For Brad Banister, the Calgary Roughnecks have been a labour of love, but all good things must come to an end.
Banister, a resident of Okotoks, announced his plans to sell the National Lacrosse League (NLL) franchise on Jan. 5. The two-time league champions have been in existence since 2001 and have always struggled to maintain consistent attendance.
To compound the Riggers’ off the floor troubles, the club’s lease at the Saddledome is set to expire at the end of this year.
These factors, compounded by the Roughnecks’ considerable financial losses, eventually led to this tough decision, according to Banister.
“It’s just time to do something a little different,” he explained. “Basically, the financial strains are too great for me to handle anymore and it’s time for somebody else to step in, hopefully.”
Being a prominent figure in the Okotoks lacrosse scene, Banister stressed selling the Roughnecks will have no bearing on his support at the sports’ grassroots level.
“I’m obviously going to stay involved with the Okotoks Mustangs,” he said.
Banister and Dana Robinson founded the Mustangs, Okotoks’ premiere box lacrosse program, in 1995. Since that time, Banister has been involved in coaching and directing the program, which has provided lacrosse players with scholarships and opportunities to continue playing the sport.
“That was my baby before the Roughnecks and I’m real proud of that organization,” Banister said emphasized.
Despite some struggles, Banister is confident his Calgary Roughnecks experience has left the Alberta lacrosse landscape much stronger than prior to his arrival.
Pointing to the success of the sport in towns like Okotoks, Strathmore and Didsbury, the outgoing Roughnecks owner claimed his NLL franchise has impacted the Alberta lacrosse landscape profoundly.
“Obviously, the Calgary Roughnecks have resulted in the growth of lacrosse in Alberta, there’s no doubt about it,” he explained. “We took minor lacrosse from 2,000 registered athletes 10 years ago to 11,000 in Alberta so the growth has been amazing and that’s solely because of the Roughnecks.”
The remarkable growth of youth lacrosse is just one of the many successes Banister pointed out during his tenure as Roughnecks owner.
On a local level, the popularization of box lacrosse, Banister said, is yet another product of Roughnecks lacrosse.
With NCAA schools heavily recruiting athletes for field lacrosse because of their box lacrosse experience, the Roughnecks have provided the guidance and opportunity for local players to develop these skills.
In addition to on-field influence, the Roughnecks have also made their mark on the Calgary landscape, Banister added.
“We’ve done over a million dollars in charity, we’re in 65 schools for the four months that we’re playing,” he said.
The two championships won by the Roughnecks are just icing on the cake.
“There are many, many achievements and things that I’m proud of with the team. Two championships in a city that hasn’t won a championship at home ever in history,” Banister said. “We’re the only ones that have ever done that and we’ve done it twice.”
The Roughnecks’ 2004 championship, played at the Saddledome, was a particular highlight for Banister. Played in front of a sell-out crowd, the franchise’s first league title was broadcast across the continent on NBC.
With the Roughnecks now up for sale, Banister’s involvement in lacrosse will remain strong.
Operating in an “advisory role” for the upcoming 2011 Minto Cup, the national Junior men’s lacrosse championship hosted in Okotoks, Banister said he hopes to integrate the Roughnecks brand into the event, provided he still owns the team.
Possible ways to incorporate the NLL include hosting the league’s annual entry draft in Okotoks, along with a field lacrosse combine, Banister said.
The combination of events could turn the Minto Cup festivities into a lacrosse festival.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for the Town of Okotoks,” Banister explained. “It’s going to put them on the map as far as a lacrosse community across Canada.”
Taking a step back from the Roughnecks will allow Banister to spend more time with family, including his three-year-old who recently made his lacrosse-playing debut.
“(He’s) probably the youngest kid in Okotoks playing lacrosse,” Banister said with a laugh.
His plans may also include coaching a Midget team in Okotoks, something Banister has done for the past 13 years with the Mustangs.
Returning to his roots with local lacrosse is important to the outgoing Roughnecks owner, who regards the Town of Okotoks as a hotbed for Canada’s national sport.
“It’s probably the largest lacrosse community, next to Orangeville, Ontario, per capita,” he said.