Player Spotlight highlights the finer details and elements while supplying insight to the fans on what a player's thought process may be pertaining to a certain play, game or situation. It brings the intensity, passion, and inner most thoughts of the individual player that otherwise may not be felt or heard.
Dan Dawson is currently playing his 16th season in the National Lacrosse League. He is the leading righty scorer in league history. He has six times been a first-team All-Pro, once a second-teamer and was named Most Valuable Player of the regular season in 2009 and of the championship series in 2014. Quite simply, he is one of the best players to ever set foot on a lacrosse floor.
Of course, because he's also one of the game's true gentlemen, you'd never realize how good he is from talking to him.
Asked about his record scoring totals, Dawson gives most of the credit to his coaches and teammates. "It's a testament to longevity and coaches putting me in a position to be successful. I've also been very blessed to play with lots of great players," Dawson told the PLPA. "Lacrosse is very much a team game. Offensive players, they've got to produce. I've been luck to play with some fantastic players that have made my job easy, and obviously the training staffs that have allowed me to stay healthy for as long as I have. I have also been very fortunate to be part of teams that I have been on power plays and stuff where you get more points than maybe if you weren't in those positions."
All the points Dawson makes are legitimate, but there are also plenty of players who have had the kind of opportunities he's had without coming anywhere near the level of production he has achieved. Given that Dawson plans to play at least three more years to finish out his current contract with the Rochester Knighthawks, he could achieve truly legendary status. Consider:
If he plays Rochester's final seven games this season and plays the full complement of 18 games per year over the next three years, that would put him at 304 career games, exactly two behind all-time leader John Tavares. Given that there has been talk at the league level of expanding the season to 20 games in the near future; Dawson could even tie or break Tavares' record by the time his current contract expires after the 2020 season.
Dawson isn't just out there filling space, though. He hasn't lost a whole lot from his game at the age of 35. In fact, his last five years have been almost as productive as the peak of his career. Dawson scored 298 points in his first five seasons in the NLL, 470 in the middle five years and 449 in the last five years.
Admittedly, his 33 points in nine games this year are below his usual standard. People thought he may be slipping in 2013, his first year in Rochester, when he scored 75 points. That was his lowest output since 2004. So how did he respond? With seasons of 91, 85 and 95 points. Dawson has a real chance to surpass Tavares' record for career assists and JT's points record isn't completely out of reach, either. He won't stick around just to chase records, though.
"I tell people there's three things that stop you from playing," Dawson says. "One, it interferes with your career and your job. Two, your family life. Three, your health. As soon as one of those starts to go south for me, I'm going to walk away from the game."
Luckily for fans of the Knighthawks and lacrosse in general, all three are going smoothly at this point. "I'm very lucky that I have an occupation and a career [firefighting] that is very supportive of what I do. My family is unconditional support over the years and continues to do that. Three, knocking on wood, I take a lot of pride in my prep and staying in shape."
One thing that may just lead Dawson to stick around for longer than three more years? "We are definitely a lot busier now with three kids under 20 months but my wife and my little guys, I'd like to have them around the rinks and enjoy this experience together."
For the record, the "little guys" are first-born Theo, who turns two in May and twin brothers Brooks and Kai, who were born January 3.
And while giving his sons a chance to be part of his pro career is one motivation to keep going, Dawson jokes that they provide another reason for continuing. "I'm playing for free to keep them in diapers and day care," he says with a laugh of the costs of have three children under the age of two at home, and it doesn't get cheaper as they get older.
One of the greatest thrills a player can enjoy is scoring an overtime goal. Dawson notched one in Rochester's March 4 game, winning a critical division and rivalry game against Buffalo. He can't remember how many overtime goals he's scored, but guesses it's probably five or six. One thing's for sure, the result always plays a role in how you feel about the overtime process. "I tell people, you love overtime when you win and you hate the format when you lose," Dawson quipped.
The Knighthawks have a far more famous overtime goal in their recent history, but Dawson wasn't on the floor for it. He was out with an injury suffered as Rochester beat Buffalo 13-8 to even the East Division finals at a game apiece and force the 10-minute tiebreaker. The 10 minutes didn't do the trick, though, so it wasn't until 1:56 of the extraextra period that Cory Vitarelli's running shot from his off side sent the Knighthawks to the Champions Cup with a shot at their third straight title.
