May 15, 2012

Small Market, Big Ambitions For Rochester Knighthawks

by Neil Stevens |

For the first time in five years, the Rochester Knighthawks are in the NLL final. And in an effort to pack the 11,000-seat Blue Cross Arena, the team is selling tickets for only $15.
© John Strohsacker/

The Rochester Knighthawks play in the National Lacrosse League's smallest market but they've always had big ambitions.

They've been around for 18 years now and are about to make their seventh championship game appearance. Not bad, not bad at all.

The Knighthawks go for their third pro title when they take on the visiting Edmonton Rush on Saturday night. Owner-manager Curt Styres is selling tickets at only $15 so the 11,000-seat Blue Cross Arena, the oldest venue in the NLL, should be packed and noisy. There will be plenty of color for CBS Sports to capture during its live TV broadcast.

The return of former captain Shawn Williams adds intrigue.

The Rochester franchise took root as an expansion entry for the 1995 season of what was then known as the Major Indoor Lacrosse League. There were six teams in the MILL that year and the regular season consisted of only eight games. The new kids on the block managed to get to the final and lost 15-14 in Philadelphia when Gary Gait scored his sixth goal of the night in overtime for the Wings. Twin brother Paul Gait was playing for the Knighthawks.

The last MILL game was played on April 12, 1997, when the Barry Powless-coached Knighthawks went into Buffalo and beat the Bandits 15-12 in front of more than 18,000 spectators in a new facility that was at that time called the Marine Midland Arena. It's the First Niagara Center now. Paul Gait and Duane Jacobs were Rochester's scoring stars that year but it was Steve Dietrich's goaltending that lifted the team to its first pro title. Chugger was a deserving MVP selection. He's the Toronto Rock goaltending coach today.

The MILL morphed into the National Lacrosse League.

Rochester lost the 1999 final 13-10 in Toronto and dropped the 2000 final there, too, in heartbreaking 14-13 fashion when Kaleb Toth scored for the Rock with one second remaining in the last sports event held in Maple Leaf Gardens -- it was a sellout with nearly 16,000 in the seats -- before its NHL team's owners, who'd already moved the Leafs to Air Canada Centre, closed the hockey shrine for good. It's a supermarket with an ice rink on an upper floor today.

By 2003, the NLL had 12 teams in three divisions. Rochester finished first in the Central and first overall with a 12-4 record with Pat O'Toole winning goalie-of-the-year distinction. The championship game, played in a sold out Blue Cross Arena, was a hard-checking battle that Toronto rallied to win 8-6. Rock goalie Bob Watson was unbeatable in the second half and was named MVP of that title game.

The Knighthawks won their second pro title in 2007 when 13 teams were split into East and West divisions. John Grant Jr. was all-everything that season, winning the scoring title and the MVP award as his team went 14-2 including 12 consecutive wins to close out the season. Grant's OT goal in the East final dispatched Buffalo and the Ed Comeau-coached squad had home floor for the final.

Blue Cross Arena was unavailable due to a prior booking of a circus and the Champion's Cup game was played on the home floor of the Arizona Sting in the Phoenix burbs. Rochester won it 13-11 in front of 10,000 spectators. Grant scored three goals and assisted on five and was named MVP.

Now, for the first time in five years, Rochester is back in the final of what is now a nine-team league split into East and West divisions. It will be played in Blue Cross Arena for the first time since 2003 when images of Watson making save after save were burned into the memory banks of Knighthawks fans.

This time, Knighthawks fans will be hoping images of Matt Vinc making save after save will be the lingering memory.

Vinc's former understudy and now Rush first-stringer Aaron Bold will be at the other end. It'll be a marvellous goaltending matchup. Also returning to Rochester with the Rush will be former Knighthawks captain Shawn Williams. Bold and Williams were traded to Edmonton last October for Ryan Cousins, Alex Kedoh-Hill and Andy Secore. Only Cousins has been used in the Knighthawks' 2012 playoff games.

Edmonton and Rochester did not meet during the regular season so this is the first game back for Bold and Williams. Who would have thought it? An Edmonton-at-Rochester final? Back in December, you'd be lucky to find one in 100 NLL fans predicting these two teams, with Williams and Bold coming in with the visitors, would rendezvous in Blue Cross Arena to decide the Champion's Cup winner.

''It's definitely going to be exciting, for a couple of reasons,'' Williams replies when asked what it will be like for him to return to his old rink. ''We're in the last game, which is where you always want to be, and I played there for 10 years.

''I don't have any ill will towards anybody there. I'm just excited for the chance to be there playing for a championship.''

The 2007 title win is one of his favorite lacrosse memories.

''It was an unbelievable ride,'' he recalls. ''It was a tight, tight unit. To put the final touches on that season was unbelievable. I look back on that season fondly. I made a lot of friendships from it.''

Getting bumped by the circus actually worked out well.

''We were disappointed when we first heard about that,'' Williams recalls. ''You finally get to the point where you have home field and you've lost it . . . but once we found out we dealt with it and we were fine. We got down [to Arizona] early and it all worked out.''

Williams agrees that the Vinc-Bold goaltending duel will be a highlight of the 2012 title game.

''It's going to be a dandy,'' he says. ''Both goalies are capable of stealing a game so both teams will have to keep at it and keep at it.''

It'll be a last-goal-wins scenario, he predicts.

It'll be the latest chapter in a Rochester lacrosse story worthy of a book.

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