Story by Jason Kurtz
“It’s lightning in a bottle. It’s fast. It has a little bit of everything, for everybody.”
This is how Bob Hamley, General Manager and Vice President of Lacrosse Operations for the Panther City Lacrosse Club, describes box lacrosse.
For the uninitiated, box lacrosse is the indoor version of its older, field lacrosse cousin, having originated in 1930’s Canada as a summertime option for our hockey-obsessed neighbors to the north. Nearly a century later, the game now lands in America’s southwest with the Panther City Lacrosse Club’s inaugural season.
The brainchild of team President Greg Bibb and his business partner Bill Cameron, Panther City marks Texas’ first entry point into the National Lacrosse League (NLL), the globe’s premier professional lacrosse outfit.
“This is the best lacrosse in the world. The twenty-one guys who play on our team are twenty-one of the top 300 lacrosse players walking the face of the planet,” says Bibb of the franchise he’s building.
Bibb, who also runs the WNBA’s Dallas Wings, was in search of a sport that sits opposite women’s basketball on the sports calendar. He also needed a game with upside, a league boasting “well-resourced ownership,” and an indoor sport unable to be tripped up by tricky Texas weather.
Add it all up, and the NLL team is Bibb’s brand-new baby.
“Lacrosse is [an] explosive growth market for youth here in North Texas, one of the fastest-growing youth lacrosse markets in the country, for a sport that is growing significantly across the country. So, we knew there was a grassroots opportunity.”
Seventeen short months after Bibb and Cameron landed the franchise in July of 2020, the Panther City Lacrosse Club will take the field in Philadelphia on Saturday for the team’s first-ever game. Six days later the club is in Fort Worth for its home opener. And that Fort Worth part is significant.
“This is a Fort Worth team,” says Bibb, with an air of pride you might expect to feel at a “Friday Night Lights” high school football game. “We’re going to play and represent all of North Texas just like the [Dallas] Cowboys, or the [Texas] Rangers, the [Dallas] Mavericks, the [Dallas] Stars, or the [Dallas] Wings. But unlike those teams that call Arlington or Dallas home, we are unabashedly calling Fort Worth home. And we have positioned ourselves, and want the market to recognize, that we are Fort Worth’s professional sports team.”
With Bibb overseeing everything from marketing to media, Hamley was brought in to assemble the actual team, a lift made all the heavier amid the pandemic.
“Covid was tough … last year the NLL didn’t play,” Hamley notes. “We were relying on watching video all the time, versus flying up to Denver, Colorado to see a live game, to see these kids play in front of us. So that was challenging.”
Through a series of drafts, plus a collection of open camps and free-agent signings, Hamley morphed a blank sheet of paper into a 21-man roster notable in its diversity.
“We’ve got some young guys, we got some older guys. We got some scorers. We’ve got some heavy ‘D’ guys. Watching them all come together, in one night, it’ll be pretty exciting.”
Described repeatedly as “the fastest game on two feet,” box lacrosse is physical, end-to-end action, with big scores and bigger hits.
“It’s a mixture of hockey and basketball … definitely a fast-paced game, and it’s very physical,” says Ryan Benesch, a 36-year-old veteran forward who most figure will end his career in the sport’s Hall of Fame.
“If you haven’t seen a game, basically what you’re going to see is just people running up and down the floor hitting each other … lots of goals, lots of great plays that are going to be made both defensively and offensively.”
Featuring a shot-clock you’d expect to see on the hardwood, and in-game line changes native to the ice, box lacrosse combines hoops, hockey, and heavy hitting in a tidy and tumultuous two-hour package that pledges to protect the bank account.
“This is the best value, not only in sports but in terms of entertainment, that you’re going to find,” Bibb boasts. “Top lacrosse players in the world, in a beautiful, state-of-the-art venue, for the price of what it costs to go see a movie and buy a popcorn.”
The Panther City Lacrosse Club will call Fort Worth’s Dickies Arena home. With more than 14,000 seats and a multipurpose design, games will cater equally to the lacrosse-obsessed and the casual consumer.
“You got music that plays throughout the entire game, as we’re playing, so it’s just an all-round, exciting atmosphere for a family to come,” says Benesch, known colloquially through the game as “Beni.”
“We got all kinds of stuff going on, there’s music playing, things going on in our game entertainment that is entertaining for a family to come out,” notes Hamley. “We kind of look at ourselves as entertainers as well. We’re fighting for that crowd as well.”
The North Texas crowd — like everything else in the Lonestar State — is dense and vast.
“The good news is North Texas is 7.5 million people plus, and growing. The challenge is North Texas is 7.5 million people plus, and growing,” quips Bibb when discussing the challenges of packing Dickies on a game night. “There are a lot of different things you can do with your disposable income here.”
Whether fans from Fort Worth and beyond will pony up for Panthers City games may largely depend on the product Head Coach Tracey Kelusky puts out on the Dickies Arena turf.
“One of the things we talked about was having guys that are coachable and having guys that… will help others be accountable,” says Kelusky of his first-year expansion squad.
Hired by Hamley in January, Kelusky’s resume stood out from a stack that flooded Bibb’s office when the franchise was first formed. A veteran of 14 seasons with nearly 400 goals to his credit as a player, the Peterborough, Canada native sees his first head coaching role as a chance to institute the disciplines he long hung his helmet on.
