PHILADELPHIA — Before he had a Captain’s “C” slapped on his charcoal jersey, before he exchanged that very garment with the Phillies’ Jake Arrieta and before he ran the “Rocky” steps after scarfing down cheesesteaks from Pat’s and Geno’s, Kiel Matisz was a visitor in this city. Then a rookie with the now-relocated Minnesota Swarm, Matisz in 2013 saw firsthand how the home crowd at the Wells Fargo Center treated visitors.
It was not a warm welcome, but a lot has changed in almost six years. The Wings team from those days has a new moniker and plays a few miles up I-95. Matisz, with at least 60 points in each of his last three seasons, has grown into an offensive force in the NLL. That maturation got his name called in this summer’s expansion draft, and earlier this week contributed to his being named captain of the latest installment of box lacrosse in Philadelphia.
This weekend, Matisz will hope that the only thing that has stuck — besides, of course, the Wings name — is how fans treat the opposition. That’s because he and the reincarnated Philadelphia Wings return to the Wells Fargo Center to host the Buffalo Bandits in the new franchise’s first ever regular season contest this Saturday at 1 p.m. ET. The NLL’s Game of the Week can streamed on any device via B/R Live seen in-market on PHL17.
“I think with such a rich sports culture that Philadelphia has, the fans really back the players,” Matisz said this week. “We want to be able to almost return the favor by playing hard every single shift, being physical and not taking this game for granted.”
Because part of that culture includes the Wings club that occupied South Philadelphia from 1987-2014, the league’s 11th franchise has not shied away from its roots. Assistant captain Jordan Hall and assistant coach Tracey Kelusky both played in the former franchise’s last game in the Wells Fargo Center on April 26, 2014. Rookie forward Matt Rambo was coached in high school by Bill Leahy, who occupied the same position for the Wings in the mid-1990s.
Before faceoff Saturday, the team will hoist a team banner as a nod to the six Wings championships (1989, 1990, 1994, 1995, 1998, 2001), along with three individual banners honoring Tom “Hollywood” Marechek (retired no. 42), Dallas Eliuk (retired no. 35), and Jake Bergey (retired no. 66). This, head coach and general manager Paul Day said, will come after a Friday-night practice that, thanks to a few alumni visits, will double as a reminder that a storied past can affect the present.
“We want to make it as good as it was and better,” Day said.
A veteran presence from Matisz, Hall and fellow assistant captain Dylan Evans will lead that quest. The forward position is further stacked with the likes of Blaze Riorden, who will miss this weekend’s game on injured reserve, and Josh Currier and Brett Hickey, both capable scorers. Young offensive talents Chris Cloutier, second overall pick of the 2018 entry draft, and Matt Rambo, former Tewaaraton Award winner, offer tons of potential, too.
“We’ve built a pretty good group that should be able to score every night,” Day said. “I think our identity is going to be that we’re young and we’re fast and we’re physical and aggressive. Our young guys defensively can really pick up the pace of the game and that’s really the type of identity we want for a team in Philadelphia.”
Behind the defense will be two inexperienced but promising goalies. Doug Buchan, who went 8-1 for Day’s Peterborough Lakers of the MSL this summer, joins Davide DiRuscio in net. Both impressed Matisz during a shortened two-week training.
“I think the reality is that all of us were picked to play a role on this team,” Matisz said. “As long as you don’t go outside that role, at least early on, and you kind of play to your strengths, we’re going to see success. And I’ve been really impressed with our defensive core back there.”
Opposite the Wings netminders will be six-time NLL goalie of the year Matt Vinc, Buffalo’s best hope for improving on an 8-10 campaign that left it out of the 2018 playoffs. The newly-acquired Vinc and a revamped defensive unit should fare better than the seventh-ranked 240 goals the Bandits allowed a season ago.
Up front, Corey Small joins an already strong unit led by 100-point scorer Dhane Smith and Shawn Evans, who notched 83 points a season ago between New England and Buffalo. In scrimmage against the Wings two weeks ago, second-year forward Chase Fraser notched four goals.
Saturday’s matchup, though, counts for real. It’s will be the revival of an historic NLL rivalry and the culmination of a lengthy team-building process for Day, who since taking the job has aimed for chemistry. He sought guys that had played together before. He wanted leaders. In Matisz, Hall, Evans, and other expansion drafts picks, he found filled those needs. Now it’s time to test how they mesh with the rest of a young roster and a franchise aiming for the playoffs in its first year of competition.
“We’re lucky that we have a fresh culture,” Day said. “We have the history of the Wings but we have the fresh locker room and culture…It’s a ‘we’ culture that we want to build. It’s not a ‘me’ culture. And it’s family first. That’s the type of people that we’ve brought here.”