Passing the torch: As Rush change hands, lots to ponder after a remarkable half-decade

"It was the right formula, but it wasn't as simple as just dropping into Saskatoon. A lot of hard leg-work went into it."

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When Bruce Urban bounced into Saskatoon half a decade ago, making big promises and lofty proclamations, you knew he was either a visionary or a crazy man.

Betting swung heavily toward the latter.

Saskatoon, he said, would draw big crowds for professional lacrosse, even though hardly anybody here could tell a lacrosse stick from a tree branch. He talked about putting 15,000 people into SaskTel Centre for Saskatchewan Rush games. He talked about competing, attendance-wise, with much bigger centres operating out of NHL arenas.

He once recalled NLL owners telling him this, as he contemplated moving his franchise from Edmonton to Saskatoon: “Bruce, there’s no way you’re going to make this work.”

But then this happened: The Rush packed the building, repeatedly. They led the National Lacrosse League in attendance by their third season, then duplicated that feat.

When news broke Monday that he’d sold the team to a group fronted by Saskatoon Blades owner Mike Priestner, I mentioned all that to Rush defender and captain Chris Corbeil, and he laughed a little laugh.

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“Hand up,” Corbeil remarked. “I always said I was cautiously optimistic, but I was very cautious. Listen: It’s not easy to find success. A lot of people point to the Roughriders and say, ‘Oh, look at the support they get.’ There’s something there, but trying to capture that isn’t as easy as dropping a pro sports team and saying, ‘Okay, they’re here.’

“There was a lot of work and a lot of ingenuity on the marketing side, and creating a great game experience for the patron. That included the game-day experience, but also putting a great product on the floor, which meant paying salaries and contracts that were a premium to what the average was in the league, so you always had a competitive product on the floor.

“It was the right formula, but it wasn’t as simple as just dropping into Saskatoon. A lot of hard leg-work went into it.”

There was ample reason for skepticism. This city’s pro-sports history was a disaster.

As I wrote the day Urban announced he was headed to Saskatoon, an “ugly parade of flimflammers, big-talkers, tire-kickers, bad business people” had dominated proceedings over the last few decades. Others had good intentions, but simply couldn’t pull it off.

The Saskatchewan Storm, Saskatoon Slam, Saskatchewan Hawks, Saskatoon Smokin’ Guns, Saskatoon Riot, Saskatoon Stallions and Saskatoon Legends had all played games here, then left. Other people came in, made plans, then blew away on the prairie breeze.

But the Rush had this: A past history, in an established league. And they’d won the NLL title in 2015, just a few months before moving to Saskatoon.

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Then they captured two more championships, while staging an eye-catching game-day entertainment package.

Many who attend Rush games can’t tell you from week to week who the team’s scoring leaders are, what their record is, or how the team’s faring in its transition game. But they’re buying tickets and jerseys because it’s a fun night out, with an energy that isn’t replicated anywhere else in the city.

That’s what the Priestner family is walking into as they take on Rush ownership. The team is established, and lacrosse is growing — or was, before the pandemic.

But there’s things to think about. For one, Rush attendance is dropping, year by year.

They drew 11,737 fans per game in their inaugural season, cracking Urban’s pre-season prediction of 11,000, and increased that to 14,921 in Season 2. It’s fallen ever since: 14,639, then 13,459, then 12,007 (in a COVID-shortened 2020 campaign).

Those are still big numbers, when you consider that people once scoffed at the notion of them drawing more than 6,000 to any given game. But they don’t want to compound that decline.

General manager Derek Keenan is back for this coming season, which is a huge deal for the franchise. All he needs is for the owners to step back and give him space and resources as he resurrects the roster.

Corbeil calls the Rush “probably the healthiest franchise in the entire league” and he credits Urban with staying true, even when the franchise teetered and wobbled in Edmonton.

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New hands sign the paycheques now, and it’ll be interesting to watch how the Priestners — who have suddenly grabbed a huge piece of Saskatoon’s sports pie — handle this intriguing dynamic as we slide toward a post-COVID world.

kemitchell@postmedia.com

twitter.com/kmitchsp

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