The Albany FireWolves will play their first season in their new city in the 2021-22 campaign, and it has a different feel to when the organization last hopped locations.
Back in 2014, the Philadelphia Wings announced that their long tenure in Philly was over – the franchise was moving to the Mohegan Sun to become the New England Black Wolves. That first training camp weekend for the Black Wolves had a very interesting feel to it.
I was one of the few media members there for the first weekend as the team tried to leave the Wings behind and forge something new in Connecticut. Fast forward to now, and the organization has moved again, this time a little further north to Albany as the FireWolves. Again, I was fortunate enough to be on-hand for the team’s first training camp, but the mood this time could not have been more different, and for good reason.
The last season for the Wings wasn’t one that offered much optimism. They found themselves out of the playoffs with a 6-12 record, and only two of those wins came in front of their home crowd. As disappointing as the final record was, the idea of the Wings being anywhere but Philadelphia never seemed like a possibility. In a league where teams relocate, fold, and start on a nearly annual basis, the Wings were an institution that spanned decades. There were legends who not only played there but won championships.
But the highlights for the Wings were largely in the rearview mirror. From top to bottom, the move to New England was seen as a truly new beginning. Newly-retired Tracy Kelusky stepped into a new role as an assistant coach with the team, and there was a core of players who stayed with the organization.
But despite some familiarity, the team was leaning heavily on rookie additions and free agents in an attempt to start the team as something new. At the time, head coach Blaine Harrison described it as “(feeling) like a new venture.”
“I don’t want to say it’s necessarily an expansion-type feel, but it certainly is a new, refreshing feel,” he told Desmond Carter of The Hartford Courant.
Fast forward to now, and the Albany FireWolves are joining New York’s Capital region not as an expansion team in a new market but as a very good, veteran team coming to a former NLL city. It’s an area that knows lacrosse and even has a strong background in the box game. In the 2020 season, the Black Wolves were the top team in the East Division and had the best winning percentage across the entire league. There was still a lot of lacrosse to play before the pandemic cut it short, but their undefeated road record helped provide about as much optimism as you could hope for.
“Maybe it was a missed opportunity in missing a ring,” FireWolves forward Reilly O’Connor said. “It’s more for me that it’s excitement. We still have the best goalie in the world, we still have an elite defense, and I love the guys we have out of the front door. It’s more that, ‘We can do it.’ It’s exciting.”
In 2014, the Black Wolves were trying to be something new. The Albany fans will get an established team with something to prove. There is a but of unfinished business behind things, but more than anything, the players who are suiting up together already have history together.
“We obviously had a few great additions and a few guys left, but honestly it feels pretty similar, and we already have that sense of comradery,” Joe Nardella said. “It’s a lot of fun to be in [the locker room]. I’ve missed it more than I thought I would.”
This isn’t quite the same situation as when the Edmonton Rush won the NLL title and brought that team to Saskatoon, where it became an instant hit, but it’s not far off. Albany FireWolves fans will have a new team to watch, but it’s a team with built-in chemistry that has all the right pieces in place, and they know how to win together.
The offseason brought a ton of changes with the addition of an expansion team and another one on the horizon, but the FiveWolves are singularly looking to win a championship in their first season in Albany.
“I’ve been for that type of team for 12 years, and I’ve been playing for 14 years,” FireWolves defenseman and captain Brett Manney explained. “I was very fortunate my first two years, not much turnover of the team, and we went to a championship. There’s more parity in the league and how to be really successful in the league is to retain a lot of your guys and your best guys. To be here and see a lot of guys where it’s not their second year with the Wolves, it’s their fourth, fifth, or with Reilly [O’Connor], it’s his sixth, that’s how you really build a very strong team, with committed guys that all know each other really well and have great chemistry off the floor.”