70 years, one mission: Victoria Shamrocks begin hunt for another Mann Cup

To fully appreciate what the Victoria Shamrocks of the Western Lacrosse Association have accomplished in reaching the 70th anniversary in franchise history, consider that seven franchises have represented the capital as its main hockey team in that era since 1950. While the pro Cougars, pro Maple Leafs, junior BCHL Cougars, major-junior WHL Cougars, BCHL Salsa, pro ECHL Salmon Kings and WHL Royals have skated through on ice, the Shamrocks have remained a constant on concrete.

That well-earned legacy will be celebrated tonight when the Shamrocks open their seventh decade with the WLA’s Island derby against the Nanaimo Timbermen in The Q Centre.

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The Shamrocks will acknowledge the occasion by wearing throwback retro jerseys from the early 1950s.

As big a number as 70 is for this Shamrocks season, another number looms just as large. The battle cry is “10 in 70” as the club is aiming for its 10th Mann Cup national Senior A title in franchise history. (The team was named Payless Gas for the 1983 championship, because of a sponsorship, but it has been the same continuous franchise since 1950.)

Head coach Bob Heyes is part of that parade as a two-time Mann Cup national-champion goaltender with the Shamrocks in 1997 and 1999 and bench boss of the 2015 Canadian championship team.

The 2019 Mann Cup will be hosted in September at the home of the WLA champion.

“You want to go for it every year. But there’s more emphasis on winning the WLA championship in the years the West is scheduled to host the Mann Cup,” said Heyes.

But as with the start of every WLA season, teams are missing veteran performers to the professional National Lacrosse League playoffs and rising young stars to the tail end of the NCAA U.S. collegiate field lacrosse season.

The Shamrocks will be without a host of regulars for the season openers at The Q Centre, tonight against Nanaimo and Sunday evening against the Langley Thunder. Four Victoria players are in the NLL playoffs and three still in the NCAA.

“We told the NLL guys, you take care of your stuff in the pros, and we’ll take care of the stuff at home until you get back,” said Heyes.

The Shamrocks’ two biggest-name scorers — Jesse King and Rhys Duch — and two stout defenders — Greg Harnett and Tyler Burton — are currently with the Calgary Roughnecks in the best-of-three NLL final against the Buffalo Bandits. Veteran sniper Duch scored two goals and added two assists in Calgary’s 10-7 win in Game 1 over the host Bandits before 15,747 fans at KeyBank Center. Game 2 is Saturday at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary. Game 3, if required, is back in Buffalo next Friday.

Among the Victoria NCAA players missing is first-round WLA draft-pick Marshal King, who graduates this spring from Drexel University in Philadelphia.

“There will need to be some Senior B players called up, but we’ve built depth into our lineup this year to deal with this early-season situation,” said Heyes.

It’s something all WLA teams must endure until the rosters become whole.

“Every team is missing players early, but you do your best, because these points count the same as points later in the season,” said Nanaimo head coach Kaleb Toth.

The Timbermen are missing ace scorer Chase Fraser, who is in the NLL final with Buffalo, and four players in the NCAA. But that doesn’t take away from the Island derby tonight, said Toth: “This is the classic Island rivalry that brings out the best in both teams. Last year’s playoff series has fuelled it up even more.”

The Timbermen made their first playoff appearance in 11 seasons last year, and only the second since rejoining the WLA 15 years ago, before being beaten in five games in the first round by the Shamrocks.

Victoria went on to lose to the Maple Ridge Burrards in the WLA final with the Burrards going on to lose to the host Peterborough, Ont., Lakers in the 2019 Mann Cup championship.

With the WLA hosting the Mann Cup this season, Heyes has described the off-season within the league as the lacrosse equivalent of a “weapons race.”

The Shamrocks, Burrards and New Westminster Salmonbellies have stacked the decks with the splashiest recruits and look to be the teams to beat. But there won’t be any easy games, even among the league’s lesser lights, warned Heyes.

“Every team got stronger over the off-season,” said the Shamrocks’ skipper.

“Coquitlam has the No. 1 WLA draft pick and the goalie of the future [prodigy Chris Del Bianco is already an NLL star with the Roughnecks] who can carry the Adanacs to a playoff spot. Burnaby works hard and also has a big goalie. Langley is young but has an NLL MVP in Dane Dobbie and Nanaimo is coming off a great season.”

Toth agreed there will be no easy games but thinks his Timbermen may have the advantage of cohesion over the Shamrocks, Burrards and Salmonbellies.

“It’s hard to bring chemistry when a bunch of all-stars are brought in, whereas we have our core group back,” he said.

Last season was a big step for the Timbermen in making the post-season for the first time in more than a decade. Now they believe they can take the next step.

“We want to be among the top teams, make the final, and win the championship,” said Toth.

The Shamrocks will almost certainly be in the championship mix. They are built from the back-end out with defensive-and-transition standouts Harnett, Burton, 2018 NLL defensive player-of-the-year Graeme Hossack, three-time NLL champion Adrian Sorichetti of the San Diego Seals, Steve Priolo, Ben McCullough and captain Matt Yager.

“We have a blasting, punishing defence, which is the type of team we built in 2015 to win the Mann Cup,” said Heyes.

The offence, however, hasn’t been neglected with the King brothers, Duch, Tyson Gibson, Casey Jackson, Chris Wardle and rookie Cole Pickup.

“Expect to see a lot of movement up front with an offensive mix that has both youth and great veteran leadership,” said Heyes.

The Shamrocks are hoping they have rebuilt to vintage form for a vintage-tinged 70th season.

cdheensaw@timescolonsit.com

Twitter.com/tc_vicsports

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