If you’re a regular reader of this blog – first of all, thanks! – and secondly, you’ve probably already heard about the NLL changes in Vancouver. The Stealth franchise was sold to the Vancouver Canucks ownership group, who immediately announced that the team would be renamed, rebranded, and moved to the Rogers Arena in downtown Vancouver. Just a few days later, they announced that they had hired local boys Dan Richardson and Chris Gill to be the new GM and head coach respectively. I didn’t actually see an announcement that Doug Locker or Jamie Batley had been fired, but I guess we can assume that. With all the changes to the team, it’s almost like we have three expansion teams coming next season, with the minor difference that one of the three already has players.
This is the biggest news in Stealth-land in quite some time, and Vancouver fans are likely to be much more excited about next season than fans of a 2-16 team generally are. This must be bittersweet for Denise Watkins, the former owner of the San Jose / Washington / Vancouver Stealth. There have been a lot of social media thank-yous to Watkins from Stealth fans, staff, and players, and you can add my tip-of-the-hat to Ms. Watkins for the work she’s put into this franchise over the last decade. She’s likely lost a fair bit of money keeping the Stealth alive in each of the three cities the team has played in, but has persevered despite lousy crowds. Many say that without her, the NLL wouldn’t have returned to Vancouver at all. But now that she’s sold the team, people are much more optimistic. That is a very misleading statement; people aren’t optimistic because she’s no longer the owner, it’s mainly because the franchise will benefit in the same way that the Roughnecks, Mammoth, and Bandits all benefit from NHL ownership. The Canucks organization owns the building they’re playing in (thus eliminating rental fees) and they will receive 100% of concession revenue. The Canucks also have a large staff dedicated to marketing, ticket sales, PR, and all the other stuff that Denise and her smaller group (as well as the folks at the LEC) have been doing.
Attendance has been a huge problem for this franchise since its inception, way back in 2000 as the Albany Attack. If you rank all of the NLL teams that have ever existed (40 teams!) by average home attendance, the Attack and three Stealth teams are #30 (San Jose), #34 (Albany), #35 (Washington), and #38 (Vancouver).
It’s hard to blame Watkins for this. The Stealth brought in good staff, a good GM in Doug Locker (who I’ll return to in a second), and some very good players but just couldn’t pull in the crowds, even during their on-floor success in Washington (three Championship games in four years, winning one). Perhaps San Jose and Washington were just not good NLL markets, and Vancouver expected higher numbers in the win column than they got.
Doug Locker’s job as GM has been the subject of a lot of speculation over the past few years, as the Stealth continued to struggle on the floor. Some may even see his being replaced as one of the biggest benefits of this whole deal. But I think Locker has done a pretty decent job as GM, despite the Stealth’s lack of success. Many of the problems the team has run into haven’t been his fault. In fact, he may be one of the unluckiest GM’s in recent memory. Or maybe he just has a soft spot for guys recovering from knee injuries.
There have been a number of trades that have not worked out well for the Stealth. The most notable two, in my opinion, were those bringing in Garrett Billings and Athan Iannucci (pictured above, before he joined the Stealth and subsequently ZZ Top). Locker took a chance on Billings, hoping he would return to his pre-injury form. That didn’t happen but at the time, nobody thought it was a bad deal for the Stealth. The door isn’t entirely closed on Billings (he didn’t play in 2017-18 because of job commitments), so Locker may yet be vindicated. However if that happens, it will be small consolation for the now-unemployed Locker.
The Iannucci deal made total sense at the time: Paul Rabil had asked to be traded and wasn’t likely to play for the Stealth again, so Locker got what he could for him. That was former MVP Iannucci who, like Billings, was recovering from a knee problem that cost him significant time. However the price included a first round draft pick. The Edmonton Rush turned that pick into Mark Matthews, so in retrospect the trade sounds more lopsided than it really was. Nooch picked up 92 points in 25 games for the Washington Stealth, about a point a game less than he had with Philadelphia, so he never came close to his pre-injury form but he wasn’t a total bust.
In 2015, Locker brought in in Johnny Powless from Rochester as the new face of the franchise, and got Joel McCready “thrown in” as well. But the price was high: two first rounders (2015: Graeme Hossack, 2017: Eric Fannell) and a swap of first round picks in that year’s draft (Rochester picked Jeremy Noble, while Vancouver traded their pick to Buffalo as part of the Rory Smith/Eric Penney deal. Buffalo picked current Stealth Vancouver player Brandon Goodwin). If Powless had performed the way they thought he might, that deal was arguably worth it. But when Powless didn’t work out (and it’s not like Powless was a total bust either, just not the offensive leader they were hoping for), he was quickly turned into Logan Schuss, which was a trade that worked out very well for both Minnesota and Vancouver.
My biggest problem with the Doug Locker years (and yes, I realize how easy it is to be an armchair GM) was the deals that weren’t made. The 2014 through 2016 Stealth finished 4-14, 5-13, and 5-13 again, missing the playoffs in each of those seasons. There were lots of changes to the roster after each one and many good players were acquired but other than Powless, there were no huge franchise-changing trades or signings. A team that goes 14-40 over three seasons should be rebuilding but it seemed that the Stealth were tweaking instead, and it just wasn’t enough.
This fall, the team will move downtown and have a new name and identity. There has been much speculation on the new name, and many have suggested names that reference the native community in the Vancouver area and, of course, the native roots of lacrosse. I think this would be an excellent idea.
One such suggestion is Ravens, and for the young’uns amongst you, the Vancouver Ravens were an NLL team back from 2002-2004. Personally, I think that name carries too much baggage. That said, if you look at the same attendance list we looked at before, the Vancouver Ravens were the 9th best team in league history, ahead of Edmonton and Rochester, with a per-game average of over 8,500. For comparison, the Vancouver Stealth averaged less than half that, 3,560 per game.
So we know that Vancouver can support an NLL team downtown. Now we just need to see if they will.