Stealth flying under the radar
Lacrosse club targets a title after overhauling roster and bringing in a new bench boss.
Unlike most of his National Lacrosse League rivals, Doug Locker has no slick slogans or cheesy marketing campaigns for luring fans to Langley Events Centre.
In Calgary where it’s “Come for the party and stay for the game,” or in Denver where the sexed-up Wild Bunch cheerleaders and rinkside hot tub parties add extra spice to game days, the president and general manager of the Vancouver Stealth understands the local lacrosse landscape.
To fill seats in B.C.’s Lower Mainland, free parking, poster giveaways, photos with the cheerleaders and affordable hotdogs are nice, but winning trumps everything.
“Like the late Al Davis and his Oakland Raiders, ‘Just win, baby!’ definitely applies here. And winning this season is critical,” said Locker, who has been with the Stealth for 12 years, including when San Jose, Calif., and Everett, Wash., were called home.
“Unlike San Jose where people just showed up to party, the fans here understand box lacrosse. If you’re not offering quality action the job to fill the arena is much tougher, no matter what other game-day promotions you have going on,” said Locker.
Stealth owner Denise Watkins, who lives in Washington state, holds a bachelor of science in mathematics from UC-Irvine and understands the numbers game in Langley.
“I’m hopeful this season, with a better and more exciting team, we can fill the (5,276-seat) arena for every game. In fact, from a business perspective, we need to fill it for every game,” said Watkins, who knows the Vancouver Ravens failed after three crowd-lacking NLL seasons (2002-2004) playing at then-GM Arena.
“Doug and his team have done a great job with sponsorships, seasonticket drives, scouting, attracting media, community appearances and the game-day experience, but bottom line is if we don’t win, that really hurts us at the gate.”
Watkins, who bought the team in 2007 after it moved from Albany, N.Y., to San Jose, said it cost about $4 million a season to run the NLL club in California.
They reduced that cost with a move to Everett in 2010 and last year relocated to B.C. She estimated the annual cost of operating in Canada to be “roughly” $2 million.
“We have a great partnership with Langley Events Centre and having five games on TSN this season will really help us. To be seen as a legitimate sport you need to be on TV and the nightly sports wraps,” said Watkins.
Locker said pleasing the B.C. lacrosse fan base that’s steeped in tradition can be challenging at times.
The NLL circuit, which blends NBAlike hype, Las Vegas showmanship, Monster Truck volume and arena music into its game-day atmosphere, appeals to youth and young adults, but not always to the older fans.
“There’s a fine line and you always have to be respectful,” said Locker, who notes the team is well ahead of its 1,250 season-ticket sales from last year. “In some markets they need the sex appeal and party atmosphere to bring out the fans. Here, in a lacrosse hotbed, quality games will do that for us. So you have to listen to your fans’ feedback. And you need to win.”
New Stealth assistant coach Kaleb Toth, who starred with the Calgary Roughnecks and Toronto Rock before retiring in 2012, said the NLL is an adrenalin-rush product.
“What was fun when I played in Calgary was that the NLL was new to the city. Fans fully embraced the gameday party and it was always fun at the Saddledome. There’s a little bit of show business attached to the NLL that some purists may not like, but it’s attracting more fans, and more importantly for our sport, new and young fans.
“And being on TV won’t hurt this season.”
Along with the televised games, the Stealth’s home games will be carried on TSN 1410 radio. And all games are streamed live on the NLL and team websites. The in-house production at LEC is slick, too.
The Stealth have a cheerleading team called the Bombshells, a fox mascot named Bomber, pre- and postgame parties at LEC and post-game photo and autograph sessions with the players.
Locker, who has a Champions Cup ring from the team’s banner season in 2010, still loses sleep over an 11-10 loss to Rochester in the 2013 final and 8-7 loss to Toronto in the 2011 final.
“We lost five games last season by one goal. It shows you how close you can be from being in the playoffs or missing them, or being a champion or a runner-up. You need some luck and bounces on your side in this tight league.”
Locker joked that a “bathtub ring” was all he had to show for last year’s 4-14 debacle, but feels the rare flop helped motivate everyone for this season — the 29th for the NLL — which gets underway this weekend for all nine teams.
In the off-season Locker pulled the trigger on a couple blockbuster deals, including a deal with the champion Rochester Knighthawks to acquire forwards Johnny Powless and Joel McCready for several future first- and second-round draft picks.
And on draft day the Stealth acquired punishing defender Rory Smith and goaltender Eric Penney from the Buffalo Bandits for future top draft picks and Nick Weiss.
“We need to win now, plain and simple,” said Locker. “To gain traction in Langley and move the business plan forward, we decided to load up and worry about the future later. This year’s team could be our best yet.”
After signing Powless, a 21-yearold star from Six Nations, Ont., who was a finalist for the 2014 Lou Marsh Award as Canada’s athlete of the year, the Stealth then signed a deal with Squamish Nation to grow and promote lacrosse across B.C.
Watkins, who attended the prayer ceremony last month in North Vancouver to mark the partnership, said she was thrilled and humbled to team up with Squamish Nation.
“From the 1936 North Shore Indians inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame to some of the 2001 Presidents Cup winners, the people of the Squamish Nation can be proud of their champions. We hope to be equal to the task as role models,” said Watkins.
Asked how long she thinks it will take the Stealth to again hoist the Champions Cup, Watkins admitted her bias before saying the road back to the glory land starts tonight in Calgary (6 p.m., TSN) and will end with a title in the spring.
“I clearly expect us to be in the playoffs and I won’t be satisfied if we’re not in the championship final. So I guess everyone now knows how I feel,” said Watkins.