Q/A: Wings Head Coach and GM Paul Day on COVID-19 and a Long-Awaited Return to Play
It’s been 632 days since the Philadelphia Wings played a game.
632 days, or about 21 months if you want to look at it that way. That’s almost two years since the local box lacrosse team took the field at the Wells Fargo Center, which is the longest break of all professional sports teams in the Delaware Valley.
Like every league in North America, the National Lacrosse League postponed its 2020 campaign when COVID-19 hit. Postponement became cancellation, and that carried on for another full season, with the league deciding to forego the following year to focus on the the tail end of 2021 and the entirety of 2022 instead. Logistically, it was harder for a league with Canadian players and Canadian franchises to navigate the more strict rules enacted by our northern neighbors.
Wings head coach and general manager Paul Day can speak to that. He’s an Ontario native and former police officer who joined the club for their 2018 rebirth. With Comcast-Spectacor’s backing in ownership, the Wings went 4-14 in their first season, but improved to 8-6 in year two, before COVID hit. Despite the cancellation, Day was named NLL general manager of the year and also took home the Les Bartley Award, given annually to the league’s best coach.
With the NLL returning to action this year, Day joined Crossing Broad for a short discussion ahead of Saturday’s season opener against Panther City Lacrosse Club, an expansion team out of Fort Worth.
Crossing Broad: It’s been more than 600 days since the Wings last played a game. I’m sure everybody is itchy to get back out there.
Paul Day: We’re extremely excited to get back out there, and to start at home for us is pretty fantastic. We know we have a huge following in Philly, some loyal fans that are probably even more excited to get back to it than us. Most of our players play in the PLL (Premier Lacrosse League, an outdoor league), so they’ve played other pro games, but we’ve had an outstanding training camp. Our first year we were an expansion team, so we had a lot of players in camp. Our second year, a lot of players in camp, but after being off for so long we really focused on building chemistry from day one. We’ve had an outstanding training camp, one of the best ones I’ve ever been at. We’ve got our players – Matt Rambo, Trevor Baptiste, Blaze Riorden, Kevin Crowley, Ben McIntosh, Zach Higgins, some of our top end players are in the best shape of their lives. And our captain, Kiel Matisz, is kind of a guy that does it all. We’ve got great leadership and it sure makes it a fun group to be around. We thought we were really building something special when COVID hit, but we able to add some real nice pieces to contend this year. Can’t wait to be back and there’s a smile on our faces every day.
CB: You were 8-6 when the season was cancelled, actually 7-3 at one point and riding some momentum. You were pulling solid crowds at the Wells Fargo Center. When this thing came to a screeching halt and the season was postponed, what was going through your head?
Day: I guess first and foremost we were just thinking about everybody’s safety. There were a lot of unknowns for all of us. We were worried about our families and the world, to be honest with you. We were all worried about (family), but in the back of our minds, we had spent most of the season on the road and were coming back for three more games at home and we had three really bad back-to-backs as far as traveling, with Buffalo, (we played at) eight o’ clock, then you bus all night and play a three o’clock game the next day in New England. We had the best part of our schedule, at home, ahead, so we were excited to push and get into the playoffs. I think we all learned a lot about ourselves and spent a lot of time in the offseason taking care of things that we usually don’t take care of. Most of our guys are playing 10 of the 12 months in pro leagues, so we took that time and as a team we actually read a book called “Legacy,” which is about the All Blacks (rugby team), their legacy and how they prepare. We did that as a team and also worked on mental health with a local sports psychologist in Philly. We were able to learn as much as we could without touching the floor, and I think that’s really going to pay dividends here this season.
Glenside native Matt Rambo
CB: My understanding, and correct me if I’m wrong, but because there are a number of Canadian teams in the league, that there was added COVID complication because of the strict rules Canada had in place. Logistically, you guys had it harder than some other leagues.
Day: Yeah, and I think the league probably is probably about 80% Canadian players throughout all of the teams. There were quite a few roadblocks, not only border issues, but also work visa issues. There are Americans playing on Canadian teams and lots of Canadians playing on American teams. A lot of the guys who were getting green cards to work in the U.S., that was shut down during COVID. It was a unique time, but obviously we would have loved to have played. It was difficult because our league is a big gate-generated revenue league, until this year, where we now have ESPN in the U.S. and TSN in Canada (as broadcast partners). That will help. But at the time, it was a gate-driven league and we needed people in the stands. It’s difficult to have a pro league with no fans in the stands, and the crowd without TV revenue coming in.
CB: I’m fascinated by the fact that not only did the NLL get through this relatively unscathed, but the league even expanded. There’s a new Texas-based team that you’re playing on Saturday. There’s a new Vegas team that’s joining next season. You mentioned TSN and ESPN+. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems like the league office and the owners did a nice job navigating the pandemic and positioning things for the future.
