Carving a niche in a new city is never easy, but the Halifax Thunderbirds are starting their Nova Scotian journey off with a bang.
The Thunderbirds (formally the Rochester Knighthawks) have already made history this year. Since joining the league back in 1995, none of their teams had started 4-0. When they battle the San Diego Seals this weekend, they could become the first NLL team since the 2014 Buffalo Bandits and 2014 Saskatchewan Rush to start their season at 5-0 – the Rush began that season a remarkable 14-0.
Head Coach Mike Accursi was part of the confidence-building process of this group toward the end of last season when he was an assistant coach under Mike Hasen’s Knighthawks. The Knighthawks struggled for two-thirds of the year before flipping a switch, helped by not having pressure on their backs, and went on to win four of the last five games.
But that confidence, as Thunderbirds forward Cody Jamieson puts it, is fragile. As (arguably) the best team in the NLL’s, the target now has been placed on their backs, unlike last season.
“Confidence is an awesome thing,” Jamieson said, “but, it can quickly turn to cockiness if you let it… It’s got to be 99% confidence and 1% cockiness… we want to win way more games than we have so far this season.”
It could be said that confidence is exuding from every position.
Warren Hill is having a breakout NLL season in between the pipes. He is posting career-high numbers in Goals Against Average (8.75) and Save Percentage (82%). Those numbers are some of the league’s best in those categories.
The offense is balanced and is seeing strong efforts from both the seasoned veterans and the younger-but-still-very-skilled forwards such as rookie Clarke Petterson and Austin Shanks, who both have five goals and five assists in four games.
Accursi has been greatly pleased by the offensive distribution so far. The Thunderbirds have seven players with five or more goals – none of them have more than eight. They also have seven players with 10 or more points – none of them have more than 18. Giving defenses the challenge of figuring out which one of those many potential scorers to guard spreads the back-end out, which actually happens to be working in the Thunderbirds favor.
“We really wanted to create an offense that was offense by committee,” Accursi said. “If you have everyone contributing on every single night, it’s very hard for defenses to adjust from one or two guys. We have future hall of famers for sure in Cody Jamieson and Ryan Benesch; those guys are going to score, but, if you have great complimentary scoring and guys that can contribute every night, you don’t have to rely on just them.”
Yet it’s the defense, and, by extension I’ll include Hill and face-off wizard Jake Withers, who Accursi believes is the not-so-secret weapon of this team.
“I think we have a very well-balanced offense, but I think our defense is what’s going to lead us to success,” Accursi said. “We have a very deep, young, athletic back-end that right now is one solid unit. They’re only going to get better as the season goes on and we get more comfortable.
Rookies Nonkon Thompson, Trevor Smyth, and Corey Becker are picking up the team’s defensive system quickly and are following the lead of the veteran Scott Campbell and early-season Defensive Player of the Year nominee Graeme Hossack. But Hossack, a man who redefines defensive excellence every year, was quick to point out that the back end still has much work to do.
“We’ve been working very hard,” Hossack said. “But we’ve also been making some mistakes, and hopefully we’ll be learning from those. A lot of it is little things, miscues, and has to do with communication. We’re still early in the season, and we’re trying to get to know some of the new guys on the team still.”
Regardless of the mistakes, the facts are the facts. The Thunderbirds have the best record in the NLL and lead the North Division. According to Jamieson, though, this team can’t afford to become complacent. In a league such as the NLL that’s packed with talent, any team can test another on any given night, and sometimes that’s because certain things don’t fall your way. It’s in those moments, he says, that will show the true character of this team while facing adversity.
“I’d be naive to think that we haven’t gotten lucky in some of these wins,” Jamieson said. “The ball has been bouncing in the net instead of hitting the post. The lacrosse gods have been on our side lately. Sooner or later, it’ll start hitting the post instead of going in. We’ve got to make sure we stay the course and be prepared for whatever comes next.”