The first season for the Vancouver Nighthawks is over, a bit sooner than we might have liked. Maybe it wasn’t a great success between the sidelines, but otherwise it’s safe to say the Nighthawks exceeded expectations.

Many of the staff, including myself, came on board when we heard Brian Gisel was involved. Given Brian’s history, particularly heading up multiple World and National Championship tournaments in Vancouver, we knew that this was going to be a serious effort to run a well-organised team. Brian is normally a man of few words who prefers to work behind the scenes, leaving the spotlight to others, but I managed to get quite a few words out of him for this year-end review.

The first topic he wanted to address was the effort it took to get the team up and running so quickly. The Nighthawks were the last of the eight MLU teams to sign on for the season.

“I didn’t come on officially until the end of January. At that time the Nighthawks had a web site and Thunderbird Stadium booked for 4 of our 5 home games. That was it. How did we get here? It is a bit of a blur. Andrew [Lugsdin] and I worked a lot in February on getting the Combine/Tryout organized. Without players the Nighthawks wouldn’t really have much of a team…”

“With that completed, in early March I spent most of my Spring Break up at Whistler on the web and phone interviewing people for the different positions on the staff. That was a crazy week because we were about one month from the first game and we didn’t have any staff in place thinking about how that was going to go.”

This is where Brian’s track record and credibility played a vital role, though as usual he is quick to deflect any praise to others.

“As they always have in the past, the local disc sport community stepped up big time. Game Operations, Merchandise, Communications, Marketing: in every area we got a few experienced old timers who brought the wisdom, and a bunch of eager young people who brought the energy. Everyone got to work right away, and by the time the pre-season game came around on April 13 we had a great crew. Two weeks later we had a near perfect launch at our home opener. I’m still very glad the Nighthawks were away for week 1! My first MLU experience was down in Seattle where we could sit back and watch, and take notes.”

Perhaps the greatest success for the Nighthawks was leading the league in attendance.

Says Brian, “Right from the get-go we knew we had a leg up on the other MLU teams, thanks to the head start provided by the Vancouver Ultimate League. While other cities such as Boston, New York, and Seattle have as many Ultimate players as Vancouver, no city has the bulk of these players connected by a single organization. The VUL was very supportive of our efforts and we came to a partnership agreement with them that allowed us to market for them and in return give us access to their members, who would make up our fans.”

“On top of the VUL, Vancouver has a large, and quickly growing, high school and elementary school Ultimate community. We estimate that at least 2,000 students play Ultimate in the Vancouver school system, and we focused on these players as well. One surprise to us was the strength of the elementary school interest. It seems that almost all elementary schools either have a program, are starting a program, or want to start a program. I attended a one day tournament, Saberfest, where there were 16 teams of grade 5-7 students from 10 different schools playing! The story seems to be very similar to how adult Ultimate started in Vancouver. Someone starts a small program, everyone has fun and tells their friends, and then suddenly there are 50 people playing at the school. In the next 5 years I expect that almost every elementary school in Vancouver will be playing Ultimate.”

It wasn’t just the alliances with the VUL and with schools that brought in the fans.

“It is no secret that our largest crowd was on June 8th, in the middle of the venerable Flower Bowl tournament that was held on the UBC campus near our stadium. Another game coincided with the BC High School Provincial Championships held locally.”

Yes, that was the loudest crowd of the season even though it wasn’t the largest. Some players even had their own personal cheering sections thanks to the coaching they had volunteered to do.

“On June 22 we had around 100 VUL Captains come to the game as part of the VUL Captains’ Wing Ding, and another 100 Junior players who are training for CUC 2013 attended as part of a BC Ultimate program. Smaller satellite leagues also helped us. Our first big group booking was from Maple Ridge Ultimate, and they became big supporters and fans. The North Shore Ultimate League also helped us out by sending fans to games. These connections are key to the Nighthawks fan base. Really, they are the fan base. We will certainly keep working with these great organizations in the future to strengthen ties. It’s a win-win situation. One of the goals of the Nighthawks and the MLU is to promote the sport of Ultimate to the general population, and the more people who are interested in Ultimate, the bigger these organizations can grow.”

