Jan 3, 2014

Knighthawks to honor Steve Donner during team’s historic 20th season

Steve Donner HOF.jpgBy Craig Rybczynski -- During the team’s historic 20th season, the Rochester Knighthawks are turning back the clock on Hall of Fame Night with the induction of the team’s founder, Steve Donner. On Saturday, Jan. 11, Donner will become the 12th member of the Knighthawks’ prestigious club.

“I was almost speechless when I got the call,” said Donner, who now lives in Florida with his wife and kids. “It is something that is really special for me, and I am beyond excited.”

It was 20 years ago that Donner convinced Major Indoor Lacrosse League founders, Chris Fritts and Russ Cline, to add Rochester to the six-team league. The Knighthawks have grown from an expansion team into a cornerstone franchise of the league with four championships, including the past two Champion’s Cups, to their credit.

“Steve was the guy who grew lacrosse in Rochester and a big reason why the Knighthawks stayed in Rochester,” said former Knighthawks All-Pro Chris Driscoll.

Donner had experience in Major Indoor Lacrosse as he first brought box lacrosse to Western NY in 1992, convincing the Knox family to add the Buffalo Bandits as a way to generate additional revenue for their new arena. He worked nine years with the Sabres and two with the Bandits before moving on to work in Tampa with the NHL Lightning. His tenure in Florida lasted two seasons before the former resident of the 19th Ward was back home in Rochester.

On Oct. 4, 1994, Donner introduced Rochester to its newest team, the Knighthawks. It was as a preteen that he was first introduced to box lacrosse, attending a Rochester Iroquois game at the War Memorial in the late ‘60s. Thirty years later he stood in the same arena to announce the return of indoor lacrosse.

“Being from Rochester, I felt the city was ready for something new,” said Donner. “Everyone told me that the building was too small, Rochester was too conservative. I heard all the excuses. At the same time, I was pretty nervous that they would be right and I would be wrong.”

Donner proved everyone wrong and started to see his hunch pay off one week after the press conference. That’s when tickets went on sale to the public. On the first day, the Knighthawks sold 1,100 season tickets – which eventually reached 2,200 – and there was a buzz in Rochester.

“We expected the phones to start ringing the first day, but at quarter to nine there was a line of people down the stairs, down the hall and all the way down the street,” said Donner. “We got a lot of media attention, and the first game sold out pretty easily.”

He can still recall the electricity that filled the arena on Opening Night on Jan. 7, 1995. Rochester thrilled a crowd of 7,379, as it downed the Boston Blazers 12-8. Goalie Steve Dietrich was the star of the game as he made 52 saves.

“Opening Night felt like big leagues in Rochester. We had Rich Funke doing play-by-play on the radio. We had radio interviews before the game and in-between periods. We were doing a lot of things on the radio we couldn’t do for hockey,” said Donner. “We had tons of media people doing the news outside before the game. There was a buildup for it. It was pure adrenaline, pure excitement for two hours.”

But it wasn’t until the Knighthawks’ second game that Donner realized that lacrosse was here to stay.

 On Jan. 14, Rochester rallied from a 12-6 fourth-quarter deficit to defeat the Baltimore Thunder 16-13. The Knighthawks scored a franchise record 10 goals in the final quarter to win their second straight game. Rochester got Game MVP performances from Driscoll (4+3) and Paul Gait (5+1).

“We had a great first game, but in the second we came out really flat and were losing 7-1. We were absolutely getting killed,” said Donner. “In the second half, we started to pick away. Then in the fourth quarter, we went on a tear. With every goal, the crowd kept getting louder and louder. We won the game, and the place became absolutely unglued. It was one of those games that everyone in Rochester said they were at. The next Monday, our ticket sales went nuts, and we sold out the rest of the season. So it was that game that cemented us in Rochester that first year.”

The Knighthawks lacrosse franchise immediately established itself early as a successful member of the MILL, qualifying for the playoffs in each of its first three seasons and capturing the championship in 1997.

“It was the culmination of a dream. Being from Rochester, one of my goals was to bring a quasi-major league operation to the city, playing against other major league cities,” said Donner. “We weren’t going to have that opportunity in any other sport at the time. Going into Buffalo in front of a sellout crowd and to win the Cup was an absolute dream come true.”

