Rhys Duch knew the Vancouver Stealth were becoming more popular when he had to start staying later at the team’s arena to pose for photos and sign autographs for fans.
After the Stealth clinched their first National Lacrosse League playoff berth since moving to Vancouver in 2014, Duch noticed the meet-and-greet sessions at the Langley Events Centre were lasting longer and longer. The Stealth hope to ride that swell of fan support into a successful post-season run starting Saturday when they host the Colorado Mammoth in the Western Division semifinal.
“We’re building Stealth fans in Vancouver now, instead of just lacrosse fans,” said Duch. “I think for the franchise that’s huge and important. For our ownership, management, I think creating that sort of community around the Stealth is important.
“Vancouver is a lacrosse hotbed, everyone knows that, but our attendance hasn’t always displayed that. I think that we’re now creating Stealth fans and not just lacrosse players and that’s very, very important.”
Duch, who was drafted by the Stealth in 2008 when the franchise was in San Jose, has been a focal point of their offence for years. He won a Champion’s Cup in 2010 after the team moved to Everett, Wash., one of three title game appearances over a four-year span.
The Victoria native played junior lacrosse for his hometown Shamrocks in the Western Lacrosse Association and knows how important the sport is in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland.
“This is lacrosse at the highest level. Obviously, they get to see the WLA and some of the great players that play there but the NLL is another calibre above it,” said Duch. “I think it’s great for the young kids coming up. Even though it’s a very popular sport here, it’s still growing and the opportunity to see guys playing at this level is huge.
“I think it’s important not only for our franchise but for the lacrosse community that the Stealth are there. It’s going to help the sport grow.”
The 30-year-old Duch and teammate Corey Small have led a resurgent Vancouver offence this season. Both players gave credit to the coaching staff for putting an emphasis on fitness between games.
Duch has 38 goals and 56 assists while Small is having a career season with 46 goals and 65 assists. Small, 29, was third in the NLL with a team-leading 111 points.
“Just lifestyle,” Small said of the changes he has made. “Getting a little older, a little more mature, putting a little more effort into my off-season fitness and taking the time through the week to get to the gym a little more.”
Vancouver and Colorado had identical 9-9 regular-season records. Small believes the Stealth can prevail Saturday if they stay focused.
“Staying even emotionally throughout the game is going to be important,” he said. “There’s going to be times where we’re going to be on a run, where we can’t get ourselves too high. There’s going to be times where Colorado might get a few goals and we can’t get too down.
“We just have to have the belief that no matter what the situation is we’re going to win the game.”
Vancouver is one of three Canadian teams in the NLL post-season. The Toronto Rock host the New England Black Wolves on Saturday in the East semifinal and the Saskatchewan Rush will take on the winner of the Stealth-Mammoth game in the West final.
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John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press