TORONTO - Dan Dawson has seen it all in his 13 seasons in the National Lacrosse League.
However, this is uncharted territory for the veteran forward and his Rochester Knighthawks. They became the first team to win three straight Champion's Cup titles earlier this year and now they're ready to begin their pursuit for a fourth straight crown.
"Our mindset as an organization is every year there's something different," Dawson said in a recent interview. "We cannot reinvent what was successful last year. Player movement, rules of the game, situations, they change every year. So the only thing that's stayed constant with us is family and hard work and that's really what we focus on."
The Knighthawks retooled their roster after winning the Cup in 2012, acquiring Dawson and his brother Paul in an off-season trade that involved five other players.
Rochester, with the Dawsons at the forefront, won again in 2013 and 2014 to create the first indoor lacrosse dynasty since the Toronto Rock of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Even though Toronto won four Champion's Cups between 1999 and 2003, the Rock lost to the Philadelphia Wings in the 2001 final to prevent them from winning a third straight title.
Dawson says Rochester's prolonged success is thanks to Knighthawks owner and general manager Curt Styres, who puts an emphasis on team cohesion in everything he does.
"We're pretty blessed that we get to spend a lot of time with each other, with our itineraries," said Dawson. "The way Curt likes to structure things, eating as a team, travelling as a team, and that goes a long way. You get to know each other off the field which directly translates into success on the field.
"We've been very blessed to have a visionary like Curt, who's allowed us to be successful and we just try to repay him every year with, obviously, a championship."
The 2015 NLL season kicks off Friday as the Buffalo Bandits visit the newly relocated New England Black Wolves at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. The Black Wolves had been the Philadelphia Wings until September 2014 when the team announced it was moving to Connecticut.
Dawson sympathizes with the New England players. A six-time NLL all-star and 2009 league MVP, Dawson had something of a transient lacrosse life until settling in with Rochester.
He was drafted by the Columbus Landsharks in 2002, playing two seasons in Ohio until the team moved west and became the Arizona Sting. When that team suspended operations in 2008, Dawson was selected by the Portland Lumberjax in a dispersal draft.
Dawson re-entered the dispersal pool a year later when the Sting formally folded, being chosen first overall by the Boston Blazers. Dawson's odyssey continued in 2011 when the Blazers suspended operations, freeing him to join Philadelphia for a season before the trade to the Knighthawks.
"It's special because you get to put your stamp on what that organization means from Day 1, from the foundation," Dawson said about playing on a relocated team. "They have a very young team, but they've kept a good nucleus together from that Philadelphia organization and I think they're going to be a very scary team.
"When you're young and you're new, the only thing you know how to do is work hard and play pure lacrosse and that can be a very scary thing when you're playing against them."
Dawson's focus, however, remains on putting in the hours with the Knighthawks to repeat as champions.
"The expectation, like the other eight teams in the NLL, is to win a championship," said Dawson. "We're going to break that down. That's the end goal that every team sets forward but every week you break it down into that team that you're playing that week.
"It starts even before that with practice leading up to that game. It's the little battles and the little goals that you have to get before you can get to the main ones."
Canada's four NLL teams all begin their season Saturday. The Edmonton Rush visit Buffalo, the Toronto Rock travel to Rochester, and the Calgary Roughnecks host the Vancouver Stealth.
Dawson expects a competitive campaign, with all of the NLL teams improving in the off-season.
"Calgary was one goal away from winning a championship last year and I think on paper they're the most talented team in the league," said Dawson. "You look at what Toronto's done in the East and I think with Philadelphia moving to Connecticut, that's going to spark some new blood and some new life in that organization. Vancouver made some outstanding moves in the off-season.
"You look across the board there's so much parity which makes this league so very special. I think it could be anyone any given night."
Notes: The NLL returns to Canadian television this season with 12 regular-season games being aired on TSN, including select post-season games and the Champion's Cup final.
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