NLL: Thunderbirds eager to play again after unscheduled month off

Graeme Hossack. NLL – Halifax Thunderbirds vs Buffalo Bandits – Scotiabank Center, Halifax, Nova Scotia – March 8, 2020. (Trevor MacMillan/Halifax Thunderbirds)

The long wait is finally over for the Halifax Thunderbirds. When they step on the floor in the FirstOntario Centre in Hamilton, Ont. on Saturday night, it will be the first time the team has played in 36 days. Two of Halifax’s games were postponed because of COVID-19, causing them to not play in over a month.  

“I know the past weekends the NLL has had games on and I’ve been watching them. I still want to be there, I still want to be playing,” said Thunderbirds’ assistant captain Graeme Hossack. “I will be excited to step on the floor again and compete against someone other than our own teammates.” 

The Thunderbirds take on the Toronto Rock on Saturday. Coincidentally, the last game the Thunderbirds played was against Toronto, which they won 11-7. Halifax had a two-week break because they had a bye week and a week off for Christmas. Right before Christmas, the Nova Scotia government prevented sports games from being played at any level among many restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19. This forced Halifax to push their Jan. 8 home game against the New York Riptide back to Feb. 4. A week later, the NLL postponed all games for week five, including the Thunderbirds’ away game against the Calgary Roughnecks. These postponements forced the team to have an unscheduled month-long break at the beginning of the season. 

The Thunderbirds didn’t resume practice until last week, leaving the players training independently with a few team video calls sprinkled in. Hossack has been working out at home and doing drills once or twice a week. Once their practices resumed, they were high pace. The team did many drills designed to compete against one another to get the players back to game speed as best as possible. 

“I always enjoy having our mid-week practices and getting together and having some fun that way,” said Hossack. “It’s been a little bit quiet… because I don’t have that mid-week practice where I get to see everybody and have some fun together, compete and tease each other a little bit. All that stuff is fun and keeps us engaged.”

Halifax is expecting an intense game against Toronto. The Rock are looking to get back in the winning department after losing to the Buffalo Bandits last week. Hossack expects they also want revenge for losing to Halifax earlier. 

“We need to be sharp right off the bat,” said the team’s head coach Mike Accursi. “I think if we just weather the storm and sit back for that first five minutes, we could be down three or four goals in this game. We definitely want to come out with a hot start and obviously get any rust that we do have out and jitters that we do have out and just get to work.” 

Playing a game with an unexpected month off is not the only thing that makes this match unusual for the Thunderbirds. They will be playing with no fans in the stands because of COVID-19 restrictions.

“Lacrosse is something that always provides some adversity that you have to deal with, so this is just another thing we have to tackle,” said Hossack. “But at the same time, it being an away game, it’s probably not the worst thing in the world to have no fans. That’s usually one of the things you try to aim for as a visiting team is to try to silence the fans. I feel like it takes away some of that home floor advantage, some of the energy in the arena. We just have to bring it ourselves.” 

The time off also gives some of their injured players time to recover. Accursi is hopeful captain Cody Jamieson can make his season debut on Saturday, but it isn’t guaranteed. Austin Shanks is still a few weeks away from coming back. 

Halifax has won both games they played this year. Along with Toronto, they also beat the Saskatchewan Rush in their season opener in overtime.

Accursi is happy with his team’s compete level. He feels their special teams needs to be better, both the power play (2/9) and penalty-kill (3/9), and wants to have a smarter transition game. 

“I think we’re in a good spot,” he said. “We really started out of the gate in a positive manner, and we will just try to improve every single week and peak at the right time of the season. We’re coming into the real meat of the season, which is the end of March and April, and moving into the playoffs.” 

When the Thunderbirds return home is a mystery. The restrictions in Nova Scotia are in place until at least the end of January, so the earliest they can return is Feb. 4 against New York. That means their home game scheduled for Jan. 22 against the Bandits is also postponed. No makeup date has been announced for their games against Calgary or Buffalo. 

While they wait to come back, the team hopes to make the best of the situation. 

“We’re excited to get back to Halifax and play in front of our fans,” said Accursi. “Once COVID dies down, our Thunderbirds non-stop action is going to come back to the city, so we’re excited to get there. In the meantime, we will win a few games.”