SPORTS

Defending champion Rochester ready to open new NLL season at Washington

01/02/2013 11:45 EST | Updated 03/04/2013 05:12 EST
A blockbuster trade, a comeback bid by Casey Powell, the arrival of Mark Matthews and game broadcasts on YouTube are creating most of the buzz as the National Lacrosse League prepares to open a new season.

Things get underway Saturday when Rochester opens its title defence on the road against the Washington Stealth, and the rest of the nine teams begin their 16-game schedules the following weekend: Buffalo at Philadelphia on Friday, Jan. 11; Minnesota at Buffalo, Washington at Colorado and Toronto at Calgary on Saturday, Jan. 12; and Toronto at Edmonton on Sunday, Jan. 13.

A December blockbuster saw the Dawson brothers — forward Dan and defenceman Paul — and a first-round 2016 entry draft pick go to Rochester from Philadelphia for transition ball movers Jordan Hall, Paul Rabil and Joel White as well as prospect Rob Campbell.

"Paul and I are super-excited and will do everything we can to keep the Cup in Rochester,'' says Dan Dawson, a first-team all-pro pick last season and the league's 2009 MVP.

Powell, the 2010 league MVP, took last season off after becoming the highest-scoring American in indoor pro lacrosse history. He's eager to get back at it.

"It's great to finish my career where it started,'' says Powell, who broke into the league in 1999 with Rochester.

Inserting the former MVPs into an already-potent attack makes Rochester a favourite to become the first repeat champion since 2003.

Matthews will be the go-to attacker in a revamped Edmonton offence. The former Whitby, Ont., junior star and No. 1 pick in last September's entry draft has all the tools needed to erase the franchise's reputation as a red light weakling.

"He shoots the ball a hundred miles an hour,'' says Rush GM-coach Derek Keenan. "He passes well, sees the floor well, and he's good on the power play. He's got all the attributes that will make him a very good player.''

On top of cable TV deals that teams such as the Toronto Rock have signed, most NLL games will be live on YouTube. It's a new arrangement and one that promises to boost the league's profile. Most of the video that will be presented will have higher streaming speeds than the previous NLL.com offerings.

"YouTube will use similar technology to what they used to stream the Summer Olympics,'' says NLL commissioner George Daniel. "To see the NLL showcased on one of the most popular websites in the world is exciting. We're making the games more accessible than any other league.''

As an offshoot, games will be available on demand for iPad users, and the league will be able to sell game advertising via its revenue sharing agreement with YouTube.

"Branding and marketing the league on a site as popular as YouTube is significant,'' adds Daniel.

What also is significant is the continued evolvement of lacrosse players into elite athletes every bit as impressive as those in other sports. While many still hold down jobs outside lacrosse — for instance, Dan Dawson is a firefighter in Brampton, Ont. — more and more of them are making lacrosse a full-time pursuit.

Fitness levels have never been higher. It's the only way to succeed given the intense competition for jobs in a league that lost four teams between 2008 and 2011.

Jeff Zywicki, Tom Montour, Eric Martin, Chris Schiller and Roger Vyse were among veterans left off 23-man active rosters at the Christmas deadline.

Led by Matthews, all first-round 2012 draft picks made the cut.

So did John Tavares. The 44-year-old Buffalo forward begins his 22nd pro indoor season, all of them with the Bandits.

The NLL has revised rules in recent years to curb brawling and has just taken another step in that direction: players who engage in a second fight after a stoppage in play for the original fight will be assessed a match penalty — ejection plus a one-game suspension. Previously, punishment was a game misconduct.

Also, there is a further crackdown on high sticking in an attempt to try to curb the number of concussions. A flagrant infraction that would previously have resulted in a major penalty and a game misconduct now will result in a major, ejection and suspension from the team's next game.

Off-season player movement included some valuable veterans changing teams after becoming unrestricted free agents.

The Toronto Rock signed Chris White, the punishing defenceman who captained the Buffalo Bandits, the Colorado Mammoth landed big Rich Morgan, planning to use him up front to create room for 2012 league scoring champion and MVP John Grant Jr., and Buffalo signed defenceman Derek Suddons in trying to offset the loss of White.

Veterans Shawn Williams and Aaron Wilson wind up in Buffalo after being traded by Edmonton.

Players who retired after the 2012 season include Pat McCready, who hoisted the Champion's Cup as captain of the Knighthawks, Kaleb Toth, Steve Toll, Mike Thompson, Tom Hajek, Bruce Codd, Pat Campbell, Jason Bloom and Cam Sedgwick.

Given the level of parity in the league and physical demands of the sport, the team that wins the Champion's Cup might well be the one that has the most bodies still standing come May.

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