It’s a cycle that almost every pro sports team goes through. If you look back over the history of most teams that have been around for a while, they’ve had periods where they’re really good, at or near the top of the league, and then other periods where they’re terrible. Think of any team that’s been successful over the last year or two: the Royals in baseball, the Clippers in basketball, the Islanders in hockey. It wasn’t that long ago that all three of those teams were terrible, near the bottom of their respective leagues.
Alternatively, think of any team that’s been terrible over the last few years: the Knicks, the Oilers, the Phillies. I can certainly remember times when those teams were at the top of their leagues. Every team has times where they’re really great and times where they’re really bad. Even the Cubs won the NL Central three times from 2003-2008.
This has certainly happened in the NLL as well. The Edmonton Rush were arguably the best team of each of the last two years but were terrible for a decade before that. The Washington Stealth went to the Championship in three out of their four seasons, but were 4-12 and dead last in the fourth. The Wings won 6 Championships in their first 15 years, then only made the playoffs 3 times in their last 12. The Rock, Bandits, and Mammoth have each won championships and also sat near the bottom of the league during the last 10 years. The Minnesota Swarm may be a bit of an outlier here; they were never a really great team and never reached the finals, but they were a very good team for a few years, getting to the division finals twice. On the flipside, their last couple of years in Minnesota were pretty bad.
(Aside: The NLL is a little different because of the team turnover. I’m only looking at teams that have been around for ten years or more. There are a lot of teams who didn’t have a long enough existence to consider. The New Jersey / Anaheim Storm, Ottawa Rebel, and Montreal Express never stuck around long enough to get good. The Arizona Sting went to 2 Championships in 4 years but never finished above 9-7 or below 7-9.)
But in the NLL, there are two oddball teams that have mostly defied the longevity rule.
The Calgary Roughnecks were terrible in their first season, when they finished 4-12. But in the 13 seasons since then, they have only finished below .500 twice, have never missed the playoffs, and have finished with 10+ wins 7 times. Even last year when they started 0-6 and finished 7-11, they managed to get to the Western finals. Other than their debut season (when you kind of expect a team to suck) and for part of 2015, the Roughnecks have never really been terrible.
But take a look at the Rochester Knighthawks. In their twenty-one seasons, they have only finished below .500 three times, and all three times they were just below .500 at 7-9. What’s more: they won the Championship in one of those 7-9 seasons. Let me say that another way: they won the Championship in 2012 after finishing the regular season tied for the worst record in franchise history. They have only missed the playoffs twice in 21 years and as we all remember, are the only team ever to win three straight Championships. In their debut season, they went to the Championship (and lost it in OT).
If you had to pick the most successful NLL franchise during its existence, you could argue the Rock might be the best choice given the number of Championships in that time. But they had a four year stretch where they were 10 games under .500 and missed the playoffs twice. The Wings were one of the best choices for the first half of their lifetime, and one of the worst choices for the second half. The Roughnecks would also have been a very good option, but they’ve had strong regular season numbers and not so much in the playoffs.
For my money, the Rochester Knighthawks win the prize. They have never had a single terrible season, but have had some outstanding ones. I know it’s no 22 in a row, Bandits fans, but they won 16 straight games from 2007-2008. They have never finished last in their division. They have won five Championships and appeared in four more, and have seen some of the best players in the game on their benches including the Gaits, John Grant, Shawn Williams, Shawn Evans, Dan Dawson, Cody Jamieson, and Matt Vinc.
They say any NLL team can beat any other on any given night. This is mostly true for the non-Charlottes and non-Anaheims of the league. But let’s face it, there were years that this was not true for the Rock, Bandits, Mammoth, or Roughnecks. But there has never been a time when playing the Knighthawks that they didn’t have a good chance of beating you.