The 28th season of indoor pro lacrosse begins Dec. 28 with a Vancouver entry for the first time in 10 years and a novel new collective bargaining agreement.
Players have accepted a two-year pay freeze even though schedules have increased from 16 games to 18, and lineups have decreased from 20 to 18.
So, how did the new seven-year CBA come to pass?
"We were concerned with the financial stability of the league,'' said Edmonton Rush captain Chris Corbeil, who took part in every bargaining session. "We realize a lot of teams are struggling to stay in business and as players we want to see the league survive so we're able to play lacrosse for years to come.''
Steve Govett, the Colorado Mammoth president who chairs the NLL board of governors, lauds the players' co-operation in ensuring the league's stability.
"We feel like the NLL has turned a corner,'' Govett said. "Our focus (in CBA talks) had to be on creating positive momentum for all of our teams and to show the viability of our league to potential new partners for expansion, for television and for sponsorships. We had to reduce costs without damaging the product.''
The Rochester Knighthawks, Toronto Rock, Philadelphia Wings, Buffalo Bandits and Minnesota Swarm, who move over from the West, make up the new East division, while the Edmonton Rush, Calgary Roughnecks, Vancouver (formerly Washington) Stealth and Colorado Mammoth represent the West.
Six teams, instead of last year's eight, will advance to playoffs. Gone are the single-game eliminations of previous years as playoffs will now be two-game sets beginning in the arenas of lower-seeded teams.
Division leaders will get first-round byes and await the survivors of playoffs between the second- and third-place teams. If two-game sets are split, mini-games of 10 minutes will decide winners.
Reducing active rosters to 18 — 16 runners and two goalies — will force in-game adjustments.
"That was, for me, one of the toughest pills to swallow,'' Corbeil said. "Last season we had 10 defencemen — two five-man units — and eight forwards for games. Now we'll be mixing and matching. Guys are going to be double-shifting and sucking wind. Conditioning and stamina are going to play an even bigger role.''
Salaries range from a $9,207 max for rookies to a $27,217 max for veterans, with an exception for one or two "franchise'' players per team who'll get an additional $5,000 for the season. A cost of living raise of 3.5 per cent a year kicks in in 2016.
The heightened competition for jobs caused by reduced roster size has combined with the introduction of a salary cap of $400,000 per team to squeeze out some well-known players. A prime example was the release by Colorado of former captain Gavin Prout, 35.
"For years, Gavin Prout was synonymous with the Colorado Mammoth,'' said Govett. "Unfortunately, he is a casualty of the reduced roster size and newly-implemented salary cap of the CBA.
"Elements of the agreement made for some incredibly difficult decisions. This was the toughest. With just 16 runners dressing each game, there's a significant emphasis on speed and athleticism. Younger and faster players are the new NLL.''
Rochester will be seeking a third straight NLL title and that is entirely possible given the return of all significant players, the patient coaching of Mike Hasen, the consistent goaltending of Matt Vinc, a staunch defence led by captain Sid Smith, and the scoring exploits of Cody Jamieson, Dan Dawson, et al. Veteran forward Mike Accursi has retired and accepted an executive role.
Others packing it in are Jimmy Quinlan, who passes the Edmonton captain's "C'' to Chris Corbeil, Toronto's Blaine Manning and Cam Woods, Buffalo's Mike Hominuck and Jon Harasym, and Colorado's Rich Morgan.
Casey Powell, the NLL's all-time leading American point-getter, has told the Mammoth he's sitting out for now, and transition speedster Paul Rabil is likewise unavailable to the Wings as some of the best U.S. players appear to be passing on the NLL season to avoid the risk of injury before the world field lacrosse championship in Denver this summer.
Some of the most significant personnel changes involve the Bandits. After firing head coach Darris Kilgour, they replaced him with Troy Cordingley, who was let go by Toronto even though he was named coach of the year for helping the Rock to a league-best 10-6 season.
Buffalo GM Steve Dietrich traded away future draft picks to get 34-goal shooter Ryan Benesch from Minnesota and tough defenceman Rory Smith from Colorado. One constant in Buffalo, however, is all-time NLL scoring leader John Tavares, 45, who will play his 23rd season in Bandits' black and orange.
The league's other golden oldie, 39-year-old John Grant Jr., signed a new four-year contract with Colorado. Grant scored 43 goals last season. In all, there will be only seven players over the age of 35 on green NLL carpets in January as the youth-oriented league gathers momentum into the new season.
John Lovell, an assistant under Cordingley, takes over as head coach in Toronto, and Blane Harrison is the new head coach in Philadelphia after GM Johnny Mouradian relinquished that job and promoted Harrison.
The youngest and fastest team in the league will undoubtedly be Minnesota, which is blending five 2013 draft picks including No. 1 Logan Schuss and No. 2 Jason Noble into a lineup that already has four 2012 first-rounders.
The Dec. 28 openers begin with Philadelphia at Buffalo, Minnesota at Rochester and Edmonton at Colorado. Calgary opens in Toronto on Jan. 3 and Vancouver opens in Colorado on Jan. 4.
The NLL could be one lucrative league-wide TV deal away from flourishing and, with more and more all-sports channels starting up, it could happen sooner rather than later. If not, the league's devoted fans will continue to enjoy some of the lowest ticket prices of any pro sport.
"This was an extremely collaborative process, one that we hope will set the stage for the long-term stability and growth of the NLL,'' Govett said. "By allowing us to focus on fixing our business model, the nine teams will remain dedicated to the cause while attracting new franchise owners to the mix, ultimately replacing jobs that have been lost over time and growing the pie for everyone.
"The existing players chose to understand that the sacrifices they are making today, along with owners that have been sacrificing for some time to bring this great game to the public, need to be in unison if the league is to make it to that ever-elusive next level.''