AN ORAL HISTORY OF THE 2011 AND 2012 WESTERN LACROSSE ASSOCIATION CHAMPION LANGLEY THUNDER

by Gary Ahuja

The 2011 Langley Thunder team captured the first WLA championship in the organization's history and hosted the Mann Cup that year. Carl Meadows photo

The greatest sustained run of success for the Langley Thunder organization is the period from 2011 to 2013 when the team captured two Western Lacrosse Association regular season championships as well as winning a pair of WLA playoff titles.

Born as the North Shore Indians in 1994, the Senior A lacrosse team spent six seasons in North Vancouver before two seasons in Kelowna as the Okanagan Thunder and then another two back to North Vancouver, this time as the North Shore Thunder. The team moved to Langley for the 2004 season, playing first out of the George Preston Recreation Centre and then in 2009 out of the brand-new Langley Events Centre.

The Indians were the top team during the 1996 WLA season and followed with three more seasons of double-digit victories, posting a .527 winning percentage from 1996 to 1999.  But the early part of the next decade saw the team struggle and 2004 was a low point as the Thunder posted a 1-19 record in their inaugural season in Langley. The following years showed little improvement with back-to-back two-victory seasons in 2005 and 2006.

Gerry Van Beek joined the Thunder in 2006, first as an assistant coach and then as general manager in 2009, serving in that role through 2013. Prior to that, he was involved with the Port Coquitlam Junior Saints so he was quite familiar with many of the rising players in the B.C. Junior A Lacrosse League.

Those struggles netted the team high draft picks, however, with Rob Van Beek (first overall) and Kyle McEwen (sixth overall) in 2005 while the following year saw them select Matt Leveque second overall. Those three, along with Steve Hay (a sixth-round pick in 2003), were mainstays on the Thunder from 2006 to 2011. And those early years played a pivotal role as the team transformed itself.

Matt Leveque (captain from 2007 to 2015): “We were so close as a team. We were all younger guys who grew up playing against each other our whole lives and we had good chemistry because we knew one another. When we weren’t playing lacrosse, we were always together … weekends you would find us at the beach, playing disc golf, doing something, and that built the core of that Langley team. We were a family, so tight, so together, it just made everything easy.”

Matt Leveque was the second overall selection in 2006 and served as team captain from 2007 to 2015.

The Thunder improved to 6-12-0 in 2007 and loaded up at the 2008 draft with four of the nine playing integral roles in the team’s heyday from 2011 to 2013. The squad did take a step back results wise in 2008 as their win total was chopped in half to 3-15-0. What the record doesn’t show, however, is that despite losing 15 of the 18 games, the team’s goal differential was just -17 and eight of the losses came by just a single goal.

Randy Delmonico, took over head coaching duties in 2009 and the club improved by seven victories to 10-7-1, qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2003. It was also a sense of validation for the team as while they never lacked in a belief that they were on the right path, many of their opponents doubted that this young squad was on the rise to the upper echelon of the WLA.

Leveque: “For me, it was a hard one to swallow because I was injured that year (Leveque played six games before needing shoulder surgery) but to see us make the playoffs was just awesome because we knew we were right there. In layman’s terms, they kept saying we were full of (it). But deep down, the core guys knew we were eventually going to be that team to beat.”

Langley lost in four straight games in the first round to a New Westminster squad which was in the midst of three straight WLA titles and the Thunder stalled in 2010, falling back outside the playoff line with a 6-12-0 record. But with another high draft pick, they selected defender Brett Mydske second overall. Mydske would develop into perhaps the premier defender in the WLA over the next decade.

Prior to the 2011 campaign, Langley replaced Randy Delmonico (the 2009 WLA Coach of the Year) with Rod Jensen.

Leveque: “His coaching philosophy fit the team and he’s a players’ coach. He knows what he is going to get out of each player and what role they bring and he knows how to put guys in situations in which they are going to succeed. And he knew how to get everything out of the players, whether it was calling them out in the dressing room or taking you aside and giving you an earful … he just knew how to get the most out of every player.”

Brett Mydske: “It was a fun system to play because not only did he want us to pressure out on the offence but it was a green light anytime we got the ball to push it up the floor so it was fun because there were a lot of transition opportunities.” 

Jensen was an assistant coach for the Coquitlam Junior Adanacs who were fresh off capturing the Minto Cup when he took the Langley job.

