Every time Panther City takes the field, they have a chance to make history. That is what makes playing for a new franchise unique: players have an opportunity to put themselves in the record book on every play, be it a 10-year veteran scoring the first goal in franchise history, or a rookie finding the back of the net in overtime to record the team’s first win.
But etching your place in history takes a lot of work.
“We want to be a blue-collar team that goes out and outworks teams and gets the job done,” Head Coach Tracey Kelusky said. “We will get to the point where we out skill teams, but as an expansion club that is hard to come by, so we have to be blue collar and put in that hard work.”
While the team hasn’t found themselves in the win column as much as they would like, players are buying in to Coach Kelusky’s program. Veteran defenseman and Team Captain Chad Cummings knows that it is important to set the tone with a roster that features just as many rookies (six) as it does players who have five or more years of experience.
“We want to be a blue-collar team that goes out and outworks teams and gets the job done.”
“Everything happens a lot quicker in this league, and everything is a lot sharper,” said Cummings. “All the passes have to be right in guys sticks. You have to be positionally ready right out the gate. The speed of the game and how sharp every game is the biggest adjustment from Junior level, because every player on the floor is one of the better players in the Junior leagues, and now they are playing in the best league in the world.”
Head Coach Tracey Kelusky rallies the troops in Saskatchewan on January 29.
So, how does a team that can only practice twice a week reach the level of perfection that is expected every weekend?
“The best thing you can do is watch film, watch games, so it can become second nature to you. You can’t be thinking too much because it’s such a fast-paced game once you make it up to the NLL.”
Cummings isn’t the only veteran trying to lead the way for the younger guys. Veteran transition player Jeremy Thompson also stressed the importance of hard work and watching film.
“[Watching film] is something that is new, because when I started in the league, there wasn’t film,” Thompson said. “We are part of a new generation, because not all players, even veterans who are stars, watch film. They just go out there and play. We are in a new era where if everyone can be on the same page, watching film, dissecting it, and putting their input in, it can make a massive difference. That’s what I am doing and telling our new up-and-coming guys to do too.”
One of those up-and-coming guys who has clearly taken these messages to heart is rookie forward Patrick Dodds, who secured Panther City’s first franchise win with an overtime goal in New York on January 15.
Patrick Dodds gets mobbed by teammates after scoring the first Game Winning Goal in franchise history in New York on January 15.
“[Dodds] has had a pedigree of being ‘the man’ on many teams he has played on before,” said Head Coach Tracey Kelusky. “He has been given a pretty unique opportunity in the sense that we are young and we don’t really have that go-to guy like many other teams do. He has grabbed on to it and has done a real good job of elevating his play and grabbing that bull by the horns.”
The 21st selection in the 2020 NLL entry draft by Calgary, Dodds was taken by Panther City in the 2021 NLL expansion draft. While it maybe his first year in the NLL, he already has championship experience, as he helped lead his hometown Victoria Shamrocks of the British Columbia Junior A Lacrosse League to the Minto Cup game in 2019. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t face adversity when he made the transition to the next level.
“Everyone is faster and stronger, especially goalies,” Dodds said. “In leagues and teams I have played in before, you could get the odd squeaker to go in. But in this league, if you are taking a half decent shot and just hoping it goes in, it’s not. Every goalie in this league is well-seasoned and extremely talented so every shot matters.”
While the goalies may have been an obstacle to Dodds at first, he has made the adjustment and is currently the only NLL rookie who leads his team in points, but he isn’t satisfied just yet. Dodds is making sure to put the work in off the field to make him a pillar of the franchise for years to come.
“I want to shoot the ball a little better. That is going to start during the week, getting out to the box and laying some shots on the net and getting my time in during the week for the weekends. And we are always working as a team to get stronger, faster, better and getting our minds and bodies right so we can be at our best on gamedays.”
Getting your mind and body right has been a consistent message from Thompson as well, as he does his best to pass his ten years of veteran experience on to the next generation.
