When the 2019-20 National Lacrosse League season was suspended and ultimately cut short without crowning a champion because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Saskatchewan Rush were sitting atop the West Division with a record of 7-3. When play was halted, the Rush was one of the favorites to win a championship and that has been familiar territory for them. When they called Edmonton home, the Rush won an NLL title in 2015 and they’ve won two more since relocating to Saskatchewan capturing the NLL Championship in 2016 and 2018.
In their overall franchise history dating back to 2006, the Rush has won three championships, reached the championship game five times and won seven division titles.
And now as the NLL returns to play for the 2021-22 season, the Rush will hope for business as usual, but with a lot of new faces. It may take some time to find that customary championship contender form.
“Hopefully the expectation is that we’re not going to miss a beat and we’re going to continue to be where we were,” said new Head Coach Jeff McComb who takes over for Derek Keenan who will focus on his General Manager duties.
McComb was named the Rush Head Coach in August of 2020 but he will make his head coaching debut this season because the NLL cancelled the 2020-21 season because of the pandemic. Keenan was behind the bench for eight seasons all with McComb on the staff in some capacity but decided it was time to turn the reigns over to his trusted long-time assistant. McComb and Keenan have worked together at multiple levels of lacrosse for more than 18 years so while there is a change behind the Rush bench, it should be a seamless change.
In the words of Billy Joel, you could describe the relationship between McComb and Keenan as “A Matter Of Trust”.
“I think we built that trust together,” said McComb. “Derek let his assistant coaches do their job. He trusted them. He built that trust and once you earned it, he let you do your job. I think that’s really empowering for the people that you work with. From a philosophy standpoint, we’re fairly close on a lot of things so that helped in terms of the lacrosse relationship.”
The Rush will bring back a good portion of their 2019-20 team, but the roster underwent some changes during two off-seasons, the first coming when there was hope for a 2020-21 season and the second in preparation for the 2021-22 season. Among the returning players will be the top two scorers from 2019-20 team, forwards Mark Matthews (13 goals and 41 assists for 54 points) and Robert Church (17 goals and 24 assists for 41 points).
Saskatchewan signed ten-year NLL veteran defenseman Matt Beers and acquired via free agency, trade, and entry draft forwards Marshall Powless, Josh Currier, and Dan Lintner as well as defenseman Bobby Kidd.
“We brought in a number of new people,” said McComb. “This was a training camp where we’ve done the most teaching that we’ve ever done on both the (offensive) and (defensive) ends to put our systems in and get guys to understand where our systems are. We’re a fairly structured team at both ends of the floor so they need to understand the structure and learn it. You really can’t learn it without playing it so it might take us a little bit.”
The last time that the Rush played in a regular season game was on March 7th, 2020 when they beat the Vancouver Warriors 17-7. It was not long after that when our world changed and we would not see another NLL game for quite some time. So, for the first time in what seems like forever, the Rush will play a game this Saturday night when they open up the season on the road against the Halifax Thunderbirds.
The Rush will play their home opener on December 11th against the Calgary Roughnecks, but first things first and that is this Saturday in Halifax.
“It almost seems a little bit surreal,” said McComb. “I’m not sure we’ll fully understand until we get to Halifax and maybe start our shootaround in the morning. Everybody is obviously fired up. We just want to get there and get it started.”
While the league has not had any games since the 2019-20 season was suspended, the NLL has been busy continuing to grow and carve out a niche across North America. This season, the NLL returns to Albany as the New England Black Wolves relocated to the capital of New York State to become the Albany FireWolves. Also, Panther City Lacrosse Club joins the NLL as an expansion club and will bring the total number of franchises up to 14. That number will grow to 15 next year when the Las Vegas expansion team begins play for the 2022-23 season.
Throw in brand-new television deals with TSN in Canada and ESPN in the United States and you see why the National Lacrosse League continues to get stronger and stronger.
“I love the momentum of where we’re going,” said McComb. The television deals are huge. The momentum is going in the right direction and I don’t think we’ve seen this much momentum before. It’s an exciting time to be a part of it.”
Business is good for the NLL and the Saskatchewan Rush know all about business being good. They have been as close to a dynasty as you could possibly have in the sport as the Rush look to capture the fourth championship in franchise history. There is a new but familiar voice behind the bench and there will be a number of new players on the field, but the mission statement remains the same.
“At the end of it, we’re going to be one of the teams that are going to be able to compete for a championship,” said McComb.
The resume of the front office, coaching staff and the roster suggests that is going to be a very strong possibility.