Rod Jensen: “It was tough leaving Coquitlam because we were gearing up for another run (the Jr. Adanacs lost to Whitby in the 2011 Minto Cup). Some people thought I was crazy leaving for Langley but it was good timing.”

Gerry Van Beek: “We thought to push the team over the hump we needed a more current coach for the current systems and that’s when we brought in Rod Jensen. Randy, (assistant coaches) John Swan and Shaun Springett, there is no question, they were good coaches. They were a nine and we needed a nine and a half and that’s where Roddy and his group came in. We needed what Rod had.”

Rod Jensen (second from left) was brought in as head coach in 2011 with Darcy Rhodes (left to right), Fred Klomp and Ryan Williams also serving on his staff.

In 2009, Langley had selected Alex Gajic first overall but Gajic preferred to play in New Westminster alongside his two brothers. Gerry Van Beek shipped Gajic to the Salmonbellies in 2010 receiving Athan Iannucci in return. Iannucci was coming off a pair of major knee surgeries and missed the entire 2010 WLA season as he recuperated. Before spending his summer playing in the Major Series Lacrosse in 2008 and 2009, Iannucci scored 95 goals and 170 points in 34 regular season games with New Westminster in 2006 and 2007.

Iannucci made his Langley debut in 2011 and immediately led the team with 29 goals and 58 points that first season. He followed with 30 goals and 57 points the following season and then 27 goals and 56 points in 2013. Iannucci scored 130 goals and 243 points in 80 regular season and playoff games combined.

Prior to joining Jensen’s staff as an assistant in 2011, Darcy Rhodes played from 1999 to 2010 with the organization (he remains the leader in all-time games played for the franchise with 224). Rhodes was initially reluctant to join the staff as he had spent the past several seasons as the players’ teammate.

Rhodes knew the team was close to making the leap from rebuilder to contender.

Darcy Rhodes: “Rod came in with his philosophes which is what our team needed. We had the talent, we just needed a push in that direction.”

With Jensen behind the bench, Langley was 8-8-2 to get the team back in the playoffs. Jensen would win the Coach of the Year award, which was one of three team regular season awards. Goaltender Brodie MacDonald (the second overall pick in the 2011 draft) was Rookie of the Year and Brett Mydske was the Unsung Hero.

Jensen: “We had a slow start (just one win in their first four games) but the guys were working hard. Brodie got hot, our defence was very physical and we were an athletic team: we could run, we could push through, we could pressure. We were like a pack of wolves: we loved to get after teams. And the other teams’ superstars … we were really able to ruffle their feathers.”

Back in the post-season for a second time in three seasons, the Thunder faced the Victoria Shamrocks in the opening round.

Jensen remembers one play in the Victoria series where Nik Bilic crushed a Shamrocks player and that set the tone for the team as they swept the series in four straight setting up a showdown in the WLA finals with the three-time defending champion New Westminster Salmonbellies.

The teams split the first four games with New Westminster winning games one and three (8-3 and 10-7) and Langley taking games two and four (12-6 and 8-6).

Rob Van Beek and Iannucci scored two goals apiece and MacDonald made 37 saves for the crucial 8-4 game five victory before closing out the series at Langley Events Centre with a 7-5 win behind another 36 saves from MacDonald. Alex Turner led the offence with a pair of goals.

The Thunder celebrated the first Ted Fridge Memorial Trophy as WLA champions following a six-game victory over the three-time defending champion New Westminster Salmonbellies at Langley Events Centre in 2011.

MacDonald was named the playoff’s Most Valuable Player after improving his numbers to a goals against average of 7.24 and an .840 save percentage over 10 playoff games. During his 14 regular season appearances, MacDonald had an 8.51 GAA and .822 save percentage. With MacDonald stopping shots at one end of the floor, Iannucci was doing the bulk of the damage at other, scoring 22 goals and 35 points over the two series. Iannucci scored 25 per cent of the Thunder goals and had a point on nearly 40 per cent of their 89 goals.

The Salmonbellies averaged just 6.5 goals per game against Langley, nearly three goals below the 9.4 they scored in the regular season and in their first-round playoff victory.

Matt Leveque and Rob Buchan with the Ted Fridge Memorial Trophy and the WLA Provincial Championship banner.

Leveque: “Our key focus was just to play Thunder lacrosse: play together and play tight. We were that hard-nosed, gritty team built for the playoffs. We played that physical style which beat offensive players up.”

Mydske: “We got hot at the right time, right before the playoffs. Everyone was hungry, young and we just needed to get over that hump. I think that helped us the next couple of years, knowing that we could compete with any team in the league, it gave us a boost mentally that you have the confidence that you can play with anybody.”

