Sometimes, it’s the little things that let an athlete know fans are buying into a team.
Brett Manney, who helped launch the New England Black Wolves franchise when it relocated from Philadelphia to Mohegan Sun Arena prior to the 2015 season, can hear the difference. And it has nothing to do with the volume of the crowds.
“The days of guys just yelling, ‘Black Wolves,’ is over,” Manney said. “People are yelling “Hey Evy,’ or ‘Hey, good job Brett.’ They’re engaging with you on a more personal level, and that means a lot too, because they’re more interactive and starting to know guys. That goes a long way with how you play. It means a ton for us.”
Manney is one of the original Black Wolves. Along with Kevin Buchanan and Kyle Buchanan, he has been with the team every step of the way. Kevin Crowley has also played every season in New England, but was traded briefly to Toronto at the end of 2016 before returning to Mohegan Sun in 2017.
Because he has been here from the start, Manney has a good feel for how the Black Wolves’ fan base has evolved. But Manney also feels qualified to judge the quality and passion of the growing New England fan base for another reason.
“I’m coming from Philadelphia where our professional sports are everything to us,” said Manney, who grew up in Newtown, PA, just 30 miles outside of the city. “I understand what they (Black Wolves’ fans) go through as a fan from cheering on the Eagles and the Sixers, Flyers and Phillies. To be in their shoes as New England fans and see what they go through as a professional Philly sports fan, I know what they feel and it makes you want to play that much harder for them because they care. When someone cares that much about you, you want to do everything you can to win a game.”
A three-sport (soccer, basketball, lacrosse) star at Holy Ghost Prep who went on to play four years of varsity lacrosse at the University of Delaware, Manney was a senior team captain who led the Blue Hens to a 2007 CAA championship. Now in his 10th National Lacrosse League season, he understands that change is to be expected when teams are striving to improve.
“It is something you get a little bit used to in sports because if you are not winning championships, something has to change,” Manney said. “I think last year, the way the season ended, (General Manager) Rich Lisk and the ownership looked at the roster and said, ‘Hey we need to get better.’ And I think they went out and tried to do that through the draft and through free agency.”
How quickly those rookies and free agents mesh with the returning veterans will be crucial for the Black Wolves this year.
“I was looking at the (roster) from last year of our team, and nine guys who are on our final roster were not on it last year,” Manney said. “You just learn to live with that, and it is expected from playing in this league for many years that you battle with the guys who are on your roster. You believe that the GM and the coaches and the ownership believe this is the best roster, and you go from there. As far as playing with a whole new set of guys, the most important thing is chemistry and culture.
“How quickly can you establish chemistry on the offensive end, where guys are running their systems and principles and doing the right things? And defensively, it’s the same thing. How quickly can guys learn to communicate with each other and understand tendencies, and what guys like to do, and understand defensive schemes. Things get tinkered with from a philosophy perspective, but at the end of the day, as long as everyone beats with one heart from the defensive side up through the offense, then you are going to have a successful team.”
With the addition of veterans like David Brock, John LaFontaine, Aaron Bold and Stephan Leblanc, who have all had extensive success in the NLL, Manney expects the Black Wolves to evolve quickly.
“They have experience that is invaluable,” he said. “They barely need to look at the scouting report. They know every guy who is in the league and have played against them. That’s stuff you can’t teach. It’s just already ingrained, and that is what championship teams are made of.”
The Black Wolves showed their potential with a victory over the defending champion Georgia Swarm in the season opener on December 8th. They also received a healthy wakeup call in a 24-11 loss at Saskatchewan on December 23rd.
In some ways, that loss to the Rush may be the most important result of the season. Not only did it happen early enough to serve as a season-long reminder that nothing should be taken for granted, but it was the kind of decisive setback that forces some internal examination. It could not be dismissed as bad luck the way a last-second loss might be.
“I think what happens with a game like that is you learn more from a loss than a win,” Manney said. “You’re able to mask things in a win because everyone is happy, no matter what the outcome. As long as you win, by one or two or 10, 11 or 12, those issues are pushed under the carpet. When you have a loss, you’re able to evaluate more. Self-evaluation, team evaluation, and try to correct those (issues)…I think part of being a professional, you always try to be the best at your craft. We got punched in the face by the Rush, but I liked our resilience bouncing back. It’s not how you fall down, but how quickly you get back up. We got back up against Vancouver and were able to get a good win.”
The Black Wolves are 2-1 and unbeaten at home. The schedule will get tougher, beginning with consecutive games against an explosive Rochester team on the road January 13th and back at Mohegan Sun Arena on January 21st.
Manney is already looking forward to the 21st.
“There is nothing better than at the end of the game, circling around that floor and thanking everybody for their support and their loud voices,” he said. “Every year it gets better and better, and that’s why I love to call Mohegan Sun Arena my home. “