“Leadership consists of picking good men and helping them do their best”
– Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief, US Pacific Fleet during WWII
April 3, 2010
Enter Patrick Merrill.
After a very successful lacrosse career, Patrick Merrill’s resume spoke for itself. A three-time NLL Champion, four-time Mann Cup champion, a gold medalist at the World Indoor Lacrosse Championships with Team Canada, and silver medalist at the World Lacrosse Field Championships with Team Canada, he needed little in the way of introductions. He also boosted his pro-ready status by coaching the Six Nations Arrows (Canadian Jr. A) to two Minto Cups.
When you stack that all up, it makes sense that Merrill would be the right choice to be the first General Manager and Head Coach in the history of the San Diego Seals.
There were other names in the mix, but for the Seals, Merrill was the best man for the jobs.
For team president Steve Govett, getting Merrill was a vital first step in building a positive culture in an organization that “deserved someone who had a pulse on the new emerging NLL player.” It was crucial for the culture of the Seals, as a brand new franchise to have a fresh, new voice leading the charge.
That culture has been engrained in Merrill throughout his career since being mentored by some of the game’s elite leaders like Eddie Comeau, Casey Powell, Colin Doyle and the late Terry Sanderson.
In his final years of playing, Merrill started to get offers from some teams to shed the gear and step behind the bench as an assistant. “You know things are coming to an end when you’re being offered coaching gigs” chuckled Merrill from his Hill Academy office.
A knee injury during the 2016 season was the writing on the wall, and when he returned to the Toronto Rock for the 2017 season, he wasn’t able to get fully healthy. The Rock would eventually be eliminated from the playoffs by the Georgia Swarm in what would be Merrill’s first and only game played that season, signaling the end of his playing career.
Mind you, Merrill was quick to note that he hasn’t officially retired…
When the phone call finally came from San Diego, it was a bit of a shock and it took some prodding from brother Brodie to take that call.
“At first, Steve didn’t have a coach or GM in place, but once we started talking about The Hill, where the NLL is now, the growth of the game on both sides of the border- we really hit off.”
Govett agrees. “We ended up hiring Patty quicker than we expected, but I think that was because we shared a lot in common about our philosophies and ideas on how to build a team.”
The only thing was, Merrill didn’t have any experience as a general manager at all, so Govett took him under his wing. “I could help bridge the gap on how to navigate the landscape through the NLL as a GM and felt he was capable of doing the job”.
“I felt really supported by Steve and Joe (Tsai),” adds Merrill, who had landed a dream job and was now able to pick his staff with complete confidence.
The first call he made was to a long-time friend and teammate.
“Shooter (Josh Sanderson) and I grew up together; our dads were really close, so he was my first choice. Plus, he had experience as an assistant GM so he could help me out.”
He didn’t have to look far for a defensive coordinator either.
“Billy (Bill Greer) and I were teammates and roommates in my final few years playing. We coached minor lacrosse together as well as the Jr Arrows. We had built a system together, and I knew he would be the perfect person to teach that to our players.”
Merrill continued on, saying “Shooter is the most competitive person I’ve ever met! If the goal is to win you need to surround yourself with winners. Steve, Joe, Shooter and Billy all know what it takes to win.”
One of Merrill’s biggest assets is his network of connections throughout the lacrosse world due to his work with The Hill Academy in Caledon, Ontario. The number one high school lacrosse program in Canada and throughout North America, every year The Hill injects numerous freshmen into college programs coast to coast and in turn, produces top-end talent to both the National Lacrosse League and the Premier Lacrosse League. There are currently 52 Hill graduates in the NLL.
A strong understanding of both American and Canadian players is crucial for the Seals as the southern and westernmost team in the league. Merrill’s time spent with the NY/Orlando Titans would also prove to be key in building the Seals. Under the guidance of GM Eddie Comeau and Coach Adam Mueller, the Titans were one of the top teams in the NLL from 2008 to 2010, with Merrill being a key cog of their defensive unit.
What did he learn most from those two? “Picking guys according to their lacrosse skill set instead of whether they are Canadian or American. Also, the majority of our guys on that team lived in or very close to the market. We had a full commitment and buy-in from all of our guys. That helped to develop players and build team chemistry.”
He also noted that the Titans had incredible US leadership. That was smart. “Casey Powell, Ryan Boyle, Jamie Hanford were guys that had experience in the league and guys that the younger American players respected and looked up to.”
In year one with the Seals, Merrill brought in highly respected players like Dan Dawson, Cam Holding, Garrett Billings, Kyle Buchanan, and of course, his younger brother and future Hall-of-Famer Brodie. That leadership was an integral part of why San Diego would have such a successful debut.
Another major focus point for Merrill, and something he learned from his Titans days, was to ensure that the younger American players got real game experience to learn the ropes instead of just watching from the sidelines. “They don’t gain box experience or confidence sitting on a practice roster or draft list.” Connor FIelds, Connor Kelly, Mark Glicini and Eli Gobrecht all saw their box IQ grow immensely while playing in high pressure situations on the regular under Merrill.
Hearing the message through the noise – it’s not always about having the best players, it’s more figuring out the right pieces to the puzzle. That continues to be Merrill’s modus operandi to this day, and he will continue that way with each passing season. Valuable lessons learned along the way will always remain.
“I try to get what I learned from Terry and Lindsay Sanderson, Troy Cordingly…but also coaching styles from guys like John Lovell, Comeau, Adam too. I was spoiled that way. Loved them all in different ways.”
With his staff in place and the message clear, it was time to prepare for the expansion and entry drafts.
San Diego won a coin flip and as a result, they were able to draft Austin Staats first overall…but what if the coin landed with the Wings logo face up?
That’s a story for another day. Stay tuned for Part 3.