February 25, 2009

Boston's Blazing Hot Behind NLL's Frat Boys

by Theresa Smith | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Dan Dawson, who leads the NLL with 43 assists, is one of 14 Blazers currently living in Boston -- a proximity he cites in explaining the expansion Blazers' 6-3 start.
© Larry Palumbo

The Web site is dynamic, Dan Dawson's video blogs are hilarious and Baseball Hall of Famer Jim Rice will be in the house on Saturday night, but all the marketing expertise of the Boston Blazers could not generate the buzz the players have created on and off the floor.

In a fabulous return to professional box lacrosse, the National Lacrosse League's youngest team has bonded like frat boys, translating the positive vibes from sharing dish duty into unselfish picks, a commitment to sharing the ball and a defense that covers up for each other.

Shredding the expansion label, the Blazers defeated New York and swept Philadelphia earlier this month, then headed west, defeating Minnesota 16-12 last Friday and edging West Division leader Calgary 11-10 on Sunday.

Team scoring leader Dawson, an eight-year veteran, led the offense with 15 assists and four goals on the swing, earning NLL Overall Player of the Week honors and moving into second in points with 60, four behind Buffalo's Mark Steenhuis.

Returning to Beantown and the North End, where 14 players live, the expansion Blazers are 6-3, one place behind defending champion Buffalo in the NLL East.

Dawson credits familial trust for the NLL-leading, four-game win streak.

"Confidence is huge," he said. "And it's not being cocky. That is very different. We're a very confident team right now. Once you learn to win and get that feeling, you want to do it all the time. So winning on the road twice in one weekend, for any team is great, especially a team that is new to the league."

Dawson leads the NLL with 43 assists, on pace to erase his career-high 60 in 2007 for the defunct Arizona Sting. The 6-foot-5, 225-pounder uses a blend of speed and size to swim around defenders and get to the net.

Yet after scoring more than two goals per game the past four seasons, his scoring pace has dipped. In nine games, he has 17 goals.

"My shooting percentage is down a little bit," he said. "I'm getting good looks. I just haven't been able to bury them as much as I used to."

But they don't call him "Dangerous Dan" for nothing. With 36 seconds left in a tied game in Calgary, he silenced Roughnecks fans with the game-winner.

Scoring or passing, the five-time all-star is cool with whatever is required.

"I'll do whatever the team needs," he said. "If I'm drawing double teams and I'm not allowed to go to the net, then I'm finding guys open and I'm okay with that role.

"I'm surrounded by talented players. The young guys I'm surrounded by don't get a lot of love in this league like they should."

Dan lives with his girlfriend and his teammate/brother, Paul, one block from two other apartments rented by Blazers' players and a five-bedroom house.

"The team camaraderie we're building both on and off the floor is great," Dawson said. "We live together, eat together, work out together seven days a week."

Only six players fly in from other cities, where they hold down jobs for their main source of income.

Fourteen others were willing to relocate to Boston, in some cases sacrificing career advancement, a commitment coach and general manager Tom Ryan cites as the root cause of such quick success.

After starting 0-2 with losses to New York, the Blazers swept Philadelphia, then lost a one-goal game to Portland. At that juncture, Dawson's influence was crucial.

"People know a lot about Dan Dawson and his abilities on the floor, but he's a great leader," Ryan said.

According to Ryan, Dawson helped his young mates realize that the LumberJax loss was a wake-up call for some players who were bordering on overconfidence following the triumphs over the Wings.

Off the floor, Dawson is meshed with the game, working in the Blazers' front offices, promoting the team in the community and making appearances at schools, along with teammates, through the LEAD (leadership, education, attitude, dedication) program.

"We do appearances together, we lift together and shoot around, we have team meals out, and we cook for each other," he said. "It is kind of endless here. We have three apartments and one team house, so there's lots going on."

Youth is served in leaps and bounds for a roster comprised of nine rookies, six second-year players, three third-year players, two fourth-year players, and one fifth-year player. Plus, Dawson in his eighth year and all-star goaltender Anthony Cosmo in his ninth.

Second-year defenseman Mitch Belisle made a name for himself on YouTube with a bone-jarring hit on New York's Jarett Park, and the team developed a reputation for resilience with a comeback for the ages - scoring two goals in 9.5 seconds to defeat the Titans.

The attendance average of 6,119 is not above the league average of 10,000 as management projected, but there is market penetration in a Title Town, boasting the Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins.

Dawson is on message, selling the sport's non-stop flow.

"You get to see 5-on-5, non-stop action for two hours. There's lots of goals, lots of physicality, and the odd fight which is always neat," he said.

Top draft pick Daryl Veltman is a rookie of the year candidate with 19 goals, 23 assists and 60 loose balls. Rookie Gary Bining is producing (13g, 16a), along with second-year forwards Brenden Thenhaus (11g, 17a) and Matt Lyons (10g, 18a) and third-year transition player Jason Bloom (10g, 3a).

Rookie Jon Harnett, 20, was awarded NLL defensive player of the week honors on Wednesday for his role in the 2-0 road trip, scooping 25 loose balls and making two assists.

Cosmo ranks seventh in the NLL in goals against average at 10.30.

A lucky fan will be selected to sit next to Jim Rice on Saturday night for the San Jose contest, a matchup of Daryl Veltman against his older brother, Peter.

It also represents another chance for the Blazers to show that they belong - among the NLL elite and among the successful pro sports scene in Boston.

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