May 15, 2013

Stevens: Bold Moves, Great Coaching Put Rochester On Top

by Neil Stevens |

Rochester became the first NLL team to win back-to-back titles in 10 years on Saturday night, the culmination of a year of great leadership from general manager Curt Styres and head coach Mike Hasen.
© Clint Trahan

Daring personnel moves by general manager Curt Styres and the lineup orchestrations of head coach Mike Hasen have brought the Rochester Knighthawks to where they are today: 2012 and 2013 NLL champions — the first team in 10 years to do the double.

It is a close working relationship. There's a telephone conversation between Styres at Six Nations and Hasen in Brampton early each week to set the table for the week, Wednesday practice at the Iroquois Lacrosse Arena that Styres built, and game weekends together.

Styres doesn't over-manage. He picks good people to run his businesses then lets them do their jobs.

''There's lots of pieces to the puzzle,'' Hasen said of the teamwork between Styres and the coaching staff. ''Lots of opinions are taken into account.''

Styres poured this Knighthawks foundation after buying the club in 2008 by using No. 1 draft slots in 2009 and 2010 to get two key players, defensive stud Sid Smith and fantastic forward Cody Jamieson, who he'd helped develop since they were midget age — 15 and 16 — in the Six Nations ranks.

He's made stunning trades along the way: all-world scorer John Grant Jr. to Colorado in 2010 for the goalie, Matt Vinc, he needed to win championships; scoring-champion-to-be Shawn Evans to Calgary in 2011 for the No. 5 pick that landed him terrific teen Johnny Powless; and the rights to Paul Rabil and three others to Philadelphia last October for Dawson brothers Dan and Paul as well as Philadelphia's 2016 first-rounder.

At the March trading deadline this season, he sent U.S. lacrosse legend Casey Powell to Colorado in a deal that didn't bring him a lot but which freed up playing time for others on the right side of the offense. Mike Accursi and Craig Point had been healthy scratches at times.

''We had six righties at the start of the year and every single one of them could play,'' Hasen said during an interview.

Moving Powell let Accursi and Point resume premier full-time roles.

''You never want to see a guy like Casey go because he's such a dynamic player,'' Hasen said. ''We juggled the right side to the very end. All the guys worked hard to finding chemistry together and to get comfortable in their roles. It was an ongoing thing.''

Hasen was impressed with the way Point responded to the competition for playing time.

''Craig did a lot of extra time in the gym and worked hard to be a better player for us,'' he said. ''He was ready to go when he was called upon. He came up big for us in the playoffs.''

Point scored four goals in the 12-10 win over Minnesota in the East final. Dan Dawson had scored four in the 10-8 win over Philadelphia in the first round. The right side was getting it done.

Rochester won seven of its last nine games including playoffs. Through it all, Hasen came across as a patient man. He'd talk about the need to get better, about how the whole season was an evolutionary process. He was using reason rather than ranting.

''Sometimes looks can be deceiving,'' he said when offered the suggestion he was always cool, calm and collected. ''We use the 16 games [of the regular season] to make sure we're better for game 19.

''Every time we step on the floor we want to win. Any loss is very disappointing to myself, the whole coaching staff and for the organization. We take it all as a learning experience but our ultimate goal is to win every time we step on the floor.''

He used to be a defenseman so he doesn't object to being described as a D-first coach. Working with the back-end boys Styres signed to front Vinc, it was a labor of love for the coaches to break down opponents' offenses. Jason Johnson, Paul Day and Pat O'Toole, the former 'Hawks goalie who worked closely with Vinc, are the assistant coaches.

Jamieson, a lefty, scored three goals in the final just two weeks after suffering a high ankle sprain of his left foot in the win over Philadelphia. Jamieson, in only his third year in the league, is the first player since John Tavares in 1992-1993 to be title game MVP two years in a row.

''It was better than it was the week before but he definitely was not 100 percent,'' said Hasen.

Smith, as captain, accepted the Champion's Cup and handed it off to 12-year vet Dan Dawson, who handed it to Scott Self, a 13-year man. The two had never held it over their heads. They were among the character players Styres had supplied. They had overcome what at times seemed to be impossible odds. Remember, Rochester had an 0-3 January and was 3-5 at the schedule's halfway point as the process of sorting out the right side continued.

''We were doubted all year long,'' Hasen said. ''We had a target on our back after winning last year and every team was ready to play us. I'm very proud to have been a part of this.''

Rochester is Dan Dawson's sixth NLL team so he knows of what he speaks when he says Styres runs a first-class operation.

''He's a total class act,'' Dawson said. ''He's a great leader and a great person.

''He not only cares about you for what you do on the floor but, more importantly, what you do off the floor. He's the main reason we got to win the cup this year.''

Here's the type of things Styres does: last weekend, with the game in Langley, British Columbia, and many of the Knighthawks players from Ontario, families of the some of the players could not afford to get last-minute flights to be at the championship game.

''Curt wanted everybody to have at least one family member out there,'' said Dawson. ''He offered to pay for that so they could enjoy that experience. He's an unbelievable humanitarian.''

On Hasen, Dawson was just as generous in his comments.

''He's an unbelievable coach,'' Dawson said. ''He's so level-headed. He's such a calming influence on our bench whether things are going good or bad. He's a consummate professional.

''He'll be the first one to deflect the team's success onto other people. In this league you need a coach who is well prepared and knowledgeable and Mike prepares himself better than anybody I've seen. We'll get emails from him at three or four in the morning and ask ourselves, 'Does he get any sleep?' All he cares about is the team. He's so unselfish. I love playing for him.''

Neil Stevens has covered pro and Canadian lacrosse since 1971. He and the late Tom Borrelli — a longtime Lacrosse Magazine contributor — are the only media members recognized by the NLL Hall of Fame.

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