ROCK ENTER NEW SEASON AMONG SWIRLING WINDS OF CHANGE
October 2, 2023By: Jon Rapoport
Without a shadow of a doubt, the Toronto Rock stand as one of the most iconic franchises in the National Lacrosse League. Six league titles, a bevy of past and present superstar players and a rabid fanbase spread through the vast borders of lacrosse-obsessed Ontario.
Wrapping up an offseason that included significant acquisitions, a devastating injury, the retirement of a legend, and a fluctuating arena scenario, the Hamilton-based club finds itself in a very unique predicament after finishing as the former East Conference’s runner up, having fallen to the Buffalo Bandits in each of the past two regular and postseasons. Simply stated, 2023-2024 is a big season for the Rock.
With all of these storylines afoot, NLL.com caught up with Toronto owner, president and general manager Jamie Dawick to solicit a status report regarding all things Rock.
When the subject of the Rock’s two-game Eastern Conference Finals thrashing came up, the man in charge did not mince words when articulating his thoughts on a series that saw Buffalo outscore Toronto by a combined 31-13 margin. A surprising result, when considering the two teams played a much more closely fought series only one year prior.
“We didn’t feel like we could beat the Bandits with the team we had. The Eastern final was eye-opening for us. We thought we were right there and expected to beat them. We probably had the worst weekend of our season and got spanked twice,” explained Dawick.
While the Bandits were basking in the glow of their championship summer, Dawick was working the phones trying every way possible to upgrade the Rock roster and land a game-changer. The fruits of his labors were rewarded in early July when the club acquired Saskatchewan Rush superstar Mark Matthews, in a deal that saw Zach Manns, Adam Jay and the 12th pick in the 2023 draft make their way west to Saskatoon. The 33-year-old lefty enters his 11th season with a resume that features 343 goals, 606 assists and 2018 MVP honors, along with three NLL championships. The Rock went big-game hunting and the man who made the deal believes he landed a very big prize.
“Mark is a special guy. I’m going to give him the ultimate compliment. He reminds me of Colin Doyle. He’s a super talented player. He’s won at every level. He’s a winner, a clutch player, who is not afraid of the bright lights. And off the floor, he’s the life of the party. He just needs to come into Toronto and be Mark,” exclaimed Dawick.
Earlier this month, the Rock followed up the Matthews move when bringing in right-handed forward Chris Boushy, with a 2026 first round pick flying east to Halifax. The 26-year-old tallied 38 goals and 21 assists last season for the Thunderbirds.
Dawick is really feeling good about the additional offensive punch now found on his roster.
“Two really talented offensive pieces, which is an area we’ve always been focused on.”
Dawick later proclaimed, “every season is championship or bust. We’re trying to win the championship every single year.”
While the Rock offseason has included many positive developments, the franchise experienced a devastating circumstance in late August, when reigning defensive player of the year Latrell Harris tore his ACL while competing for the Archers of the PLL. Dawick confirmed that Harris will miss the entirety of the upcoming season as he rehabilitates from successful surgery. News of this nature served as a real gut punch.
“We were feeling really good about our situation with the additions, but the Latrell news is a blow for the team, a blow for him and everybody,” opined the two-time NLL Executive of the Year. “You don’t replace defensive players of the year. We’re not going to be as good without Latrell in the lineup. It’s that simple.”
HAMILTON, ONTARIO – National Lacrosse League between the Toronto Rock and Rochester Knighthawks at FirstOntario Centre on March 4th, 2022 in Hamilton, Ontario. (Photo by Ryan McCullough / Toronto Rock)
A departure that came as no surprise to anyone was the retirement of NLL icon Dan Dawson, after 21 memorable seasons, including the final three campaigns with his hometown Rock. The all-time assist and games played leader will remain with the team (post-playing career) serving as a player development coach for the NLL squad, while simultaneously working with youth box lacrosse players at the Rock’s practice complex in the Toronto suburb of Oakville.
As one might expect, Dawick thinks the world of the man known as “Dangerous Dan.”
“Just ask anyone who played with him what he’s like. Everyone tells you how great of a player and great of a leader guys like him are and how hard they work. Until you see it in person, you’re expecting greatness and then you get it ten-fold. He is one of the best examples for any young player in our league.”
One source of unexpected stability (at least during the upcoming season) will occur when the Rock take the floor at FirstOntario Centre in downtown Hamilton. The squad was originally slated to temporarily relocate 53 kilometers (33 miles) north to Mississauga, early in the 2023-2024 season, as their home arena is slated to undergo a $300 million renovation. With construction now pushed back several months, the Rock are thrilled to be staying put for every minute of the schedule.
“Moving venues midseason would have been challenging for us. We wanted to stay in Hamilton for as long as possible cause this is our home. We’re in Hamilton all year this year and we’re excited,” said Dawick.
When asked to provide a progress report regarding the club’s move from downtown Toronto to downtown Hamilton, back in 2022, Dawick’s enthusiasm was downright palpable.
“I honestly don’t think it could have gone any better for us, for a lot of reasons. Right now, we’re the number one tenant in that building. It’s a lot cheaper than downtown Toronto and it’s a better fan experience with the setup of the seating bowl being right on top of the players. The players love it and feel like they have a homefield advantage.”
The 2011 NLL champion owner put a bow on his Hamilton sentiment by confidently proclaiming “I’m thrilled with the decision we made.”
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