the Canadian University Field Lacrosse Association (CUFLA).

Woods was more focused on getting a good education in his chosen field than playing lacrosse at a higher level. He tested the waters of NCAA schools but wasn’t upset that he didn’t generate much interest.

“I wanted to make sure I was setting myself up for my future,” Woods said. “The schools that I was contacted by, I didn’t really have interest in the programs that were there. But I think in high school and even early on in my Carleton career, I was still really developing as a player and hadn’t really reached my full potential. So, I think that’s definitely part of the reason why I didn’t go that route.”

Carleton paid off – Woods is an environmental engineer at General Motors.

After university, it was time to explore senior lacrosse. Woods stayed an extra year in Ottawa and played Sr. B in the summer with the Capital Region Axemen. After returning home, he was cut by two Sr. B teams, nearly ending his lacrosse career – if not for the Arena Lacrosse League.

The ALL is a partner league of the NLL – a minor league, if you will, with the mission to develop players for the professional league. Twenty percent of the current NLL player pool has suited up for at least one game in the ALL. The league plays concurrently with the NLL season from December – March.

Woods caught on with the Peterborough Timbermen in 2019, thanks to head coach Joe Sullivan (formerly the head coach and general manager of the Minnesota Swarm), who had coached Woods in Ottawa. As a rookie, Woods finished second in scoring with 65 points in 13 games. He led the team in scoring in a shortened 2020 season, and then was named the ALL East MVP in 2022.

“Aaron’s success comes because of Aaron,” praised Sullivan. “He has the drive and commitment to be better. He never missed a practice, never missed a game, was always on time, got himself into great shape. Good things happen to good people and that’s what happened to Aaron. Honestly, he’s a poster child for what this league is all about.”

Aaron Woods as a member of the Peterborough Timbermen of the Arena Lacrosse League (Photo: Anna Taylor)

Woods appreciates what his time in the ALL did for his game.

“I think it’s a great way to keep your stick skills sharp,” he said. “The skill level of the ALL is elevated in comparison to some of the lacrosse I’ve played in the past and it can be a lot faster. And there’s guys out there that are on NLL practice rosters or have played in the NLL before. So, getting used to that play style and being able to compare yourself to the skill level of other players is definitely a great opportunity and a great opportunity for visibility as well.”

After debuting with Peterborough, Woods went back to Ottawa for another summer. After the pandemic, he caught on with the Ennismore James Gang, a much closer drive than Ottawa. From there, he was called up to the MSL’s Cobourg Kodiaks, where he has enjoyed two successful seasons so far against NLL players who make the MSL their home in the NLL’s offseason.

His career potential just keeps growing the longer he perseveres in the game, and the Thunderbirds are a team that has a history of taking chances on potential. Look no further than defenseman Colton Armstrong, whose path to the NLL mimicked Woods’ almost exactly, save for a few years: Armstrong was called up in 2019.

They played Jr. C lacrosse in rival markets, went undrafted, and then were plucked from the Timbermen mid-season to join the NLL. They also spent a season and a half together in Cobourg.

“Woodsy’s a good friend of mine,” Armstrong revealed. “We both had the same drive to be the best we could be. After all the hard battles against each other we found ourselves on the same team in the ALL. We became good friends and would text and chat about how much we hated each other in Jr. C!”

Both players found quick success in the NLL.

“It wasn’t the easiest way [to get there], but I know I wouldn’t want it any other way and I bet Woodsy would say the same thing,” Armstrong stated. “I knew one day someone would take a chance on Woodsy like they took on me and I was so glad Curt (Styres) and Soupy (Scott Campell) found him. The kid is a workhorse. He will find that loose ball, he will find that open spot in the net, he will make that pass and take a hit. He just has that drive like everyone else should have trying to make it: the drive to never give up on your dreams and keep trying to go higher and higher.”

Despite tearing it up in the ALL for three seasons, the Thunderbirds were the first NLL team to ever reach out to Woods, and he made their practice roster out of camp in November. He got in five games with Peterborough before being called up, leaving the team fourth in scoring with 25 points. After just five games with Halifax, Woods is seventh in team scoring with nine goals and 11 assists for 20 points.

Woods called his first goal, scored on the road in Philadelphia, the highlight of his career so far, but he knows it wasn’t just an individual accomplishment.

Aaron Woods and Bo BowHunter interact with the crowd during warmup (Photo: James Bennett)

“I was able to go out there and play well and score my first NLL goal and prove to myself that all the hard work has been worth it. But also I think [I was] playing that game for all the people that have supported me along the way: my family and friends and all the coaches and players that I played with. They’re the reason that I’ve been able to continue to get better and chase my dream of playing in the NLL. To see it pay off and have those people be able to see me play in the NLL I think is really special for me and something that wouldn’t change for the world. I’m super grateful for the management and coaching staff of Halifax for giving me this opportunity and taking a chance on me when nobody else would.”

As special as his first goal was, when he scored against Buffalo at Scotiabank Centre, it was even more special, because his mom, Cris, was in the crowd. Woods credits her as being his biggest supporter and he was glad she got to experience The Nest and see how far her son has come since he was cut from Sr. B just a few years ago.

“It’s just the excitement that comes along with scoring and having everyone cheering and the crowd going crazy,” he described the atmosphere in Halifax. “And I think it’s something that I’ve never experienced before and it’s pretty amazing. There’s people in the stands that have cardboard cutouts of [players] heads and they’re waving them around and everything. Yeah, the experience is definitely second to none.”

The Thunderbirds are currently fourth in the standings with a 7-4 record. The goal, of course, is a championship.

Will Aaron Woods help them get there? Based on his growing potential and his continuing perseverance, absolutely. He and the Thunderbirds are a match made in heaven.

“No matter what, I’m always going to stay ready to play,” Woods stated. “Each week going into practice, I’m trying to get better and learn and be ready. We approach every game the same with a high expectation of ourselves to play well. I think if we play well, then there’s not a team that can stop us.”

Halifax hosts Georgia tonight at 7 p.m. ET. You can catch the Game of the Week on TSN, TSN+ and ESPN+.