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The Thunderbirds’ Popularity Emanates From The Top Down

“It’s been an unbelievable journey since day one. The city has welcomed us and made us feel like a part of the community. It’s been an amazing start for us.”

These are the deeply held words of Halifax Thunderbirds President & CEO John Catalano when providing his assessment of the T-Birds’ five-year odyssey in Nova Scotia’s largest city, after relocating from Rochester in 2019. The longtime NLL executive remains completely enamored with the metro area of 500,000 inhabitants, a half decade post relocation.

“It’s a great city. They are so community oriented. They support their community so well. They take a lot of pride in their city and teams. Plus, it’s a gorgeous place to live. It’s a beautiful area with a very vibrant downtown and great nightlife. It’s just perfect for an NLL franchise to succeed,” boasted Catalano.

The original version of the Knighthawks called Western New York home from 1995 through 2019, with the second incarnation of the franchise beginning play shortly after owner Curt Styres repositioned his organization 1,045 miles northeast (1,681 km) to Canada’s Atlantic Coast.

Styres, the NLL’s sole Indigenous owner, grew up on Ontario’s fabled Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve, later building a business and sports empire that catapulted him into franchise ownership.

“Curt’s upbringing brings his unique culture to the organization. Were very family oriented; every person has a say and is involved. His Indigenous ties are huge regarding culture of our organization and is a big part of our success,” explained Catalano.

The longtime Knighthawks/Thunderbirds employee credits the man at the top for creating an environment that has proven to be hugely beneficial for those who both work for and cheer on the team.

Curt Styres in 2019 (Trevor MacMillan/Halifax Thunderbirds)

“Curt is such a great guy. None of this happens without him. He is such a fan, on top of just being an owner,” stated Catalano. “He is always pushing us to give back to the community and the fans coming to the games. He is huge on us growing the game of lacrosse wherever we are.”

The high-ranking executive later added, “Curt is invaluable to our success. He understands what needs to be done and gives us the resources to bring the game to the next level. I don’t think there is another owner that has the commitment and drive to grow the game.”

Styres and Catalano’s determination to succeed in their new place of residence included the immediate challenge of persevering through the onslaught of Covid-19, which halted their inaugural season in Halifax (after just 12 games), before fully cancelling what would have been year two in the area.

“We had to start over and reinvent ourselves once Covid was done,” noted Catalano. “Thanks to Curt we were able to keep our entire staff intact. We did a lot of virtual events with schools and kids. We did virtual lunches with season ticket holders on a weekly basis. We did everything we could to stay connected at the time.”

During the NLL’s return to action in 2022, the Thunderbirds averaged 5,500 fans per game. Last season marked the very first time the organization had the opportunity to host every one of their scheduled home dates, with attendance at Scotiabank Centre jumping to more than 8,500 spectators a night.

This season, the meteoric rise of T-Bird popularity has accelerated into high gear with the team averaging in the neighborhood of 9,000 supporters a contest, including a franchise record of 10,196 devotees during a Week 16 matchup with the Panther City Lacrosse Club.

One of the many secrets to the Thunderbirds’ amplified level of success centers around the myriad of ways in which the club has entrenched themselves into their lacrosse loving community, particularly at the youth level. In addition to hosting camps and clinics and participating in the junior NLL program, the “Sticks For Kidz” initiative involves players meeting with as many as six to seven classes in a given day, teaching students the basics of the sport including stickhandling, passing and catching. A separate school reading program features players reciting books that focus on the history of lacrosse, along with inclusion and diversity.

For Catalano, the fruits of their labor have been both immediate and far-reaching.

Halifax, Nova Scotia – Dec 01, 2023: National Lacrosse League game between the Halifax Thunderbirds and Saskatchewan Rush at the Scotiabank Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (Trevor MacMillan/Halifax Thunderbirds)

“The Halifax lacrosse community was bigger than we originally thought, and has grown since, with the programs seeing a ton of new signups. The game is growing and we are trying to be a part of teaching the game to kids, getting them more access to lacrosse and higher-level players who can teach them things they may not learn otherwise.”

Despite Clarke Petterson and Max Wilson serving as the T-Birds’ lone full-time in-market residents, the squad’s ability to cast a wide marketing/community outreach net has been greatly enhanced by ownership’s willingness to provide certain players with off-field contracts, compensating them for time spent around Halifax, separate from their NLL on-field responsibilities.

“Curt allows us to bring players in early. Tyson Bell, Graeme Hossack, Jake Withers and others come in a couple days before or a couple days after games, or both, and we make sure to have plenty of activities for them when in-market. From day one we knew how important it is to have players engrained in the community,” said Catalano.

This ever-growing love affair between team and city is omnipresent, whether it be at a game, during a community event, or simply when walking down Barrington Street or Spring Garden Road in downtown Halifax.

“From players to staff members and management, we are continually stopped in the community and thanked for bringing the Thunderbirds to Halifax,” said Catalano. “We are the only professional sport in the area; our fans know that and treat our players like rockstars, and the players really enjoy that. The players, in turn, give a lot back because of the love they feel from the community.”

Despite the T-Birds’ efficacious beginnings in Halifax, absolutely nobody within the organization is resting on their laurels, with Catalano wholeheartedly believing that buying a ticket to a game provides the opportunity to enjoy the picturesque city at it’s very best.

“Our job at Scotiabank Centre and ‘The Nest’ is to provide entertainment from the moment we open the doors till the moment you leave. We will always have something that keeps you entertained and engaged. It’s not just a lacrosse game, it’s a night out. It’s the most exciting night you’ll ever get in Halifax.”

NLL