February 23, 2016

Saskatoon Welcoming the NLL with Open Arms

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

One of the most positive developments for the National Lacrosse League during the first half of the season has been the instant popularity of pro indoor lacrosse in Saskatoon.

Most Americans never heard of this place on the Canadian prairies before owner Bruce Urban packed up his 2015 champion Edmonton Rush and moved them out of Alberta and into neighboring Saskatchewan. Saskatoon is the province's largest city, with 270,000 Saskatonians plus 22,000 during the school year at the University of Saskatchewan, which is one of the top research schools in Canada. The city was named after a berry that grows wild in the region. It is a five-hour drive north from Montana.

Before the Rush moved to Saskatoon, general manager and coach Derek Keenan had been there once, briefly and entirely by accident. That was on a flight to Edmonton from Toronto when weather forced the plane to land and passengers sat in the airport for a few hours until they were able to continue on. Keenan was impressed with the small and immaculately clean airport on that stop. He's quite familiar with it now.

It is less expensive to rent the 15,190-seat SaskTel Centre, which is also home to the Saskatoon Blades major junior Western Hockey League team, than it was to rent the larger NHL arena in Edmonton.

"It's a much better deal for the team," Keenan said.

And attendance is up. The Rush drew more than 11,000 fans for their 11-8 home win over Rochester last Friday. The next target is 12,000, and local businesses are stepping up to help make it happen. A car dealership has announced that it will provide free tickets for elementary school children to the next two home games.

"The Saskatchewan Rush have brought a new excitement to our province, and we are proud to be part of it," dealership general manager Scott Cook said.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League draw fans from all over the province to their home games in Regina, which is south of Saskatoon, and the same appears to be happening for NLL games.

"I was talking to a guy last weekend who drove three hours to the game with his family," Keenan said. "It's a small city, but it's almost like they needed this. It's really caught on. Our guys are enjoying it. They feel as if they are being appreciated. The fans are outstanding. They're loud. Attendance has increased each game."

It helps, of course, when marketing a sport to have a fantastic team, although the Rush have yet to reach their full potential in 2016.

"We haven't been great," Keenan said. "We might be suffering a bit from effects of winning a championship last year and what goes with that. We're 4-2, and we have a lot of room for improvement. We had two scheduled byes in January, and that disrupted our flow. Defensively, we've been excellent and that's what we've been known for. Offensively, we're not quite on track and our special teams haven't been great. We're still trying to find our way."

The locals are loving watching it happen. They're digging the high-energy and high-scoring style the NLL offers. The only major Rush lineup change from last spring has been the reinsertion of 2014 club scoring leader Curtis Knight, who missed 2015 with a leg injury. Knight's timing and game conditioning are back on track now.

"Every team in our division has improved, so every week we're facing a really good team," Keenan said. "The shooting is so good. Look at teams like Georgia and Vancouver. Look at the shooters they have. They might fall behind in a game, but the ball starts flying in the net and they get some momentum going and they get right back into it. The talent level in the league is off the charts. If you don't show up to compete, you don't win."

Talent off the charts in a league looking to expand, as new commissioner Nick Sakiewicz keeps saying. Maybe he can find more Saskatoons. The same night 11,000 filed into SaskTel Centre, only 7,800 were in Air Canada Centre to witness the Toronto Rock's first win of the season.

Saskatoon topping Toronto in lacrosse attendance, now that's something nobody predicted.

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