WINGS SEEK 1ST WIN WITH ‘BIG CAT’ BACK

PHILADELPHIA — The Wings departed Toronto a week ago with an overtime loss and the only winless record in the eastern division. They had wasted a 51-save outing from a rookie goalkeeper. One of their top offensive threats hobbled out of Scotiabank Arena on crutches. After a road trip that head coach/general manager Paul Day went on to call “heartbreaking,” his team needed a pick-me-up.

Philadelphia did not have to wait long. The next morning, Kevin Crowley’s phone rang. Before hopping out of his car to run his youth team’s Saturday morning practice, last season’s NLL scoring champ got the news he never expected. More than seven years after the old Wings franchise spent the entry draft’s first overall pick on him, Crowley was coming home.

“My heart was pounding,” Crowley said during an introductory conference call this week.

The Wings surrendered first-round selections in both the 2019 and 2022 entry drafts to land Crowley. While New England will have to wait months and then years to see those returns materialize, Philadelphia will waste no time in showing off its new toy. Do not expect Crowley to be eased into things when the Wings (0-3) welcome the Georgia Swarm (3-0) to the Wells Fargo Center at 7 p.m. ET Saturday. His coach has already anointed him the “quarterback” of the Wings’ offense.

“You can bet you’ll see him the first shift of the night,” Day said.

Crowley’s return to Philadelphia marked the culmination of months of dialogue between Day and Black Wolves GM Rich Lisk. When the new league year began and the Wings were officially in business, a conversation with Lisk was one of Day’s first priorities. The discussion lingered through the fall and as Crowley’s holdout with New England prolonged, it became clear that he was never going to wear a Black Wolves jersey again.

The Wings, lacking a lead offensive piece, matched up well. Season-ending surgery on forward Brett Hickey’s broken right foot added a sense of urgency. And although their first victory narrowly escaped them the night before, Day said he would have pulled the trigger on the deal even if his team had a couple of wins. The trade, he thought, was fair for both sides.

To give up two first-round picks is no small offering, especially for a roster that is feeling out the growing pains of an expansion team. But Day had reasons as to why the hefty price for Crowley was worth it. The upcoming draft class, in his eyes, is not particularly strong. A first-round draft slot can be re-acquired by 2022. And with Crowley around to mold a team with several productive rookies, Day sees his group as one that can grow together as the Wings develop their young franchise. Talks with Crowley’s agent have begun, the hope being to get the 30-year-old forward inked to a deal that will keep him in charcoal and gold for years.

“We don’t see [signing Crowley to a long-term contract] being a problem,” Day said. “I’d like to have him here as long as he can play the game.”

Crowley would like the same. He has lived in Philadelphia since entering the league. He coaches basketball and lacrosse at the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, just a few miles west of the city. His company, Fusion Lacrosse, is based here.

He used to worry about tripping on the lip of the floor out of the tunnel. Now, matured into one of the league’s most recognizable faces and owner a 51-goal season, the “Big Cat” is looking forward to reconnecting with the fans who made that nervous kid feel at home seven years ago.

“I’ve played on countless teams in different leagues now,” Crowley said, “and there’s not another city that has done that for me like Philadelphia has.”

Crowley grew up with Wings assistant captain Jordan Hall outside of Vancouver. He played with forward Matt Rambo in the MLL last summer and with Dylan Evans for the Black Wolves last year. Wings assistant coach Tracey Kelusky led the offense in New England and brought the same system with him when he joined Day’s staff. Familiarity with both the personnel and playbook should ease Crowley’s acclimation to his new club.

But nothing can negate the fact that Crowley has not appeared in live action so far this season. He has “watched more lacrosse than [he] ever [has] in [his] years” and remained a “student of the game” by observing how goalies and defenders oppose right-handed threats like himself. He’s reviewed Wings film to get to know his teammates before their first practice together on Friday. He’s kept his cardio up and stayed on the weights. But “you really can’t simulate what a box lacrosse game workout is like,” Crowley said.

His opponent, meanwhile, enters with a perfect 3-0 record. Led by 30 combined points between Lyle Thompson and Randy Staats and anchored around Mike Poulin’s .797 save percentage, the Swarm have eked out close wins at Toronto and against Vancouver after a convincing defeat of New England in Week 1.

“I think they do everything really, really well,” Day said. “One thing we’re going to have to do is we’re going to have to outwork them.”

That is the task ahead of the Wings if they want to secure their first win. They’ll likely have a strong crowd behind them, because the U.S. Lacrosse Convention in center city Philadelphia could push attendance for Saturday’s game beyond the 11,000 on hand for last month’s home opener. With No. 21 back in South Philly for another stint with the Wings, the fans should have plenty for which to cheer.

Said Day: “He’s going to feel right at home.”