They would go on to win it, of course, with Dawson the MVP. It didn't come easily, though, and the adversity made the championship extra special for him compared to the 2013 title, the first he had won.
"The first championship, I'll never forget. It was a long time coming, going to three championships and losing and then finally getting one," Dawson says. "The first one was almost like a relief for me. I'm not going to say it wasn't enjoyable but it was almost like, finally, I did it, we did it."
In 2014, Dawson wasn't even sure he would appear in the Champions Cup. He missed the first game, which Rochester lost 10-7 in Calgary. It was gut-wrenching having to watch his teammates. "I was really pushing to play in Calgary and I was really emotional about not playing in that game. It really hit me hard that I couldn't be there for the guys. You work so hard all season long and then it's taken away from you. The training staff and medical staff made the right decision, but I tried everything in my power to be ready for that game."
That made it all the more meaningful when he got cleared to play in the second game the following weekend back in Rochester. In the building, you could see Dawson was fired up and ready to go by the way he sprinted back to the bench after the team had gathered around goalie Matt Vinc's crease for the national anthems. He got extra fired up when he felt the Roughnecks were trying to test his injury right off the bat.
"I remember the first shift, there were a lot of rumours that my shoulder was hurt and a defenceman on Calgary-it doesn't matter who-took liberties and really went after it. It actually slipped up and got me high and it just woke me up," Dawson says. "It was like, I'm better when I play pissed off and that kind of set the tone for me. They thought they could hurt a wounded dog but really it was just my head, I got knocked out, it was just a concussion."
When he says "just a concussion", Dawson is by no means downplaying the important of being careful with brain injuries. Asked about what can make lacrosse even better in the future, player safety is the first thing he mentions and is clearly important to him. He just meant that they weren't going to hurt his shoulder but it got him angry that they tried.
On second thoughts, he says, maybe it's not quite accurate to say he plays better when he's angry, but he does cite people who have had an influence on how he approaches the game like legends Terry Sanderson, Colin Doyle and Josh Sanderson.
"You think of guys that play with a little bit of edge, that are mad," he continues. "Maybe mad's not the right word, it's more intense. Playing intense is probably the right word for me. I'm intense in everything I do when it comes to competition."
"It's definitely a balance. I don't let my emotions get the best of me. At the same time, if I'm a spectator and just going through the motions, I just need that extra little... I'm a competitor. I want to win. The other team's in my way of what I want. I think most successful people and people involved with sports have that edge and are willing to do anything to beat their opponent within the rules of engagement."
A few interesting tidbits to wrap up this look at one of the best to ever hold a lacrosse stick. Dawson has taken exactly one faceoff in his career and he won it, back in 2013.
Dawson doesn't like new mesh, so he just transfers his mesh from one head to another when he needs to change sticks. "I just transplant the mesh from stick to stick. I call it an all over pocket. When I'm going to the net it sits a little bit lower then at my release point it jumps back up a bit towards the shooters, but I generally had the same pocket throughout my career." He estimates that he has only used three or four meshes through his 16 years in the league.
That's fewer than the number of teams he has played for. He played six years with the Columbus Landsharks/Arizona Sting franchise, one for the Portland Lumberjax, three for the Boston Blazers, one for the Philadelphia Wings and is now in his fifth with Rochester. Of all the uniforms he's donned over the years, what's his favourite? Well, he's partial to the Landsharks because it was his first professional jersey, but you just can't top the checked jersey the Lumberjax sported.
It speaks to what a great player and great ambassador for the sport Dawson is that you can bet for the fans of each of the teams he has represented, he is one of their very favourites to don the jersey.
Stephen Stamp is the co-editor of IL Indoor and was the Tom Borrelli Award winner as the National Lacrosse League's Media Person of the Year in 2013. He also does play by play and/or colour commentary for the Toronto Rock, Major Series Lacrosse, the Canadian Lacrosse League and in 2015 called 27 games at the World Indoor Lacrosse Championship. He hosts Boxla Beat, the leading lacrosse podcast, on NLL Radio.