Day: Yeah, and I think you can look back to when we came into the league with Comcast-Spectacor, San Diego came in at the same time with Joe Tsai, who owns the Brooklyn Nets, and he’ll also own the team that Wayne Gretzky and Dustin Johnson and Steve Nash are part of in Vegas. The ownership group in New York is a real high-powered business organization. The owners of the Buffalo Bills bought a team in Rochester and then obviously Fort Worth comes in with an unbelievable ownership group and brand new arena. They also own the Dallas Wings (WNBA) and one of their owners also owns the Oklahoma City Thunder. The ownership I think is unbelievably solid, and it’s a game you can take your whole family to. I always say you can take your whole family to a Wings game and it’s cheaper than going to the movies. It’s like a mix of a Flyers game, Sixers game, and Eagles game. There’s a sporting event going on with the Eagles tailgate culture inside the building; that’s the energy. You’re going to see goals and a physical game. The way we’ve built our team, our offense, the guys that play forward are more physical than our defenders. We’re a tough team to handle. But we built the team Philly-style. We’re a fun group to watch and the game itself, if you bring two people to a NLL game, my wife of 12 years, she had never seen lacrosse, and she loves it man. She gets bored at other sporting events. I love hockey and I’m a huge hockey guy, but you come to one of our games and I know you’ll be back.
Wings head coach and GM Paul Day
CB: It’s true. Funny story about that – I went down to a game years ago with my dad and uncles, and Bill Bergey’s son, Jake, was on the team. Obviously Bergey was a great Eagles player and we ran into him on the concourse, and my dad and uncles wanted to talk Birds, but he was only interested in the Wings, and told them that. So we all watched the game together, Jake was fantastic, and the match was exciting. Honest to God, I don’t think I’ve ever run into anyone who went to a Wings game and said they didn’t enjoy the experience.
Day: Mr. Bergey, unbelievable guy, I coached Jake in Rochester in 2001 and what a great family. It’s such a small world. After year one, I think we built a pretty good reputation as a great place to play. We were treated really well, treated like the Flyers organization. When free agency happened in August the last couple of years, some players that were Eagles fans, Flyers fans, Mr. Bergey called some free agents for us, and Paul Holmgren called some free agents for us, just to let them know what it would be like to play in Philadelphia. One of my best friends played for the Flyers for a while, so we used to come all the time, and that carries true today. We built our culture on the old Wings, that had a lot of local guys and won a lot of championships. That’s what we based that on when building a team from scratch. We’re based on those two organizations and their success in the past.
CB: You’ve got some good players coming back. Matt Rambo. Trevor Baptiste. Blaze Riorden. What’s the outlook for the Wings this season and what are realistic expectations for you guys?
Day: I think in this league it’s kind of like the NFL, any given Sunday. Anybody can win the league. They’ve done such a good job with expansion rules that a team can come in right away and compete, and play hard. I think there’s 6-8 teams that could win it this year and we’re one of them. I like our chances. We’ve got a young and fast defense with a great goaltender in Zach Higgins, who was up for goaltender of the year. We’re young so we added some big pieces, and our average age was about 26 at the time. COVID hit and we added a couple of 30 year olds, John Ranagan, a big 6’5″ guy who played here before, Alex Crepinsek, from Georgia, a real speed guy. Both of those guys won a championship a few years ago in Georgia. Then there’s Brock Sorensen, 6’6″, who played for Toronto, but I’ve won championships with him in the summer. And then there’s our first round pick from a couple of years ago, Jackson Suboch, who’s 6’5″. We needed size and added it, then added some pedigree up front, with Ben McIntosh, who lives in Philly, and won three championships and was rookie of the year in Saskatchewan. He married a Philly girl and went to Drexel, so we were lucky enough to get him. There wouldn’t have been a chance otherwise to trade for him. Matt Rambo has won two of the last three PLL titles. Blaze won a title this weekend. Corey Small has won a lot of championships. It’s a great group, led by our captain, probably the best locker room I’ve ever seen in lacrosse. It’s a good group. We’ve got all of the pieces and plan on being there at the end.
CB: Finally, your personal story is a really interesting one. You were a police officer up in Canada for 27 years and our readers probably don’t know that story. Can you share it with us?
Day: I grew up in a place called Peterborough, so for hockey fans Steve Yzerman played there. My friend Kerry Huffman played for the Flyers. Mike Ricci. They all played there. We played hockey in the winter and lacrosse in the summer. And then in the 70s, the original Wings came about, and even though it was a summer league, the Spectrum would sell out every night. A guy named Doug Favell was a goaltender for the Flyers and then played for the Wings in the summer time. We were all in the same neighborhood even though those guys were in their 20s and 30s. But riding around on my bike, I’d go to the library and they had the super 8 film of the game of the week and I’d watch the Wings, so I always loved the Wings. I played all the way through, played in Buffalo and Vancouver, and then got hired right out of university to be a police officer in the Niagara Falls area. That was the year Buffalo came into the league via expansion, so I was right there, and I was a rookie cop and a rookie in the league at the same time. I played in the league and then coached in Rochester, and obviously there was a lot of shift work and there were times I remember working all night, getting on the plane and then coaching. Or flying to Baltimore in a snow storm on no sleep. I would have paid to get in to coach in this league. I was actually in Nashville on vacation with my wife and some family friends and got a call from the league that the Flyers wanted to talk because they were close to bringing a team back to Philly. I was close to retirement, and that’s why I retired from the police force, because there was the opportunity to coach the new franchise in Philadelphia. It’s been pretty fantastic.
Captain Kiel Matisz, #46, Matt Rambo, #1, and Kevin Crowley #21