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Thunderbirds Owner Curt Styres Surprises 2014 Knighthawks with Trip to Punta Cana

One day last fall, members of the 2014 Rochester Knighthawks received a surprising e-mail. Opening it would be one of the best decisions of their lacrosse lives. But first, we need to rewind a little bit.

Less than two weeks after the conclusion of the 2008 NLL season, Curt Styres, a proud Mohawk from the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve, bought the Rochester Knighthawks (now Halifax Thunderbirds). With the purchase, Styres became the first Indigenous owner in NLL history.

Prior to Styres purchase of the team, the Knighthawks had won two NLL championships and had made the playoffs every year from their inaugural season in 1995 to 2007. Styres came in after the team had missed the playoffs for the first time in its existence.

He was poised to bring his team back to championship glory when he took over the Knighthawks franchise ahead of the 2009 season. As current Philadelphia Wings GM, Paul Day, an assistant coach with the Knighthawks for a handful of years in the early 2010s, said about Styres: whatever Styres gets involved in, he wants to improve it.

The game of lacrosse is better since hes been involved,” Day said. Whether hes building an arena like the ILA (Iroquois Lacrosse Arena) that everybody plays at, including NLL teams who practice there or use it in the preseason – he built that for that community. The Minto Cups that have come out of his involvement with the Six Nations Arrows (Ontario Junior A lacrosse) going back to the early 2000s to National Lacrosse League teams to Under Armor equipment to Gait equipment, hes put the game in a better position, whether it’s minor, junior, the pros, or internationally with the Haudenosaunee.”

Paul Day and his wife Angela

What the organization accomplished in his first five years as owner was nothing short of extraordinary. Furthermore, what the Knighthawks achieved during that five-year span has never been replicated.

During the formative years of Styres’ leadership, the team made significant moves to shake up the roster. In those first few years, the Knighthawks were involved in multiple trades to collect draft picks, and they made notable signings that helped shape the team for the long term.

In late 2010, Styres, who was also the Knighthawks’ GM, made the bold move to trade Knighthawks’ lifer and NLL legend John Grant Jr. (and Mac Allen) to the Colorado Mammoth in exchange for a young guy who was just starting to make a name for himself in the pros, Matt Vinc (as well as Brad Self and Matt Zash). To this day, it is one of the most memorable deals in NLL history.

But, that wasn’t all. Other notable moves included Styres trading Gavin Prout, who was still producing solid numbers at the time of the deal, within weeks of acquiring him. It was a deal that included key first-round draft picks, one of them ending up as the first overall selection in the 2010 NLL Entry Draft – that pick was Cody Jamieson. The Knighthawks also acquired players like Craig Point, Sid Smith, Joel McCready and Joe Walters. These guys would play instrumental roles in the teams very near future.

From the time Styres took over the team in the lead-up to the 2009 season through the 2011 season, he and his staff made so many moves that the team became less recognizable. During the 2011 season alone, Styres added more than a dozen new players: Jordan Hall, Scott Campbell, Mike Accursi and Pat McCready (the latter two re-joined the club after time away) were a few of the newer guys that joined the Knighthawks in that time frame.

The movement was a lot for everyone to digest at the time, but it paid off. There were moves that may have been considered risky or even controversial, but as Coach Day put it, they were moves that showed that Styres was serious about winning.

Curt’s vision was different than most owners,” Day said. “He wasn’t afraid to trade a veteran guy or a star player. Then, we started to build a team with players where everyone had a role.”

The 2011 season was a success for the Knighthawks – they finished tied for first place in the East Division. Although they couldn’t build off of their regular season success in those playoffs, Styres was honored as NLL General Manager of the Year and NLL Executive of the Year. Knighthawks head coach Mike Hasen also won the Les Bartley Award for Head Coach of the Year. As great as things were looking after the 2011 season, they were about to get even better.