“We are very proud that our attendance numbers were great, but I think the best thing about 2013 was having the three other MLU teams from the West compliment us on having such a great staff and how we put on a great show for the sport. That was certainly my hope coming in.”

“I expect Vancouver to always be the best in terms of organization and that showed it. We are very happy with our game package, but we also want to raise the bar even higher in 2014.”

Brian is also very glad the Nighthawks were able to play at Thunderbird Stadium on the campus of the University of British Columbia.

“UBC is the unofficial home to big event Ultimate in Vancouver, including a number of National Championships, two World Championships, and over 25 Flower Bowl tournaments. The biggest crowd to ever watch an Ultimate game in Vancouver, over 5000 fans, took place at Thunderbird Stadium in 2008 during the WUGC Open Finals. When it’s sunny, as it was for all 5 home games, the setting can’t be beat. The sun is warm, the view is fantastic, and the size of the stadium is in line for our crowd. A thousand spectators can make it feel crowded. At some point in the future we might outgrow ‘The Nest’ as we like to call it, but for our early days it seems like the right setting for the Nighthawks. And with all the construction going on at UBC these days, maybe we will see the 40+ year old stadium upgraded in the future.”

It would be remiss not to comment further on the amazing weather the Nighthawks enjoyed for their home games. For four of the five – the other game was held in the midst of an extended stretch of nice weather – a period of inclement weather ended just hours before the game. Twice the clouds parted just before game time, giving the spectators a beautiful cloud-flecked sunset to enjoy during breaks in the game. I don’t know what the odds were against getting five games without rain during spring here in the middle of a rain forest, but they had to be very long.

What is Brian looking to improve next year?

“Due to our late start, time was an issue for our marketing efforts and press coverage. We made some strides, but overall I would have liked to have more press coverage and been able to market to more people outside of the local disc sports community, but there just wasn’t time. In 2014 that will be a big focus for the team. As good as our attendance was, we need to double those numbers and we can’t do that just on the backs of other Ultimate players. We need more people coming in the door and watching this amazing sport, and then telling their friends, and coming back for the next game with a larger group.”

I also talked to Head Coach and GM Andrew Lugsdin about the less than successful year on the field.

“We didn’t do as well as we had hoped. We would play well in stretches and then have periods where we would make a bunch of mistakes. This would happen to us almost every game and is reflective of a team that needs to improve its overall skill level. We did improve significantly over the year and had some players really step up their game, moving from question marks to where you can see them being pieces of a championship team.”

“I am proud that the team continued to play hard to try and represent Vancouver as well as they could, even when we were eliminated from the playoffs. The most frustrating part of the season was our inconsistency. Some of that is because we need to get better, but some of it is because the effort level would drop at certain points of the game and that was disappointing for us.”

In my opinion, part of the reason for what happened is that even as robust an Ultimate scene as Vancouver’s will occasionally go through a tough period when a generation of players who have dominated for years starts to slow down due to age and injuries. There are any number of younger players ready to step in and seize the opportunity, but it takes a while for them to get the experience they need to be successful, particularly in leadership roles and crunch time situations, as well as being able to maintain a consistent top level effort over an entire game or season. When playing on touring teams, there is always another game or another tournament to get on track, but in MLU, playing only one game most weekends, you don’t have that luxury.

Looking forward to next season, Lugsdin sees the priority as working through that generational shift.

“For next year, we really need to focus on continuing to develop our young players. Some of them really stepped up this year and with another season of training and learning how to win, we should be better next year. Of course, all of the other teams will also be trying to improve, so we’ll have our work cut out for us. But that’s what makes sports so much fun; without the challenge, it would be boring. We’re looking forward to making it into the playoffs next year, and we’ll go from there.”

I can speak on behalf of the rest of the Nighthawks staff in saying we are all planning for and looking forward to being involved in Nighthawks Season Two. As always, our goal is to be a leader and set the bar high for the other teams.

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