The San Diego Seals started from the bottom and now they’re here, a winner-take-all Game 3 of the West Conference Finals and a chance to advance to the NLL championship for the first time in franchise history.
Looming large in front of the Seals, an expansion team that joined the league for the 2018-19 season, is the Colorado Mammoth, who travel to San Diego for the decider at Pechanga Arena on Saturday night (10pm ET/ESPN+ and TSN2).
Saturday’s West winner will face the top-ranked East champion Bandits in the NLL Finals, starting June 4 in Buffalo.
The Mammoth, meanwhile, a team that relocated from Washington D.C. to Denver for the 2002-03 season, are looking to book their first trip to the championship since 2006, when Colorado captured its one and only NLL title as the Mammoth.
There’s a direct connection between the Seals and Mammoth, something perhaps only San Diego president Steve Govett can speak to and savor: Govett is the man who brought both the Mammoth to Colorado and the Seals to southern California, and pro box lacrosse to two non-traditional markets.
“It’s certainly interesting for me,” says Govett, who was president, GM and governor of the Mammoth from 2002 to 2017 before subsequently spearheading the Seals expansion. “You know, it’s a bit of a throwback for me, sentimental of course, nostalgic.
“We both have a job to do, we’re both trying to get to the finals. But here we are, on the precipice of one of these teams going to the NLL championship.”
Twenty years ago, way back in 2002, Govett was in his second season as GM of the Washington Power, who were winning on the floor with lacrosse legend Gary Gait but failing off the floor with a lack of local fan interest and low attendance.
But Govett had a dream and he embarked on a crusade across North America, ultimately brokering a deal with Denver-based Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, owner at the time of the NBA’s Nuggets, the NHL’s Avalanche and Pepsi Center, now known as Ball Arena.
The Power, Govett and Gait relocated to Denver and the Mammoth were born, quickly emerging as a winner on and off the floor.
“We always had aspirations that this sport could be successful anywhere,” says Govett, who played for the Philadelphia Wings between 1994-98, winning three titles in five seasons, and was GM there from 1999-2000 before the Washington experiment. “But we didn’t think we’d sell the building out.”
Colorado finished first in its division during the inaugural 2002-03 season and had an average per-game home attendance of 16,488. In 2003-04 the Mammoth finished first again and even more fans showed up in Denver with an average of 17,618, best in the NLL that season.
“Colorado was essentially a bolt-on operation, all the infrastructure with Kroenke was in place and well-established, from marketing to ticket sales to sponsorships,” Govett says.
The Mammoth’s big success culminated in the 2006 championship. On that cup-winning Colorado team was then-defender and now-head coach Pat Coyle.
“It was a special team, Gavin Prout, Gee Nash, [current Vancouver coach] Chris Gill, Dan Stroup, Rich Catton, Coyle, Gary Gait in his first year as coach,” says Govett, before switching back to comment on 2022.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Pat Coyle and for the players I drafted, acquired and signed as free agents, starting with Dillon Ward [the Goaltender of the Year in 2017] and Joey Cupido [Transition Player of the Year in 2015 and 2018], Hope, McLaughlin and Wardle, that core group.”
But while he might look back fondly at his professional success and personal relationships in Colorado, Govett is firmly living in the present in San Diego with the Seals.
“Going to San Diego, it was a totally different situation,” he says. “We didn’t start from scratch in Colorado. Here, it truly was a start-up. There are challenges to that which are different, from ordering the turf to finding the GM to building the team.”
Govett still has large lacrosse dreams, this time in San Diego.
“It’s an interesting, eclectic sports town,” says Govett. “There are not a lot of major league teams here, just the [MLB] Padres after the [NFL] Chargers left.
“We aspire to have 10,000 fans in our building, and the quality of a building like Ball Arena with state-of-the-art electronics and visuals.”
The Seals got back into the series in a must-win Game 2 after the Mammoth’s 14-12 road victory in Game 1.
With their backs against the wall last week, San Diego’s first-ever No. 1 overall draft pick, Austin Staats, and NLL veteran Dane Dobbie, signed this past summer as a free agent, led the Seals in an 11-10 overtime postseason thriller. Staats had five goals and Dobbie had four, including the OT game-winner on a slippery BTB shot.
“Dobbie has been nothing short of amazing on and off the floor,” Govett says. “He’s such a leader, such a gritty competitor, so much heart. After watching him [with Calgary] crush the Mammoth’s dreams for so many years, it’s pretty special now to see Staats learn from Dobbie how to be a winner.”
Govett also credits San Diego GM/coach Patrick Merrill for the putting the Seals in a position to succeed from the get-go, and perhaps this season capture the young franchise’s first championship.
“He’s the architect of the team, I’m just along for the ride,” says Govett. “He built it from scratch, from nothing. It’s a testament to his great work and leadership, I’ve just had a front-row seat.
“In our first year, we hosted a playoff game. Now, in our second full season, we’re on the brink of the NLL Finals.”