“Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times.” – G. Michael Kopf, Those Who Remain: A Post-apocalyptic Novel.
Creating and developing a new NLL franchise can feel as uncertain and harrowing as a post-apocalyptic world.
As a young and fragile entity navigating a new ecosystem, a new NLL franchise will often endure many struggles, none more difficult to handle than losing – sometimes a lot of losing. But as time passes, there is often growth, which will beget success. Over the last few years, we’ve seen this play out with the Rochester Knighthawks.
When the Knighthawks joined the NLL ahead of the 2019-20 season, they were a young team. Yes, they had Shawn Evans and Paul Dawson (Paul is still with the team), but most of the squad was in their mid-to-early 20s, and that included 14 rookies, two of which were goaltenders Rylan Hartley and Craig Wende, who played 65% of the team’s minutes in between the pipes. The team went 2-10 that season before COVID-19 forced the league to shut down operations.
The following season (the 2021-22 campaign), the team’s first full season as a unit, went slightly better. The Knighthawks went 4-14 and won two road games – they hadn’t won a road game in their inaugural year. They also notched a significant and dominating 15-7 victory over the Calgary Roughnecks in the season’s second-to-last game. This was their second victory of the season by eight or more goals. In their first season, both of the team’s wins were by one goal. It should be noted that for the second year in a row, a rookie spent a ton of time in net – Joel Watson was in goal for 46% of the team’s minutes.
That brings us to this year, which has been a year like no other for this Knighthawks franchise. It is the year when everything seemed to start coming together, at least for the first half of the season.
The Knighthawks shocked the lacrosse world by winning their first six games of the season – they were the last remaining undefeated team in the NLL. A short two-game losing skid humbled them, but they did bounce back after that with another two wins. However, the two-game losing streak was the start of days like the ones they had put behind them.
From January 27th until April 8th, the Knighthawks went 3-7 and were beginning to be at risk of falling out of playoff contention. In fairness, five of those seven losses came on the road and included losses to top ranked teams such as the Bandits and Rock. But, even Head Coach Mike Hasen and his men admitted that they weren’t playing up to their standards. There was a sense of comfortability that had crept in, and once the losing started, things snowballed. So, when they won 12-10 last weekend against the Georgia Swarm and clinched their first-ever playoff berth, there was a brief yet powerful sigh of relief.
“[The win] was rewarding,” Hasen said. “It was a great game; it was a tight game. Everyone played well in that win. It was a little bit of a breath of fresh air, but, especially the next day anyways, you remember that we have one more game and then one more beyond that. It was back to work on Sunday.”
There is still work to be done in this regular season, but Coach Hasen and others have taken some time to reflect on the historic moment the franchise created.
“If we stepped back a little bit and you asked me, I would have said we wanted to compete for a playoff spot this year,” Hasen said. “We had ups and downs this season, we had a great run, and at the end of the day, we competed for a playoff spot, and we earned it. No matter what the results were or how we got them, we earned a playoff spot. That’s the message we’re taking moving forward here.”
One of the veterans on this year’s Knighthawks team, Holden Cattoni, knows better than most on this team how much it means for them to make it to the playoffs. Cattoni is one of a handful of players that has been with this club since day one, selected in the Expansion Draft – he’s played the second-most games for the Knighthawks in franchise history (only behind Paul Dawson). He is also the franchise’s leader in assists, goals, and points.
Cattoni noted how this team’s mental toughness has developed over the years and how enduring so much struggle has actually helped them become who they are today.
“I think that a lot of the games that we’ve won over the course of this season have been really close,” Cattoni said. “I think those are games that would’ve swung the opposite way last year or in our first year as an expansion team. We were losing those tight games at the end of regulation or shooting ourselves in the foot, putting ourselves behind the 8-ball. This year, we’re a lot smarter with our play, and you can see that there’s a lot of growth and maturity in our game.”
“It’s definitely been a long road to get to this point. We didn’t make it easy on ourselves in the second half of the season. I think the feeling in the locker room is that we probably should have locked up a playoff position a lot earlier, but I think facing this adversity could end up being a good thing for us. We’ve been playing some really meaningful lacrosse when we really needed it.”
As was mentioned before, the veteran leaders this team has had over the years have played a pivotal role in the team’s growth and current success. Guys like Cattoni, Paul Dawson, and Curtis Knight have all been deeply committed to the process.
“We started this process having some veteran leadership trying to teach these young guys how it goes,” Hasen said. “I think the biggest thing over these years is when the process goes on, and the opportunities came up (expansion, trade deadlines, this, that, and the other), they all said they wanted to be here. That’s the culture they’re building and representing in our team.”
Dawson and Knight have both won multiple NLL championships, and Dawson won both of his titles in Rochester with the Knighthawks of old, who are now the Halifax Thunderbirds. Those Knighthawks teams were coached by Hasen, so those two men have a particularly special connection.
Those years back in the early 2010s should be very motivating to this year’s Knighthawks team whether they win or lose in Week 22. In 2012, the year before Dawson joined those Knighthawks, Rochester finished that regular season losing four of their last six games and ended that season with a 7-9 regular season record. Nevertheless, the Knighthawks won the NLL Champion’s Cup that year. In 2013, the Knighthawks finished the regular season with an 8-8 record and went 2-2 in their final four games of the regular season, but, believe it or not, the Knighthawks would once again cruise through the playoffs and won their second NLL title in a row. For those history buffs out there, you know that the Knighthawks completed the three-peat the next season.
Hasen understands that their job is far from complete if the Knighthawks even want to consider playing in this year’s NLL Finals. In this final week of the regular season, the Knighthawks will square off against the Philadelphia Wings for the third time this season. The Wings won each of the first two games by only one goal, and each game went to overtime.
With the Knighthawks coming into this game following a confidence-boosting win versus the Swarm in Week 21, Coach Hasen hopes the Wings will have more respect for his club, even considering they have the upper hand, having won the season series.
“They may respect us a little bit more here,” Hasen said. “We haven’t been able to get a win against them – it’s been two tight games this season – but it’d be nice for our group if we can beat them. We will have to be our best, and hopefully, that’ll be motivation to beat them.”
“We don’t want to go into the following week limping in. We had a good result against Georgia, and we need to follow that up at this time of the year and make sure that we’re a touch better at all aspects of the game for our self-confidence.”
A win for the Knighthawks would significantly impact who their opponent will be in the quarterfinals. If the Knighthawks and the Halifax Thunderbirds both win in Week 22, the Knighthawks would be heading to Toronto to face the Rock in the first round of the playoffs – the Knighthawks would also face the Rock if the Swarm beat the Thunderbirds. If the Knighthawks lose and the Thunderbirds win, the Knighthawks will be heading to Buffalo on May 6.
Whatever happens in Week 22 or in the quarterfinals of these playoffs, positive or negative, is not the end of the world for this Knighthawks team. If it doesn’t go their way, they’ll just need to regroup in the off-season and work on how they can be even better next year, just like they’ve done in prior years.
The end is not near for this franchise. The Knighthawks will only improve over time; we have seen this to be the case.