When you think about strong lacrosse markets in the United States, places like Long Island, Syracuse, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Rhode Island and New Jersey certainly come to mind.
But don’t sleep on Albany, New York.
That’s because the capital of New York State is a community that has embraced the game of lacrosse for a long time. The University of Albany has an outstanding lacrosse program, with both the men’s and women’s team reaching the America East Championship Game. Alumni from the school include the likes of Lyle Thompson, Blaze Riorden, Joe Resetarits, and Connor Fields. From a professional standpoint, the Albany Attack played in the National Lacrosse League from 2000-2003, winning a division title in 2002 going 14-2 in the regular season. The Premier Lacrosse League also made stops in Albany during the 2019 and 2021 seasons.
And now, the NLL is back in town with the Albany FireWolves, a franchise that has relocated to Albany from New England. Albany’s most recent pro sports franchise was the Arena Football League’s, Albany Empire. In 2018 they led the league in attendance at 10,180 fans per game at Times Union Arena. But when the AFL folded, Albany was once again without a pro sports franchise.
The market has had their share of professional sports franchises over the years, but the FireWolves plan on sticking around for a long time.
“The fans of Albany and the Capital Region are used to teams coming and going,” said FireWolves President George Manias. “A lot of hockey teams have done that. It happened with lacrosse twenty years ago and it happened in the AFL several times. I feel extremely comfortable that this is a long-term situation because its lacrosse and it’s the right sport.”
Manias is a big reason why the FireWolves are in town.
He ran the AFL’s Albany Empire but that team doesn’t exist today because of bad management or lack of fan support. The team disappeared because the league went out of business. When that happened, Manias began to go to work to find a new pro sports team for the region and his search brought him to the National Lacrosse League. The Empire ownership group looked into applying for an expansion team, but the COVID-19 pandemic turned that group’s attention to other business ventures.
When Manias was communicating with the NLL, he learned that the New England Black Wolves were up for sale and that the league had a potential buyer and the plan was to relocate.
“I sold them on Albany,” said Manias. “If they were going to do this, they should come to Albany because of everything that we did.”
And it was a done deal. The new ownership group called Capital Region NLL, headed by Oliver Marti, moved the team to Albany and hired Manias as their team President. The sale and relocation of the team from New England to Albany was announced in February of 2021. Following a “name the team” contest, the name of the team and the logo were announced in April.
While the franchise will be new to the market, the actual team is not new to the league. Before the 2019-20 season was cut short because of the pandemic, the New England Black Wolves were 8-3 and atop the East Division.
So, the fans in Albany are getting a pretty good team.
“It will be business as usual from that end,” said FireWolves General Manager and Head Coach Glenn Clark. “I think it’s going to be good for the market. You do have an established team. We were one of the teams that was in contention when the season ended. We still should be one of the strongest teams in the league.”
Many players from the 2019-20 season are returning but the franchise did lose forward Callum Crawford as a free agent to in-state rival New York Riptide. Before the 2020-21 season was wiped out because of the pandemic, Clark engineered a couple of trades including the addition of forward Jacob Ruest from Colorado in a draft night trade. Clark also added defenseman Adrian Sorichetti as a free agent while also bringing back most of his own free agents and adding some quality players via the draft.
“We’ve improved in certain areas,” said Clark. “We’ve got some players that are ready to step in and compete for a spot. Not only do I like where we’re at, but I like the makeup of our team. “We’ve been very purposeful about getting players that sort of fit the identity and the style that we want to play.”
While Clark was busy constructing his roster for the team’s inaugural season in Albany, Manias and his staff have been hard at work introducing the franchise to the market. They’ve spent a lot of time in the community at lacrosse camps and clinics as part of the franchise’s grassroots initiatives. The organization also created the “Junior FireWolves” and had 75 kids sign up to participate in a junior box lacrosse program for the summer with FireWolves coaches and players in attendance. That number is expected to triple for their winter program.
“The number one focus was truly to get into the community because that is what made us successful back in the AFL days,” said Manias. “We wanted to entrench ourselves into the grassroots programs that existence.”
The FireWolves will open the 2021-22 season on December 4th at Toronto and will then play their home opener on Saturday December 18th when they welcome Rochester to the Times Union Center. With the start of the season right around the corner, the team is getting ready for training camp and there will be an opportunity for the fans to get an up-close look at their new club. The FireWolves will soon be laying down their new turf for the first time and they will welcome fans to the arena for an “Open House” on Saturday October 30th when they will get a chance to pick their seat locations and watch the team in action.
“We don’t have a game without the fans and we are there to provide a good product for the fans,” said Clark. “It’s going to be nice to have that initial kickoff to get the guys together. Get them moving and get them running again and have a little bit of eyes on so people can see what they’re going to be exposed to as this season unfolds.”
“It becomes a reality at that point because it’s all based around training camp,” said Manias. “We want fans to come down and watch training camp. We’re going to have a friendly and fun environment.”
In addition to picking their seat location and watching the team practice, the FireWolves will have their dance team at the open house and there will be trick or treating for the kids.
It will just be a taste of what the fans can expect at home games during the season. The experience of going to a FireWolves game will also include block parties and outdoor live music before each contest. It’s a strategy that worked before when there was arena football in town.
“Those were some of the successful things that I did in the Empire days,” said Manias. “We want to take that same concept of creating a great event where people can come in, who may not be lacrosse fans, and just have a great time and come out to a great sporting event. They’ll fall in love with the game.”
Welcome back to the National Lacrosse League, Albany! The FireWolves have been working hard on and off the field and they are ready to roll in a community that loves lacrosse.