The release came as a surprise. To Rhys Duch and to fans.
On November 28, 2018, after playing for the Vancouver Stealth for the first ten years of his career – the first in San Jose, then four in Everett, Washington, and five up in Vancouver – new Vancouver general manager Dan Richardson announced that the franchise leader in points, assists, and goals was released.
Up to 2017, Duch had been nothing short of excellent for Vancouver. He posted 35 goals and 89 points his rookie year, taking home Rookie of the Year honors. In 2010, the franchise’s first after relocating to Everett, Washington, he led the Stealth to the best record in the league and to the NLL Cup, defeating Toronto, 15-11. From 2009-2017, Duch never posted less than 33 goals or 79 points. He amassed over 100 points in 2015 and 2016.
Late in the 2016 season, Duch started feeling discomfort in his left achilles. It slowed him down a bit, he said, but he still put up his usual numbers – 38 goals and 94 points, albeit playing for a 5-13 Stealth team.
But last season, the injury got worse. It inhibited his training and his playing. His output dropped to a career-worse 19 goals and 65 points, all while playing in every game.
“It was a downward spiral for a while,” said Duch. “I saw a whole bunch of doctors last summer and hit it hard this fall with treatments and got back to training hard and performing.”
He was all ready to play in 2018 for the newly-rebranded Warriors and in the nearly 19,000-seat Rogers Arena in downtown Vancouver, where the Warriors moved to, a definite upgrade from the 5,000-seat Langley Events Centre in Langley, a 35-minute drive from the city.
Then, at 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 28th, Duch got the phone call from Richardson.
“I was a little surprised,” said Duch. “Your initial reaction is shock, like what’s next? They gave their reasons and I had to respect them, and it was bittersweet because I love the organization and love all of the people associated with it. A lot of your heart will always be with that team but I had to bounce back really quick because the season was right around the corner.”
Richardson’s decision was strictly a business one. He and the new ownership inherited a team that had the second-highest payroll and was over the salary cap. Changes had to be made.
“There were no hard feelings,” said Richardson. “We wish him the best of luck. Good for both Calgary and Rhys that he’s having a good season. It wasn’t an easy decision for us.”
That day was a busy one for Duch. He spoke with Mammoth general manager Dan Carey and then Roughnecks general manager Mike Board and head coach Curt Malawsky. Having lived in Calgary for 3.5 years, Duch felt the Roughnecks were the better choice. He had friends and family in Calgary, too, and it’s the closest city, excluding Vancouver, to his home in Victoria, where Monday-Friday he works as a real estate agent with the South Island Home Team. He signed a one-year contract with Calgary at 5 p.m. and it was announced that he would be joining the Roughnecks the following morning.
“I was surprised”, said Malawsky, now in his seventh year behind the bench for Calgary, upon hearing Duch was released by Vancouver. “Obviously, I knew they’d make changes, I just wasn’t sure it would be him. We jumped at it. Their decision was our gain so we’re happy with it.”
With the first two weeks of the regular season cancelled, Duch found himself and the Roughnecks up against Vancouver to start the season. Not just in week one, but in week two, as well.
“It was mostly excitement (that I felt when seeing the first two games were against Vancouver),” Duch said. “Motivating, too.”
In game one at home in Calgary, the Roughnecks held a 13-8 lead with 14:30 to play. But the Warriors clawed their way back and ended the game on a 6-0 run, winning in overtime.
The return to Vancouver would be a special night for Duch regardless, but being 0-1 meant that getting the win was ever more important. The Roughnecks built up a 10-6 lead late in the third quarter and held on this time, winning 14-8. Duch had ten points and scored twice, including the first goal ever by a visiting player against the new Warrior franchise in Rogers Arena.
“Getting that win (in the second game) was big,” said Duch. “Personally I was very disappointed blowing a five goal lead the first weekend. But we certainly had to come out and make a point. Going down 0-2 to start the season would have been a terrible start.”
“Returning to Vancouver was kind of bittersweet. Obviously I always had the fan support and love the Vancouver fans. But I’m really happy to be on Calgary now. It’s a great opportunity for me, but there will always be a little piece of my heart that is with the Vancouver community.”
From the time the Stealth moved to Vancouver, there were rumors of the team folding. Attendance wasn’t great, the team record was lousy, and revenue wasn’t high. Duch lived through all of those moments.
“The previous owner (Denise Watkins) is a very special person,” said Duch. “She put a lot of her life and money into the sport. It was a pretty small market team and it was important to keep the team on the map and keep it alive. We had a lot of great success and that will always be special to me. I think there are a few reasons that it could have folded and I’m happy it stayed afloat.”
The offseason was unlike any offseason Duch has had in the past. He underwent MRI’s, CT scans, ultrasounds and injections. Said Duch: “There were all sorts of people trying to figure out what was wrong.”
But it’s made no dent in his 2018-2019 season. This year, Duch is off to one of the best starts of his career. Through seven games, he has 12 goals and 33 points, the latter good for second-best in the league, only four behind point-leading Shawn Evans of Buffalo and teammate Dane Dobbie.
“He’s moving exceptionally well,” said Malawsky. “He came into camp in great shape. He’s going to get every opportunity to compete and we’ll do everything we can as his coaching staff. Sometime a door opens and he has a new lease on life. Any time someone turns their back on you, you want to prove them wrong and I think so far he’s done a good job fitting in with our group.”
At 3-4 it remains to be seen if the Roughnecks are contenders. They’ve proven, at times, they can be one of the more dominant teams in the league, as evidenced by their 9-5 shutdown of the Seals in week 3 and their wins on the road against Vancouver and Colorado. Or maybe the Roughnecks, after losing at home to New England and both games last weekend (at San Diego and a rematch at Colorado) are a ways away from competing with the top teams in the league.
Duch knows the defense will be there for the Roughnecks. But it’s the offense that has to be sure it’s playing at its highest level.
“We’re good,” said Duch. “We’re definitely talented and athletic. We have all the pieces we need to compete for the championship. (Goalie Chrisitan) Del Bianco is playing great. There are some things we need to keep working on on defense. Offensively we have to be more consistent. We have spurts where we go long stretches without a goal, and against New England we got caught up a little bit.”
“We just have to stick to our program when things aren’t going well. Our goaltender and defense are going to be great. We just have to be consistent on offense.”
While getting back to the NLL Finals is Duch’s number one goal this year, he’s only 74 points away from hitting the 1,000 career points mark, an achievement only nine other players in league history can say they’ve done.
“It’s definitely cool,” said Duch. “It’s a huge milestone and not many guys have been able to do it. But this year is about getting healthy and making sure my career goes on and scoring goals.”
“The past couple of years have been very humbling when you’re not winning and you can’t contribute like you want to be. It’s been a long road to get to help my team win and it’s awesome to be able to do that. I think we have something special in Calgary. I just think we have to keep it going.”
Duch needs only 79 points to become the tenth player to reach 1,000 career points. You can catch Duch and every NLL game on B/R Live and you can follow him on twitter and instagram.