After winning the 1997 Major Indoor Lacrosse League title, Donner went to work to expand and legitimize indoor lacrosse, which led to the creation of the National Lacrosse League. With the support of the players association and several current and new owners, Donner forced the issue and built a new league. It was a bold move, which created individual ownership, a playoff system based on record and not attendance, and competitive salaries for the players.

“I really thought I could help the league grow. I felt so strongly that the game had so much potential. The players needed to have more growth, the owners needed to have growth, and I really felt the game needed to grow beyond an eight to 10-game schedule,” said Donner. “There needed to be a better playoff format and better salaries for the players. In a free market, Rochester could potentially be at risk of someday not being able to stay in it, but it was the best thing for the game.”

In 1998, the NLL launched with returning teams in Buffalo, Rochester, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, along with new teams in Syracuse and Ontario. The season schedule included a 12-game schedule. Also, the playoff format featured a best-of-three championship series with the semifinals still taking place in a single-game elimination format, though postseason games were based on regular season record.

“Steve was one of the catalysts to push the MILL to the next level, from lacrosse being an event to being a professional league,” added Knighthawks Assistant Coach Paul Day. “Lacrosse fans of Western New York owe him a great deal. His love for lacrosse was evident with helping to bring the Bandits to Buffalo and the Knighthawks to Rochester plus field lacrosse teams. I am sure there are hundreds of kids playing the game today because they got to watch the Bandits, K-Hawks or Rattlers play pro lacrosse.”

Rochester was a model franchise in the NLL and the obvious choice for the first NLL All-Star Game. So in 1999, the Knighthawks welcomed the lacrosse world to The Blue Cross Arena. Rochester would advance to the Finals that season, which started a trend for the team as they qualified for the Championship Game in 2000 and 2003, as well.

Rochester was nearly automatic when it came to playoff time, as it clinched a playoff berth in a league-record 13 straight seasons. During the 2007 season, the franchise not only made the playoffs, but it also made NLL history. The team captured the Champion’s Cup with a league-record 17 wins. The Knighthawks also won 15 straight games, which stands as the second longest streak in NLL history. The only regret was the game moving to Glendale, Arizona because the circus was in The Blue Cross Arena. Nonetheless, Rochester captured its second NLL title, winning 13-11 over the Sting.

Pat O’Toole backstopped the team in that historic season. Last year, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame after playing 12 seasons in Rochester. He was excited to learn that the next inductee would be Donner.

“There is nobody more deserving of this honor than Steve,” said O’Toole. “He was the main force behind the league becoming the NLL, and for all of us Knighthawk players, Steve treated us first class all the way, and he had all of our respect. I loved playing lacrosse for such a great owner.”

Donner eventually sold majority ownership of the team to Curt Styres. On June 19, 2008, a new era began in Knighthawks’ history. Styres, who is the Owner and General Manager, believes Donner’s induction into the Hall of Fame is a fitting tribute to a man who kept the team a major player in the NLL and the Rochester sports market. After receiving the Key to the City in 2012 at the Championship Parade, Styres was quick to thank his predecessor, who founded the team in 1995 and held majority ownership of the club until June 2008. Under Donner, the Knighthawks made six trips to the Finals and captured two NLL titles.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for Steve Donner, and thank him for giving us the opportunity to purchase the team,” said Styres. “You have to give him credit for being here 15 or 16 years. My hat's off to Steve Donner for holding the team here that long and giving Arrow Express Sports the chance to carry on the tradition and dream he had years ago.”

Donner was in attendance to cheer on the Knighthawks as they won their first championship at home in 2012. It was an emotional night for the team’s founder to see the K-Hawks raise the Cup in Rochester.

“I was so happy for Curt and to be able to be there and to see the team win it on their home floor. It was bittersweet because I wasn’t in the middle of it, but it exorcised some demons for me for sure,” said Donner. “I was happiest for the fans because we missed out on the opportunity years before. To finally have the team win at home was special and a little bit of closure for me."

But Jan. 11 might be even more meaningful as the team honors him with its highest individual award.

“It’s gratifying. Anytime you are with a startup organization it’s like birthing a baby. This organization was not just a startup, but a dream that I worked hard for and took risks to do. Now, to be able to see it grow, compete and win even without you being involved day-to-day and see it continue to grow, thrive and be a stable part of a league you started is an absolute honor and a surreal experience,” said Donner. “To be honored by the same organization that you started and be inducted into the Hall of Famer is something I cannot put into words. It’s the ultimate dream come true.”

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