Warriors ride 'Bellies connection to first win

Nerves, white knuckles and flop sweat.

None of the above were evident when Dan Richardson and fellow Vancouver Warriors staff awaited the start of the 2018/19 National Lacrosse League season last Saturday.

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Well, “nerves” as in a normal way? Check.

But after Warriors’ captain Matt Beers buried the winning goal in a 14-13 overtime win over the Calgary Roughnecks at the Scotiabank Saddledome, there were smiles aplenty from Richardson and his staff.

“That is what you call a classic character win by our team,” said Richardson, the Warriors’ general manager. “Everyone pegged us as 11th in an 11-team race. I wouldn’t expect anything else after a 2-16 season, but that’s certainly something that plays in our favour.”

You couldn’t have imagined a better result for the club now owned by the Canucks Sports and Entertainment group.

It also sets the table perfectly for Friday’s rematch and the Warriors’ official home unveiling, when they play the Roughnecks, 7 p.m. at Rogers Arena.

Vancouver, which is the rebranded Stealth, relocated from Langley to play at Rogers Arena, didn’t play like a bottom-feeder last week.

Although they found themselves in a 9-6 hole at halftime and staring down a five-goal deficit early in the fourth quarter, they dug themselves out with a big rally. Leading the way were New West Salmonbellie Logan Schuss, with two, and Beers, who during the summer toils for the Burnaby Lakers.

They faced plenty of adversity – eight straight minor penalties were tossed at Vancouver, resulting in four Calgary goals. But even with the Roughnecks’ crowd ramping it up, the visitors found a way, corralled the momentum with a goal off the stick of ex-Bellie Keegan Bal with 2:35 gone in the fourth quarter.

By the time Beers pumped a shot past Calgary goalie Christian Del Bianco, a new storyline for an often hamstrung franchise had been written.

It was very clear that the Warriors’ map for success was going to rely on its Western Lacrosse Association roots, enhanced by the newly implemented management and coaching staff.

Richardson, who added the Vancouver job last summer to his general manager/president duties with the ’Bellies, said the victory was just one step in re-casting the local pro product as a full entertainment package.

Winning, or efforts that invoke a winning image, is part of that reboot. Adding important pieces to a solid but not substantial nucleus meant both patience and stealth – to harken to their old moniker – were necessary.

Richardson used both in acquiring New West lefthander Mitch Jones, a six-foot-two offensive forward, plus draft picks, for 2017 league MVP Corey Small.

Jones, four years younger than Small, also has great chemistry with Schuss, due to being teammates on the Western Lacrosse League’s Salmonbellies.

Richardson also signed ex-Laker Tyler Codron, who returns to the pro game after a three-year absence, Ontario native Dan Lomas, and Bal, as part of a free-agent fishing expedition. He added netminder Aaron Bold, who backstopped Saskatchewan to a pair of NLL championships.

Among the holdovers from the Stealth lineup are Schuss and Burnaby’s Justin Salt, and netminder Eric Penney.

Defensive specialists, the savory combination of Beers and Salt are among the longest serving members with the organization, having been with the program nine and eight years, respectively, when it began as the Washington Stealth, based in Everett.

The total sum is a roster of mostly WLA players who can dash and bash with flash.

“These guys are real, solid lacrosse players, and we’ve built around the model of hard work, respect and quickness,” he said.

Under head coach Chris Gill – who grew up in Coquitlam and is a member of the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame – the squad, with a strike-shortened training camp and no exhibition games for test runs, proved primed and ready for the season opener.

This week’s rematch offers a chance to spotlight the Warriors’ new image before the home crowd.

Richardson isn’t expecting that one to be easy, either.

“We weathered a storm and after all the (penalties subsided) we knew what we had to do,” said Richardson. “This group believes in itself, and most importantly they believe in what (coach Gill) has laid out, the whole process.”

He noted the package the Canucks Sports and Entertainment group has implemented since taking control of the team has been all about making the game a fun-filled event.

Music, entertainment and $5 beers are part of that package.

Ticket sales for the first game have been building ever since the league and players solved their labour dispute, said Richardson.

Although Calgary was missing standout Curtis Dickson, the Warriors will enter Friday’s rematch with a bolt of confidence. That’s something money can’t buy, said Richardson.

“We don’t expect it to be easy, and I expect (Dickson) to be in the lineup. We won’t win every game, but we’re going to make it entertaining, that’s for sure.”

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