“It truly is the process, especially when you have a new group and a young group that we’re going to be focused on… we’re going to make mistakes. I’ve yet to see a perfect game,” says the 46-year-old. “But you know, how we adapt, how we approach the game, in between games, in all our preparation, and how we’re collectively growing as a group throughout the course of the year is how I’m going to gauge this.”
Equally important to the team’s on-field journey is its ability to foster a connection in the community.
“We are the grassroots. We’re… the pioneers of the game, and we’re going to share this game to a lot of people, and people that maybe haven’t seen it,” says Kelusky. “It’s very important to myself and Bob that from a team perspective, we match with the business side. It’s hugely important for us to be in the community.”
More than a month before the season started, some twenty members of the squad participated in a local FoodShare, evidence of the franchise’s focus on outreach. That turnout is even more impressive when you learn that few of the team’s players live in Texas year-round, and nearly all hold down day jobs outside of lacrosse.
“We have bankers, firefighters, teachers,” says Hamley, who explains that players fly in weekly for a single practice and game, before heading back to their respective homes. “That’s typical for a lot of teams.”
Benesch, who himself works for the City of Kitchener in Ontario, Canada, acknowledges nightmarish logistics balanced only by dreams of the next game’s goal.
“It’s definitely a grind,” he says. “This game is one that we all love to play. That’s the main reason why we still play. You have your challenges, obviously, you have your Monday to Friday job, your 7 to 3 job, and you also have to focus on your job as a professional lacrosse player. So you have to maintain a certain level of performance, hit the gym as many times a week as you can, study game film.”
It’s a dedication and commitment that isn’t lost on Benesch’s teammate, Jeremy Thompson. A second-team All-American at Syracuse University in 2010, and a member of the Iroquois National Team, Thompson is one branch of a decorated, lacrosse-playing family tree, one that includes three brothers who also played collegiately.
“Lacrosse, it’s coming up, man. It’s the number one growing sport in North America,” says Thompson, who brings nine seasons and 122 career points to Fort Worth after spending the last eight years with the NLL’s Edmonton / Saskatchewan Rush franchise.
Thompson’s free-agent signing was labeled a “priority” by Hamley when it was announced in August, and the 34-year-old’s competitive spirit and thoughtful approach were on full display in a pre-Thanksgiving zoom interview.
“I’m in a point in life right now where I’m going through a spiritual awakening. I think it’s all about being in tune with that stuff and sharing that stuff and being an everlasting vibe to yourself,” he shares. “As a leader on the team, vocalizing, and kind of just sharing my experience, it’s been really inspirational for myself and the players around us. Our chemistry has come together tremendously.”
But as with anything new – a new team, a new sport, a new town, or, as in this case, all three – there are hiccups to endure and expectations to manage. Season one of the Panther City Lacrosse Club figures to feature growing pains. The team’s coach, however, a man who has stocked his dressing room with players of a certain character, isn’t about to embrace predictions rooted only in others’ pasts.
“Expansion tells us that we’re not going to have a ton of success from a wins and loss columns perspective. But again, I don’t care what history tells us. We’re going to go in and our goal is to win an NLL championship. My message to the guys is, ‘Let’s take care of the details. Let’s take care of the process.’ The process always takes care of the outcome.”
As President, Bibb is more calculated, carefully measuring goals and saves alongside dollars and cents. He’s built this team for the long haul, eschewing short-term successes in favor of planting a deep stake in the market.
“We want to be a viable sports entertainment option in North Texas,” he says.
“We’ve called ourselves Panther City Lacrosse Club because we want the association with Fort Worth. And we want that European soccer model of the community feeling like they are invested,” Bibb says. And while Ted Lasso won’t be pacing the Dickies Arena sidelines, the “BELIEVE” mantra as preached by the Jason Sudeikis character has seemingly made the journey from Greyhound land to Panther City.
“We believe that we’re going to be very competitive,” says Hamley. “We think we’re ahead of even what we talked about a year ago.”
Benesch, who has labeled the pre-season vibe as one of “excitement,” offers more optimism than one might reasonably expect from a man starting from scratch with his eighth team, a decade removed from once leading the NLL in scoring.
“I think a realistic expectation for this team is definitely fighting for a playoff spot. Obviously, the ultimate goal is to win the championship,” he says. “I believe we’re getting there. We will take steps forward to getting to that championship.”
Whether the Panther City Lacrosse Club is able to bring a title to Fort Worth in its inaugural season is one of many unknowns. But in so many ways, the goals are even larger. Like introducing a new sport in a new place, like connecting a community to a club.
“There isn’t another league anywhere like the National Lacrosse League. This is the crescendo for these guys. This is what they aspire to as a kid,” says Hamley of his roster. “These are the best box lacrosse players in the world. And you really notice that when you go see a game. It’s fantastic.”
For Thompson, whose lacrosse skills have taken him from the Onondaga Nation in New York to the sun-drenched beaches of Hawaii, the Panther City Lacrosse Club offers another shot to share his sport.
“With the team coming, I think it’s going to bring awareness… and just bring excitement to Fort Worth and hopefully spread the word throughout Texas,” he says. “I’m super stoked, I’m super pumped for this new opportunity.”