The act of defending in athletics is selfless by definition.
A defender is someone who sacrifices their body to protect their goaltender by disallowing the opposing team from attacking the goal. In the process they will do whatever is necessary (within the rules of the game) to turn the ball over to their own offence.
It is often the case off a face-off, missed shot or defensive stop that the ball will be loose on the floor for anyone to obtain. A defenders job, if they haven’t dislodged the ball themselves, is to possess that loose ball (LB) and find a way to move it into their team’s offensive-half.
From his early days playing lacrosse, defensemen Ian Hawksbee had a knack for finding the loose ball on the floor. Even though there is little statistical record of Hawksbee’s ball-hawk abilities at the youth and non-professional levels, players who have battle with him or against him will tell you that he has always had a skill for tracking down the loose ball.
Hawksbee’s former New Westminster Salmonbellies teammate in the Western Lacrosse Association (WLA) from over a decade ago and his current Warriors assistant defence coach, Clayton Richardson, remembers the days of watching the dogged-defender.
“He was always around the ball,” said Richardson. That’s always something you notice about [Hawksbee]; he’s always around the ball. Whether it was face-offs, defensive stops, or man-down chances, he always had a knack for getting the ball and the finding the right guys to get it up the floor.”
That skill that Hawksbee had even in his rookie and sophomore seasons in the WLA and NLL never wavered. On Saturday night, Hawksbee will, in all likelihood, pass Phil Sanderson for 10th all-time for loose balls collected in an NLL career. He needs two more LBs to pass Sanderson, but seeing that Hawksbee is averaging 8.8 LBs a game, that shouldn’t be an issue for the 35-year-old.
It should be no surprise to anyone that has watched Hawksbee play in the NLL that he has cracked this top-10 list. In his rookie season in 2006, he scooped up 93 LBs which was 17th-most in the NLL that year for defenceman. Fittingly enough in Hawksbee’s inaugural year, three other top-10 LB-getters in league history lead in scooped-up balls (Jim Veltman, Brodie Merrill and Pat McCready)
He didn’t grow up idolizing certain players, but he grew to admire the play of his teammates and an impressive defender in his own right, Jim Moss. He also learned a lot playing alongside another defensive-great, Cam Woods. To be listed with NLL-greats who are synonymous for grabbing loose balls like Woods and others is a great achievement for Hawksbee.
“It’s a huge honour,” said Hawksbee. “Words can’t describe it. You never plan for something like this. I play lacrosse because I like the challenge, I like being around the guys and I love the game of lacrosse.”
It hasn’t been an easy or steady climb to reach this level of defensive success in the NLL. Over his 13 seasons in the league Hawksbee has learned to adjust to the games stylistic changes.
“When I entered the league, it wasn’t about the transition game,” said Hawksbee. Back then it was more about five big, punchy [defensemen] trying to get the ball from five big, punchy guys on offence and progressed to a very fast, skilled game in transition”
His mental toughness, consistent training and care for his body have allowed him to thrive in this league despite the different versions of the the game. The changes in the game and himself haven’t seemed to effect his play. Hawksbee has seven 100-point LB-seasons under his belt and is on pace for an 8th in 2019. Furthermore, in this current season, Hawksbee is on pace to set a career-high in loose balls with 159. If he were to maintain that pace, Hawksbee would tie his former teammate Woods for 9th all-time on the LBs list.
One of the most significant challenges Hawksbee faced during his NLL career was when he was required to take a year off from playing to devote himself to the fire department (as many NLL players do). Because of that, the defensemen missed the 2014 season. Making those adjustments upon his return at the age of 31 required Hawksbee to readapt to the game he still loved.
“I had to take a year off for work,” said Hawksbee. “I couldn’t play in the winter or summer [of 2014]. You lose that edge if you’re not in the game. I still had a passion to play and be apart of the team, but I had to reinvent myself as a defensemen.”
Little did Hawksbee know at the time that the lessons he would learn in his year off and to this day in his part-time firefighting services that the parallels between being a firefighter and being a lacrosse player are plenty.
“Firefighting and lacrosse are very similar,” said Hawksbee. You work as a team. Even though the scope of work is very different, you’re in an environment where you’re working towards the same common goal with your team. In lacrosse, just like in firefighting, you’re only as good as your training. I think the city of Vancouver trains us very well [as firefighters] for our job within the city and the same goes for all our trainers on the [Warriors].”
It’s undeniable that Hawksbee’s training as a firefighter with the Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services matched with his dedication to maintaining a healthy body and mind have made an indelible impact on his NLL career since his return. It takes a special player to continue to collect at least 100 loose balls per season during their mid 30’s with a decade of physical and exhausting play already under the belt. Yet, Hawksbee will likely cruise to his 4th consecutive 100+ LB season since his return to play.
Hawksbee’s innate ability to find the ball of the turf after all these years is something his teammates appreciate about the defensemen.
“I think he’s done a very good job staying in the game as long as he has,” Warriors defensemen Matt Beers said of Hawksbee. “Through his commitment to his craft, he’s stayed mentally and physically sharp and this year is no different.”
“Not only is he a very good leader, but he has an absolute nose for the loose ball. He’s the type of guy that is already putting himself in a good position to pick up the loose ball before the ball is even shot.”
A key part of Hawksbee’s training as a firefighter and as a lacrosse player is predicting what’s going to happen in the next play before it begins. Off the field, it has allowed him to save lives. On the field, it has allowed him to join the coveted list of the best loose ball scoopers the game has seen. Now, if only Hawksbee could tell us how high he’ll climb that list before he retires.