Athan Iannucci: “The first (Mann Cup), we almost had no business being in. A team full of guys probably first Mann Cup ever against a team in Brampton, a team full of guys who probably had guys with multiple appearances.”

Athan Iannucci joined the Thunder in 2011 and was among their leading point-getters over the five seasons with 137 goals and 285 points in 89 games.

With the Ted Fridge Trophy as WLA champions in hand, the Thunder hosted the 2011 Mann Cup against the MLS champion Brampton Excelsiors. With Brampton missing Dan Dawson and goaltender Anthony Cosmo in game one, Langley opened the Mann Cup with an 11-3 victory. The duo would arrive in Langley for game two and the Excelsiors evened things up with a 9-4 win and then took a stranglehold on the series thanks to a pair of one-goal victories, 8-7 and 5-4. The Excelsiors closed it with a 6-3 win.

Jensen: “They had a really good defence and we weren’t able to score, and then they had that one-man wrecking crew, Dan Dawson.

Dawson led Brampton with four goals and 10 points in his four games while Cosmo had a 4.50 GAA and .878 save percentage to win the Mike Kelley Memorial Trophy as Mann Cup MVP.

Alex Turner led the Thunder in Mann Cup scoring with 11 points while Iannucci shared the goal-scoring lead with six in the five games.

The reputation of the Thunder was changing as players were no longer balking at joining the team and Van Beek beginning to field phone calls from interested players hoping for a tryout.

Iannucci: “I wanted to come to Langley. I just wanted to be on a team full of guys, good people and that was definitely through and through, the most tight-knit team. Legit, everybody loved everybody.”

The Thunder wear specially designed jerseys once a season with proceeds from the auctioned off jerseys supporting the Tessa Beauchamp Foundation.

Garrett Billings (Rookie of the Year in 2009) returned to the team while Van Beek traded for Lewis Ratcliff. They also added Shayne Jackson and Joel McCready among the 11 new faces for 2012 as they looked to make their offence more dangerous, which they did, adding nearly a goal per game.

Gerry Van Beek: “Shayne Jackson, phenomenal player, Team Canada now, but nobody really knew who he was. Joel McCready was probably one of the best cheap signings we made while Ian Poole was the best free agent signing we made. Similarly, in 2011, Brett Hickey and Andrew Potter and Pat Saunders, nobody had ever heard of those guys … and we were able to find them through connections in the east that really helped round out our roster.”

MacDonald (7-5, 8.69 GAA, .807 save percentage) and Steve Fryer (5-0, 7.84 GAA, .817 save percentage) gave the Thunder a fantastic tandem in goal while the backend and transition game also delivered in their respective roles.

Brodie MacDonald was the rookie of the year and playoff MVP in 2011 and the league's top goaltender in 2013.

Jensen: “(Nik) Bilic and (Rob)Van Beek were quick and tough as nails and (Brett) Mydske and (John) Lintz had great technique. And Matt (Leveque) was mean and dirty, but in a good way. And Ian Poole was a technician and could pick off passes better than anyone in Canada and (Sam) Cook and (Todd) Stockdale were our stay-at-home defenders.”

The regular season saw Langley finish atop the standings (a first for the franchise since 1996) with a 12-6-0 record. Iannucci led the team with 30 goals and was co-leader in points with Ratcliff as both players had 57.

In addition to winning the Stan Shillington Trophy as the top regular season team, Mydske won the Top Defensive Player and Poole was named the Unsung Hero.

Gerry Van Beek: “The 2012 team was probably the best lacrosse team I have ever been involved with. It was defensively so strong and offensively we had so much.”

Leveque: “We added some key players in key roles and having Brodie in net after the experience he had in the first season was huge. You knew you could rely on him every night to make the big saves that were needed.”

Iannucci: “Our whole team’s philosophy was what’s next and being very process-oriented as opposed to goal-oriented. It doesn’t matter if you are up five or down five, there is a right way to play, We really tried not to pay attention to scores and overall records but just what are the things we need to do to play the game the best way we can play it.”

For a second straight year, the Thunder swept the opening round (this time against Burnaby) before facing the Coquitlam Adanacs in the championship round. Langley won games one and three 7-3 and 9-5, respectively, while the Adanacs took game two 9-8. The Thunder won a pivotal game four 8-7 in double overtime with Alex Turner notching the winner for a 3-1 series lead. Coquitlam forced game six thanks to a 7-6 win before the Thunder closed the series out with a 9-5 victory.

