In the end, Curt Malawsky had to admit that facing the Calgary Roughnecks wasn’t just another game.
The Roughnecks dismantled the Vancouver Warriors 14-7 on Saturday before an announced crowd of 8,363 at Rogers Arena in the first meeting between the National Lacrosse League clubs since longtime Calgary head coach Malawsky signed on to run the Warriors bench this summer.
“If you had asked me before the game, I would have lied to you and said that it doesn’t matter, but it mattered. It hurts,” Malawsky said. “I was hoping that we would win that game and have bragging rights. That’s selfish of me.
“But you asked me the question, if I felt that way … does it hurt more than other losses? It does. I think those guys (the Warriors players) knew that. No one really talked about it. I could see it in their eyes. They cared, too. We all care about it each other.”
Malawsky, 53, signed on with Vancouver in mid-July, just three weeks after his contract with Calgary had run out and two months after he had been named 2023 NLL coach of the year for leading the Roughnecks to a 13-5 regular season.
He went from being an employee of the Calgary Flames, who own Roughnecks, to getting his paycheques from the Vancouver Canucks, who have had the Warriors since June 2018.
His 10-year run as bench boss with Calgary was highlighted by the club winning the 2019 league title, and he had spent 15 straight seasons with the Roughnecks when you add in a three-year turn as an assistant coach and two years as a player.
The Roughnecks reportedly made a pitch to keep him, but coaching closer to home was appealing to Malawsky, a father of two whose family now lives in Maple Ridge. Helping turn around a Warrior franchise that has just a single playoff game to show for its past nine years and increasing the profile of the game in his home province was a sell for him as well.
The man affectionately known as Mouse in lacrosse circles had extended conversations in the post-game handshake Saturday night, the first coming with Calgary star goalie Christian Del Bianco, who, like Malawsky, grew up playing in Coquitlam.
Del Bianco’s 48 saves and a six-goal Calgary run midway through the game, which turned a taut 5-4 lead into an 11-4 cushion, were keys to victory for the Roughnecks (2-2) over the Warriors (1-4).
Del Bianco, who’s the reigning NLL most valuable player, is just 26 but he’s already in his eighth season with Calgary.
“It was a mixed bag of emotions. We have so much respect for that entire coaching staff,” Del Bianco said of the Warriors’ crew, which also includes Malawsky’s former Calgary assistants Bob McMahon and Rob Williams. “There are so many years of great memories, including a championship, so I think we did a great job of treating it like another game that we needed to win.
“We wanted to get back to .500 and trending in the right direction, but that also doesn’t take away from how close we are all with Mouse.”
Malawsky added of his time in the handshake line: “I love those guys. I just wished them all luck the rest of the way. We built something really good there.”
Vancouver defender Ryan Dilks said that players in his dressing room were openly talking about the game’s significance for Malawsky leading up to it.
“We wanted this one bad for him,” Dilks said. “That organization meant a lot to him for many years of his career. He chose us and believed to be a part of this team. We would have loved to give that (win) to him and I feel bad that it wasn’t a great result and not the best effort for us tonight.”
Calgary got five goals and two assists from Tanner Cook and three goals and three assists from Jesse King. Josh Currier added three goals and one assist.
One-time Roughneck Ryan Martel had two goals and one assist for Vancouver.
The Warriors defence, which Malawsky rebuilt in the off-season, was strong again, evidenced by Vancouver holding a 55-46 edge in shots on goal.
Both Aaron Bold and Aden Walsh had their struggles on outside shots in the Vancouver net. As well, the Warriors offence didn’t make things nearly hard enough for Del Bianco, giving him a chance to set his feet and get square to the shooter for far too regularly.
Vancouver was coming off a 12-11 overtime loss to the host Colorado Mammoth Dec. 30, a game where they led 11-5 at halftime.
“Our shot selection is atrocious,” Malawsky said. “We watched 137 clips of Christian Del Bianco before the game today. Not one direction in an eight, nine-page scouting report says that we should be shooting five-hole.
“We just have to shoot smarter.”
Josh Sanderson, who was a teammate of Malawsky’s in Calgary during their playing days, replaced him as head coach with the Roughnecks, and he hired Troy Cordingley as an assistant. Malawsky is replacing Cordingley as bench boss of the Warriors after Vancouver went 4-14 last year in Cordingley’s lone campaign at the helm.
Cordingley’s resume in the league includes guiding Calgary to a championship in 2009, which was Malawsky’s final year as a player.
Saturday marked the lone meeting this season between Calgary and Vancouver. The league had previously focused on regional play, but it went from two conferences to a single 15-team table this summer and has every team meeting at least once.
Calgary visits the Mammoth (1-4) on Saturday, while Vancouver is at the Saskatchewan Rush (1-3) that day.
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