By Chris Goldberg
Phillylacrosse.com, Posted 1/5/11
The Philadelphia Wings will celebrate their 25th anniversary Saturday night (7 p.m.) when they host the Boston Blazers at the Wells Fargo Center in a National Lacrosse League opener.
And nobody is more excited about the start of the 2011 season than Michael French, one of the team’s owners, and a charter member of the team.
French played one season – at the ripe age of 36 – with the Wings when they started in 1987 as one of four teams in what then was called the Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse League.
Much has changed since then. The league was renamed the Major Indoor Lacrosse League in 1989 and then the current name of National Lacrosse League in 1998. Until the past decade, the Wings – who have won more championships (six) than any franchise – were respected as a perennial league power.
But last year Philadelphia finished just 5-11 and failed to make the playoffs for the seventh time in eight years as key injuries struck hard.
“We got used to winning and finally we said, ‘Hey, we have to do something,’” French said. “We wanted to get players with a history of playing with each other to create a different character and to build new team chemistry.
“We wanted to make sure we had a lot of good local players here. And we have six players that played (on the US team that won the FIL championship) in Manchester, England.”
For one thing, the Wings have a new coach (charter Wing John Tucker), a new General Manager (the highly-regarded Johnny Mouradian) and several new assistant coaches (one is former Wing and Downingtown East coach Tom Slate).
Even more importantly, the team has 14 new players, many of them key additions, and many more local players that have enjoyed success at all levels (see story on 2011 roster). Perhaps the best news is that Athan Iannucci, the league’s MVP and goal-scoring record-setter in 2008, is back after missing more than a full season with major knee problems.
But French’s enthusiasm goes much deeper. This year the Wings are doing just about everything to become a fixture in the community as they celebrate 25 years of play and hope to build back some recent losses in attendance.
“If you win, they’ll come,” said French. “But also if you work in the community, they’ll come. We would like to earn a home playoff game and compete for the championship. We should have twice as many wins as last year.
“I’m a true believer in preparation, character and chemistry. The staff we’ve built is excellent and the players said they never learned more than they did in our training camp.”
On Tuesday the Wings announced they are partnering with five Philly non-profit lacrosse organizations – Checking for Cancer of Haverford School, the Philadelphia Lacrosse Association, Laxers 4 Life, Great Guys Group and Cuddle My Kids in hopes of raising awareness.
For the second year the Wings will hold a “HEADstrong Foundation Night” (March 5) and HEADstrong President Cheryl Colleluori will speak to the crowd about what Nick Colleluori has meant to the lacrosse world.
There also will be a Breast Cancer Awareness Night, a game to honor Big Brothers and Big Sisters, American Heroes (police, troops, firemen), and the Katie Samson Lacrosse Festival.
French’s ties to the Wings go quite deep. Actually, the Wings are the second pro indoor lacrosse team with that name in Philly’s history. The first Wings played in 1974 and 1975 in the old National Lacrosse League, which was disbanded after just two years of play.
French – a three-time All-American at Cornell – was the second player selected in the 1976 NLL draft, shortly before the league folded. But he remained interested in pro lacrosse in Philly and when co-owners Russ Cline and Chris Fritz founded the new league in 1987, French came back to play that one year and then volunteered as a general manager for a number of seasons.
In 1994, French served as co-coach with Tony Resch as the Wings won their third championship after bowing in the finals the two previous years.
During that period, the Wings were a dominant team. In fact, from 1989-2001, the Wings won six crowns and reached the finals nine times. Only once in that period did they fail to make the playoffs. And back then, the crowds were often 15,000 or more as players such as Resch, Tucker, Gary Gait, Brad Kotz, John Grant Sr. and Kevin Finneran graced the floor of the old Spectrum.
French believes this year’s team can win and also appeal to the fan base with local talent as well as overall depth and team chemistry. The 2011 Wings feature Philly products such as All-Star Kyle Sweeney (Springfield-Delco), John Christmas (Lower Merion), Bill McGlone (Ridley), Pat Heim (Conestoga), Brett Manney (Holy Ghost Prep), Jeff Bigas (Penncrest), and Steve Holmes (Germantown Academy). Also, Taylor Wray (Lehigh assistant coach) returns. Besides Iannucci, Drew Westervelt is a legitimate force and Max Seibald is a budding star.
Tucker, who was an assistant last year with the Wings, has a strong staff that includes Slate (defensive coordinator), Blane Harrison (offensive coordinator) and Chris Sanderson (goalies).