Ratcliff had two goals and five points in game six and was named playoff MVP after scoring 23 goals and 49 points in 10 games.

Langley acquired three-time league MVP Lewis Ratcliff ahead of the 2012 season and Ratcliff tied for the team lead in points with 57 in 12 regular season games before scoring 23 goals and 49 points in 10  games to be named playoff MVP.

The Thunder travelled to Ontario for a Mann Cup showdown against the Peterborough Lakers and won a pair of one-goal games 13-12 and 15-14 in overtime to take a 2-0 series lead. The Lakers evened the series at two with 14-10 and 9-8 victories and then surged ahead with a 9-5 game five win before closing out the Mann Cup 14-8.

Langley’s Garrett Billings led all scorers with 32 points while Iannucci was second in goals (15).

Garrett Billings, the 2009 rookie of the year, rejoined Langley in 2012 as the team won a second straight WLA title.

The 2013 Thunder team returned roughly two thirds of the players from the previous season and added several big names (Adam Jones, Shayne Jackson, Dane Dobbie, Mark Matthews, Mitch McMichael and Nick Rose) to round out the roster. The result was a second-straight Stan Shillington Trophy as the top team during the WLA regular season with an 11-5-2 mark. Mydske also won a second straight Top Defensive Player award while MacDonald (7.51 GAA and .821 save percentage) was named the league’s Most Valuable Goaltender.

In a rematch of the 2012 WLA final, the Thunder swept Coquitlam 4-0 to advance to face Victoria. The Thunder went ahead 2-1 after winning game one 7-6, losing game two 10-6, and then taking game three 12-10. In Victoria for game four and with a chance to take a commanding series lead, the Thunder fell 4-3 in overtime.  The Shamrocks then took game five 11-8 and closed the series with an 8-3 victory.

Victoria goaltender Matt Vinc proved to be too much to overcome as he finished the playoffs with a 6.81 GAA and .829 save percentage.

Jensen: “No question that last team was probably the best team on paper that I have ever had. The problem was we brought it together too late and couldn’t get everyone on the same page. (Victoria) had Vinc in net and he just shut us down.”

Gerry Van Beek: “We really went for the gusto there and Victoria plain and simple out-teamed us. They had a little bit more character than we had.”

Following the 2013 season, Van Beek also stepped down as General Manager. And while he was the one who carried the GM title, he was quick to point out that the Thunder decisions were made by collaboration with Rob Buchan and Ken Buchan Jr. Rob Buchan is the current General Manager and Vice-President while Ken Buchan Jr. is the President and Governor.

Van Beek and Rob Buchan tended to handle the lacrosse side of the operations while the Buchan brothers took responsibility of the business decisions. Van Beek also credited Ryan Williams (now the Assistant General Manager and Director of Scouting) for his scouting acumen.

The 2013 defeat also marked the start of a gradual decline for the Thunder as they missed the playoffs in 2014 at 7-11-0 before bouncing back to 9-9-0 in 2015 and a return to the post-season. Mydske would win his third Top Defensive Player in the past four seasons while newcomer Anthony Malcom was named co-recipient of the Rookie of the Year award. Langley lost in four straight to New Westminster.

Brett Mydske anchored a stingy Thunder defence during his time in Langley. He also won four major awards during his seven seasons in Langley, including three times being named the league's top defender.

2015 also marked Langley’s last post-season appearance. From 2009 to the end of that season (post-season included), the Thunder went 85-74-5, a .534 winning percentage. By comparison, the team was a dismal 14-77-0 (.154) in their first five seasons as the Langley Thunder.

While disappointed to fall short of the Mann Cup, Jensen was happy for the Buchan family, especially the late Ken Buchan Sr.

Jensen: “They spent thousands of dollars and thousands of hours trying to make Langley respectable. And he was able to live through that and experience the success. It’s just too bad we couldn’t get the last job done in winning the Mann Cup.” 

A common theme from everyone who spoke for this story was the closeness and tight-knit, family-feel among the players.

Rhodes: “I think that culture built in the early days. Even though we were not in the win column, we were a tight team, guys like hanging out with each other. We were a tight unit and played for each other. It was the tightest group of guys I have ever been around as a player, as a coach. Everyone really went to battle for each other. We talked about accountability but it was to make each other better. No one took it personally, we knew we all had a common goal, we all wanted to win a championship.”