When a team wins back-to-back championships, the first question that arises is which of the two, if either, is more special, more meaningful than the other.
The Saskatchewan Rush captured their second straight National Lacrosse League title this past Saturday, retaining their grip on the Champion’s Cup after sweeping the Buffalo Bandits in the best-of-three series. One year and one day earlier, the Rush won their first Cup by ousting the Toronto Rock in two straight.
The first is always a sweet one, but this second one is particularly cherished especially since it came in front of a hugely enthusiastic new home fan base in Saskatchewan.
No matter how it’s described, the celebration is well worth all the effort. Not much separates the two title wins since the Rush returned an almost identical roster which one the 2015 championship to the one that raised the Cup at SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon.
“The first one is special but there’s not much difference in the group of guys and winning with this group is just amazing,” said Rush defenceman Kyle Rubisch.
“It’s been all about buying in, keeping with the plan, and will power.”
Ben McIntosh couldn’t have asked for a better first two years as a pro. Last season, he won the NLL Rookie of the Year Award and helped the Rush win the Cup. This season, he led the Rush in playoff goal-scoring as he snapped in two goals in each of the four games, and was kissing the Cup on the turf for a second year in a row.
“This group is pretty incredible. It’s not any less glorious this time,” said McIntosh. “It was a real battle. Maybe we were the underdogs but we just grinded it out and played the full 60 minutes.
“That’s been our M.O. all year. We didn’t really blow anyone out in the first or second quarter, but we just kept grinding and in the third and fourth quarters we just pulled away. We’re a group of guys that doesn’t give up and we need that. We get to the fourth quarters and that’s where we win the games. We’re good at closing out the game and we like playing like that.”
For Rush GM/head coach Derek Keenan, this year’s championship wasn’t necessarily more memorable but he was able to enjoy it more thoroughly. Last season, Keenan took a short leave from team at the start of the season as he wife Wendy courageously endured a final battle against cancer. When the Rush clinched the Cup, it brought an end to a difficult yet rewarding journey.
“Last year, it was more of an emotional feeling and a sense of release after everything that happened,” reflected Keenan. “This year, there was more elation and I was very happy for the guys that we were able to finish something.”
With two in the bank, the Rush can now start looking to add to their championship account. Rochester won three straight championships in 2012, 2013 and 2014, while Toronto won five titles over a seven-year stretch.
The Rush could very emerge as a true dynasty. There’s every reason to expect that they’ll be a favorite for the Cup against in 2017 as the winning roster is slated to return almost entirely intact.
“We have a very good foundation,” said Keenan. “It’s not easy to win in this league. The teams get better every year and you never know with (league) expansion. But we still have a great core there, we’re still young, and we have assets in the bank moving forward.
“This is a special group. They’re self-less. They don’t care who scores or who gets the accolades. They love being around each other. We’re going to keep the core together and try to get better.”
Forward Thinking: The Rush will take a short break – a team trip to Mexico is likely the next order of business – and then planning for the 2017 season gets going. Goalie Aaron Bold is the team’s only unrestricted free agent although he was assigned a franchise tag last season so it’s very doubtful he hits the open market. Keenan suggested the team is already close to re-signing Curtis Knight and Jeremy Thompson, and he expects no issues getting new deals done for Chris Corbeil and Kyle Rubisch.
The Rush had a banner season not only in terms of a championship but also in regards to the business side of things with greater than expected ticket sales. However, that doesn’t mean Keenan will go hog wild on a spending spree, and he doubted the Rush will even wade into the NLL’s free-agent pool.
“We were close to the (salary) cap this year. It’s going to go up a bit, and we’ll stay at it and be right around the cap,” added Keenan.
Under the current collective bargaining agreement between the NLL and its players union, the 2017 season will mark the start of a 100% tax on teams going above the salary cap. In years past, it was only a percentage per dollar over, but now it will be a straight dollar-for-dollar. As an example, if a team goes $50,000 over the cap, it will be assessed a $50,000 tax.
Top Picks: During Game 2 of the Cup Final, the TSN broadcast crew called the Rush’s 2016 draft situation a case of “the rich getting richer.” The NLL champs, thanks to some shrewd trades manufactured by Derek Keenan, have the first overall pick plus the third and ninth picks in the opening round of the 2017 Entry Draft which will be held in September. It’s a very good class up for grabs and includes Keenan’s son Ryan, who is sure to be a top-three selection.
“Potentially there could be a trade but I want to use the first and third. Number 9 will depend. There some guys I like there but we’ll have to see how things fall,” said Keenan.
Story by SaskRush.com. Photo by Josh Schaefer.