In lacrosse, winning games is important, but when those wins happen is even more important. You want to be a team that gets hot at the right time. In 2012, with Stephen Keogh and Johnny Powless added into the fold, the Knighthawks finished the regular season with a 7-9 record but still managed to make it to the playoffs. Once they were in the postseason, the team started clicking on a level that they hadn’t reached yet that season. They won all three of their postseason games without too many speed bumps to claim their first NLL championship since 2007.

The following year was similar. After a few more changes, including adding Scott Self and Paul and Dan Dawson, the Knighthawks finished the regular season with an 8-8 record but again made the playoffs. Their 2013 playoff run was more nerve-wracking than the previous year, but they still managed to reach the top of the mountain to win back-to-back championships.

Then came 2014, a year that has gone down as one of the most incredible sporting accomplishments in history. As back-to-back NLL champions, the Knighthawks had a target on their back. But that didn’t matter – look at how they thrived under pressure during the 2012 and 2013 playoffs.

Still, Mike Hasen, who is still the head coach of the (new) Knighthawks and has been since 2011, noted that the team was feeling that pressure.

There was a little bit of pressure on us [in 2014],” Hasen said. There have been multiple teams that have repeated as champions, but no one has ever won that third in row. We were kind of chasing it a little bit, but things just fell into place.”

Through it all, the Knighthawks still managed to put together one of the most impressive regular seasons. Their 14 wins in their 14-4 regular season tied the 2007 franchise record for the most wins in one regular season and is one of the highest win totals to date in NLL history. When the playoffs came around, things got a little more challenging.

In the best-of-three Eastern Finals (the Knighthawks had a bye through the East Semi-Finals), they lost to the Buffalo Bandits in Game One but bounced back and took care of business in Game Two. The series was to be decided in a 15-minute mini-game. Unbelievably, that series also went to a golden-goal overtime period. Cory Vitarelli scored the game winner, and the Knighthawks advanced to the NLL Finals to face the Calgary Roughnecks.

The NLL Finals, also a best-of-three series, went much like the series with the Bandits; the Roughnecks took Game One. Again, much like the 2013 series, the Knighthawks were resilient and won Game Two. Game Three was another mini-game. This one went back and forth over the 15-minute frame, but the Knighthawks prevailed. They did what no team has ever been able to do: win three NLL championships in a row. 2014 was the year that NLL history was made.

Three-peats in North American sports are very rare. They have only occurred around a dozen times in the combined histories of the big four (NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB), and the majority of those that did happen were before the 1970s. In the modern era of professional sports, you just dont see runs like this very often. They have become generational occurrences at best.

When the Knighthawks won that third consecutive title, Styres knew just how special that moment was, and that brings us back to the e-mail that the former Knighthawks received in October 2023. With the 10-year anniversary of that magical moment coming up, he wanted to do something special for all the people who were involved in the teams success that season.

As Paul Dawson explained it, he opened his inbox and saw an email from Tracy Johnson, the Halifax Thunderbirds’ Vice President of Operations. Tracy has been in this role even before the Knighthawks’ three-peat years. The e-mail stated that the members of the 2014 Knighthawks team and plus-ones would be invited to a week-long, all-inclusive reunion along the shores of Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. When Dawson read through the e-mail, he couldn’t believe his eyes.

“There’s not many legitimate pro franchises that are doing something like this,” Dawson said. This is a man who is very generous with his time and his money – if this had never happened, no one would have batted an eye. We would’ve been like, ‘Oh, its been 10 years already? Cool.’ And then this happens. It’s almost surreal. To first get the e-mail that we did, but then for it to get pulled off, it is like this guy almost ceases to amaze you. He does so much, and then, wait, here’s one more thing to top it all off.”

For Styres, celebrating the monumental 2014 championship in this way couldn’t have felt more right.

