“Family members can be your best friends, you know. And best friends, whether or not they are related to you, can be your family.” – American author, Trenton Lee Stewart
The Halifax Thunderbirds are a team of friends second and family first.
Their communication, trust in one another, and desire to see the man next to them on the floor reach their fullest potential bonds them every time they go to war.
“We are a family,” Thunderbirds forward Ryan Benesch said. “That’s something that we preached before the season started. This is our second family, and we will do anything to help our family members out. Everybody cares for each other; Everybody is there for each other.”
In battle, you can see how connected these players are; Week 1 of this season was a perfect example. For one team to beat another by ten or more goals in the NLL is a tough task. To score 18 goals against one of the league’s all-star-caliber goaltenders is a tough task. To achieve both is a rare accomplishment.
Note: Week 1 had three matchups where teams won by 10 or more goals while holding their opponent under 10 goals. This is the only second time in NLL history that many games in the same week have finished with a result of that nature.
According to one of the Thunderbirds’ up-and-coming young forwards, Clarke Petterson, the offense can excel because they can easily whizz the ball around the floor.
“This year – we definitely saw it in training camp and definitely saw it in game one – the more the ball is moving side-to-side, moving over the top, and getting the defense into a stressful situation, you create looks for both sides of the floor,” Petterson said. “By being unselfish, you’ll maybe give up a good shot to get a great one like a back door tap-in or an inside feed.”
The Thunderbirds’ Randy Staats and Cody Jamieson each had five or more assists. Only the Saskatchewan Rush had more players with five or more assists in Week 1. Two more players had four helpers, and, in all, 10 Thunderbirds players recorded an assist.
As a seasoned veteran who has been part of some very talented offensive groups, Benesch broke down how he believes the Thunderbirds can be so successful when they have the ball in their sticks.
“Honestly, I think every single guy bought into the system we want to run,” Benesch said. “We moved the ball fast, we moved our feet, we got on and off the floor hard, and we played unselfish lacrosse. You’re such a hard team to defend when you do stuff like that because we have so many guys that can go off for three or four goals a night. That makes it challenging for defenses to focus on one or two guys and lock them off because when you have so many guys that can score, who are they supposed to stop?
“Being a veteran in this league, you want to pass down the knowledge you’ve gained,” Benesch said. “You want to see those young guys go on to have long, successful careers, especially when you’re so close with them. When you’re friends with them, too, you definitely want to see them do well.”
Offensive Coach Stew Monture noted that this year’s Thunderbirds squad is different than previous years became the wealth of youthful talent is ready to charge (with from the veterans). Outside of Benesch’s hat trick scoring seven-point night, the young guns skillfully hit the twine. Eric Fannell and Petterson each had four goals and Chris Boushy added a hat trick.
“It’s time for the younger guys on the team to shine on offense,” Monture said. “You’ve got Beni [Benesch], Jammer [Jamieson], guys that have been through the riggers of the league for a long time now and proven themselves. Now it’s time for guys like Boushy, Clarkey [Clarke], and Fannell to establish themselves as the top offensive players in the league.”
The love and respect go both ways. While the coaching staff and the veterans want the younger players to have their moment(s) in the sun, those less-experienced players want to play at their best so that the veterans can be rewarded with some hardware by the season’s end.
“They really want to try their best for the veterans, and the veterans are really open to that,” Monture said. “There’s no problems sharing the ball, and everyone is trying to help each other on that offense. From top to bottom, everyone is working for each other, and that’s something that Coach Accursi tells the players a lot.”
“We want the guys to be creative and just play the game – Everybody knows what to do. We’ve simplified the gameplan to hopefully utilize the experience and talent that we have on that offense.”
All this talk about the offense is not to diminish the dominant display that the defense and goaltending put forward. Eight goals allowed were tied for the second-fewest total in Week 1. Petterson emphasized that without Warren Hill being as reliable and dexterous with his stick and body, the offense wouldn’t have the confidence to feel loose and perform at such a high level.
“It all starts with Warren,” Petterson said. “In the NLL, if you want to be a great team, you need to have a great goaltender, and the #1 task is saving the ball. #2, scoring goals on 5-on-5 are not always easy, and he’s one of the best outletters of the ball that I’ve ever seen. I actually like to get back on defense because if I see a guy that’s winding up to shoot, he’s going to save it 95% of the time, and then he can hit you on a dime wherever you are.”
The same can be said about the coaching staff headlined by Mike Accursi. In his second stint with the Thunderbirds, Benesch has seen just how far his coaches are willing to go for this team to help them achieve their goals.
“They do everything they can to prepare us for games,” Benesch said. “With [Coach Accursi], [Coach Billy Dee Smith], Stew [Coach Monture], and Roger, it’s one of those things where they’ve been through it and know what it takes to win. They’re always doing their homework. They’re cutting film, making notes, telling us the weak spots on goalies, and stuff like that. That’s what you want as a player. You want your coaching staff and management to go that extra mile for the team to be successful.”
There are still 17 games remaining this regular season for the Thunderbirds. What happened in Week 1 will likely not occur in the coming weeks (as much as the Thunderbirds would like that to be the case).
Yet, there was a powerful statement made by this team in the first week of action. Coach Monture hopes that they can be in a secure position heading into the postseason by keeping a level-head and improving on facets of their game, such as their chemistry.
“The sky’s the limit with these guys; I really do believe that – this is without Austin Shanks, too,” Monture said. “As long as we’re building every week – we know that there’ll be lulls here and there, and hopefully we can weather those storms and not drop off too much – and as the chemistry builds, you’ll see some good stuff out there. We’re going to try and improve every week. We can’t get complacent.”