We interrupt our coverage of the Battlefords North Stars to bring you… the SASKATCHEWAN Rush!!”
This was different, all right. Instead of sitting in my usual press box seat in the Civic Centre on Saturday, watching the SJHL action on the ice while listening to live play-by-play from Marty Martinson straight from his own mouth, here I was on the road to Saskatoon with our photographer, Averil Hall.
Our mission: to cover lacrosse. It was the National Lacrosse League game between the Rush and their arch-rivals, the Colorado Mammoth.
There was a particular reason why we were on our way to SaskTel Centre. It was the Hometown Spotlight: North Battleford night, where the community of North Battleford was being showcased at the game.
“We are celebrating our fifth season here in Saskatchewan with our Hometown Series Spotlight,” said Brenley Kroeker, community relations co-ordinator with the Rush.
“For the nine home games this year we are going around to different communities, inviting them out to come experience the game.”
For this night, North Battleford was being showcased. This was particularly special for members of the Rush organization, Kroeker explained. “We have some office team members that are born and raised in North Battleford as well, so this hits super close to home.”
There are other connections as well. North Battleford had a role in creating Bruiser, the club’s bulldog mascot. It was local resident R.J. Laliberte who won the name-the-mascot contest during the club’s first year in Saskatoon.
Team owner Bruce Urban moved the Rush to Saskatoon from Edmonton for the 2016 season. Since then, the Rush have taken Saskatchewan by storm, leading the NLL in attendance. Not only have they attracted fans from across the province, but fans from Edmonton still make the trip. That includes super-fan “Grandma Rush,” who has cheered the team on since their days in Edmonton.
No doubt, Grandma Rush is very familiar with that trip through North Battleford on Highway 16 to Rush games.
“We have the most passionate fans in the NLL,” said Kroeker. “They are loud, they are crazy, they are committed to our team. This is just a small way of saying thank you for the first five years and here’s to many more.”
As part of “North Battleford” night, Mayor Ryan Bater was in attendance for the game along with several members of city council: Greg Lightfoot, Len Taylor, Kent Lindgren and Kevin Steinborn.
There were other shout-outs to North Battleford during the game. I noticed on the video scoreboard they ran a Destination Battlefords ad to the fans in attendance.
Bater’s main role on the night was to come down to the field surface to bang on the Nutrien “Fan Drum” to get people excited before the opening ball-drop. Bater was flanked by Bruiser and the “Rush Hulk” as he enthusiastically took a mallet to the fan drum.
“It’s my first-ever game,” Bater said when I spoke with him at half-time. “So far it’s been an amazing party.”
I posed the question to him about what’s different about a Rush lacrosse game compared to any other sporting event he’s been to.
“It’s LOUD,” Bater said.
“It’s continuous music, that’s what sets it apart. Of course, I’ve never watched lacrosse before, so I’m learning how the game is played as I go. It’s difficult to have conversations with people next to you, so with the loud music you’re kind of focused on the entertainment, on the game.”
Another thing that Bater appreciated was that it was also “80s Night” at the Rush game, with a constant stream of Eighties music being blasted from the speakers throughout the game. “I’m a child of the 80s so it fits perfectly,” said Bater.
Indeed, it was the whole atmosphere and game-day presentation surrounding the Rush game that stood out for me in covering it. As an SJHL reporter, I was used to the no-frills approach typical of games at the Civic Centre.
In fact, this is typical at hockey games all over this country, including even the NHL. Yeah, they’ll have regular promotional “nights” and 50/50 draws, and play “Sweet Caroline” and “Gloria” and other tunes, but it’s very low key. The main focus is on the game.
Not so with the Rush, who pull out all the stops by bringing out the massive Canadian flag for the anthems, with the constant playing of music, with the cheerleaders and multiple mascots, with the PA announcer imploring the fans to get loud, and even fireworks in the arena.
On this night, the Rush brought out the Saskatchewan band Streetheart to play during half-time and after the game.
It’s the way of the future. Sports franchises, including ones in the NLL, realize that if they want the Millennials and the non-die-hard fans to show up, they’ve got to make going to the game an “experience.”
Guess what, hockey fans, this approach is coming to a game near you. Already, you see NHL teams like the Vegas Golden Knights pull out all the stops with their elaborate pre-game shows, with all the pyrotechnics.
Traditionalists may not like it, and even in the NLL you hear a lot of muttering from fans about the loud music at games at the other arenas. But the reality in 2020 is that if you don’t make that extra effort to provide that top-notch entertainment experience, you’re going to be yesterday’s sport.
Oh, as an aside, there was a lacrosse game. The Rush beat Colorado 9-7.
The most memorable goal came from Jeff Cornwall, who turned on the speed and beat the Colorado defence on a breakaway in the second quarter, and scored. That put the Rush up 3-2. In the post-game scrum Cornwall talked about that goal and about his own comeback to the team after a year off.
“At the start of the year when I first came back I was a little bit heavy,” Cornwall said.
“I’m lucky because I dropped a little bit of baggage, lost a few pounds and whatnot, and I feel a lot more ready for the cardio aspect of the game. And now it’s just kind of getting comfortable. I’m definitely making mistakes out there but my teammates are bailing me out and I’m starting to fall into my own again so it feels really good.”
Another comment Cornwall made stood out; in this league “anybody can win any game.” That is another secret to the Rush’s success. For all their success in winning games and championships, at the end of the day you still never know what is going to happen. And that keeps the Rush fans coming back.