“I tell newcomers that it is 70-80% your mindset,” Thompson said when asked what advice he would give to younger players. “Your body is going to follow your mindset. We have all won championships at different levels and played lacrosse our whole lives, so have a short memory, and don’t be too hard on yourself. Our whole message as an organization is taking care of the little things because winning those little moments throughout the day will result in winning those bigger moments.”
“The overall sense of competitiveness carries from the rookies up front to the back end too. They bring energy night in, night out.”
Thompson’s willingness to give younger players a chance to step-up is a vital part of the team’s future. While Dodds leads a scoring group that averages just over 25 years of age (the youngest in the NLL), rookies are also showing up on defensive side of the ball.
“The overall sense of competitiveness carries from the rookies up front to the back end too,” Cummings said. “They bring energy night in, night out. While the last few games haven’t gone our way, we got [rookie defenseman Jordan] Trottier out there bringing the energy up by trying to fight somebody and [defenseman Pat] Foley chasing down guys, trying to strip them and get out on the fast break. [rookie defenseman Josh] Medeiros scoring a few goals in transition, timely goals trying to elevate the boys. [rookie defenseman Dylan] Hutchinson also came in and did his job. The overall group I couldn’t be happier with.”
Rookie forward Nathan Grenon congratulates forward Phil Caputo after a goal in San Diego on January 8.
Coach Kelusky has also expressed his pleasure with how hard the rookies are working, and he is proud of how the younger crew has stepped in to fill the void usually taken by long-tenured program veterans.
“The rookies finding their way has been really impressive,” Kelusky said. “We talk about team culture and team dynamics and everyone having a voice, and one thing I like about the rookies is they have come in and worked really hard. They have proved to their teammates that they can play in this league. All our rookies have done a great job of gaining the respect of their peers, teammates and coaching staff.”
But the team isn’t satisfied with their progress just yet. They have gotten younger players to step up, so now they must find a way to win.
“We need to be more consistent,” Cummings emphasized. “Consistency is big for our group. We will have three good minutes in a quarter, and then have a letdown for five minutes with just bad mistakes where we are not performing how we need to. We have shown that we can compete and be in these games, but when you have those let downs, and things don’t go our way, we have to find a way to get back to our game, refocus, reset and find that high level that we know we can play at.”
Panther City has managed to find that high level of play at times this year, as the club has lost two games by just one goal, including giving the perennial powerhouse Colorado Mammoth all they could handle in an 8-7 loss at Dickies Arena on December 17.
“It is just the matter of putting it together for a whole game, which will be really big for our group,” Cummings continued. “I know we are capable, and that will definitely give us a chance to find the win column more consistently for the rest of the year.”
“It’s not too late, all we have to do is make playoffs and we have a chance at the Champions Cup.”
Hopefully, the longest homestand of the year will give the club the chance to establish that consistency. The team is excited for a chance to return to Dickies Arena in Fort Worth for the first time since that battle with the Mammoth in December, and Thompson is ready to spend some extended time in Fort Worth with the fans for the first time this year.
“I really do firmly believe that the fans are the final touches of this game that we all love to play,” Thompson said. “It is all about the people, and I have always been a people person, and giving my time to the community is one of the passions that is near and dear to my heart. I am looking forward to interacting with the fans over this home stretch and giving them my time because you never know when it is going to make a difference in someone’s life.”
Thompson also made it very clear what Panther City fans could do to help put the final touches in the club’s path to victory.
“Help bring the entertainment to the game, the uplifting spirit, it makes a difference in the play and excitement. It’s not too late, all we have to do is make playoffs and we have a chance at the Champions Cup. It is going to take a lot of work. It is just a matter of tying these loose ends together. We just need a breakthrough and we will get some wins down the stretch here.”
So go grab your hard hats and scarves Panther City, because the boys are back in town, and the hardest working team in the NLL is ready to make a run.
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