Im so happy and thankful to recognize the Rochester Knighthawks 2012, 2013 and 2014 National Lacrosse League championships,” Styres said. A dynasty was built, and celebrating the Rochester Knighthawks’ incredible achievement was a given. Savoring those bonds still prevalent today, honoring the hard work of the players, coaches, ticket staff, sponsors, and most of all, the fans, is so important because without them, what do we have? Its so much better when you can share success with all that built this dynasty. It was a special way to reunite as Rochester Knighthawks and truly thank everyone for their dedication over those years.”

No matter who you ask, anyone who has worked for Styres over the years has loved the experience. Styres has not only shown that he is able to create a successful businesses in a multitude of fields but hes also shown that he can create an environment that people love to work in.

Curt has always been about family,” Hasen said. When we were there, he made sure our family was always around. Now, 10 years later, after everyone had gone their separate ways, he made it feel like were the same family again. Thats what he does: he creates a great atmosphere for everyone to feel welcomed into.”

Even the Thunderbirds’ extended family was invited to take part in the celebration. Styres brought longtime Knighthawks’ season ticket member, Tim ‘Knabber’ Knab, as well as John Terrigino, owner of the Stock Exchange Restaurant. Terrigino’s restaurant supplied all the postgame meals for home games, the after parties for the championships and many other team celebrations.

Putting a reunion together for 100 people was no small feat. On one night, party buses took anyone who wanted to go to the famous Coco Bongo nightclub. Another night, there was a big gala to celebrate the 2014 team. Players and coaches took this time to talk about the team, their successes and their owner.

As part of their tribute to him, members of the Knighthawks team gifted Styres a custom-made navy blue suit that was lined with the names of the players and staff of the three-peat. The players did this for Styres not only because he loves his suits but also because Styres has done something very similar for his players in the past.

Curt Styres receives his custom suit

In Rochester, the players’ jerseys were custom-made with their loved one’s names sewed on by the right sleeve and on their shoulders,” Styres said. “These people were special to them. While in Punta Cana, I was gifted a suit with a lining bearing the names of everyone involved in the Rochester Knighthawks championship three-peat (2012-2014). It was a heartfelt gift that symbolizes the unity, dedication and hard work of not just the players but also the coaches, staff and supporters who contributed to our success over those remarkable years.

“It serves as a reminder of the incredible journey we’ve been on together and the strong bonds that tie us as a team and as a community. Now, every time I wear this suit, I will be reminded of the gratitude and appreciation we have for each other’s efforts and the enduring spirit of our Knighthawks family. It truly is such a special gift to have received.”

Gestures like this from Styres showcase his love and connection with each and every one of his NLL family members, from the Knighthawks to the Thunderbirds. It doesn’t matter what position you’ve held at any time during Styres’ ownership; he finds a way to make a positive impact on your life.

Take Charlie Ragusa, who is now in his 15th year working for Styres. He started out as a game presentation intern and the guy who would run the team flag out of the tunnel before games started. By 2014, he had worked his way up to being an account executive, and is now the digital/social media manager of the Thunderbirds. Ragusa has stated unequivocally that Curt has been one of the most influential people he has met and worked with. Of course, Ragusa took part in the events in Punta Cana.

I am honored to call Curt a friend and a mentor,” Ragusa said. I could not be more thankful to have spent the last 15 years of my life with someone who I view as the greatest owner in all of professional sports.”

Bringing everyone together is not something you hear about often in professional sports. One of the reasons it’s so hard in this industry is that after 10 years, its simply hard to get this many players and personnel together in such a grand way.

That’s the one thing about team sports: when the season is over (whether it’s a championship or a loss), its usually the last time that youre going to be with that exact same team,” Dawson said. Theres trades, free agents, rookies coming in the next year. Its just the nature of our league, and everyone lives in different places. There was never really another time where we really celebrated this.”

Ten years on from that final championship, Styres and the Thunderbirds hope they can one day have a celebration like this for themselves after they three-peat. One thing is for sure: as long as Styres is still with the team, theres a chance that all of the members of his organization might receive another surprising yet wonderfully special e-mail.