Swarm settling in as Minnesota’s NLL rep

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Ryan Benesch used to have one heck of a commute to work.

Benesch, a forward on the Minnesota Swarm of the National Lacrosse League, would drive over an hour every Friday from his hometown of Kitchener, Ontario, to Toronto. From there, he’d hop on a plane and fly into the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, just in time to practice with his Swarm teammates in preparation for that weekend’s game. Then, he’d be back up at 5:30 on Monday morning to return to his job as a carpenter.

It was that way for just about every Swarm player in years past, as they’d work another job during the week and take the field as professional lacrosse players on weekends. Only a few players lived locally.

But a lot of that is changing.

Benesch’s commute is now much less hectic as he’s one of 11 Swarm players currently living in the Twin Cities. This season, nearly half the team spends more than just a few days a week getting to know each other on and off the field.

“We’re all a pretty tight-knit group,” Benesch said. “It wasn’t so bad last year. But this year we have a better chance to develop the chemistry. We’re with each other all day almost every day. We’ve learned a lot about each other. We know what makes each other happy, what makes each other mad. It’s good. We have fun.”

Benesch is one of nine players that share three apartments in St. Paul. The setting is almost that of a frat house with good-natured ribbing, Jersey Shore viewing parties on Thursday nights and, of course, ongoing prank wars.

The favorite prank?

“We do the pots and pans quite often,” Benesch said. “If somebody’s sleeping, you grab two pans and walk up right beside their head and kind of clank them together so it scares the (heck) out of them.”

Rookies Evan Kirk and Corbyn Tao have also messed with their teammates by flipping around the furniture in their apartment. The pranks are innocent enough, but they provide an opportunity to bond that Swarm teams in past years haven’t had.

“It’s fun living here,” said Kirk, one of the Swarm’s two goalies. “You get to joke around and not have a full-time job when you’re getting up and stressed out. It’s been fun.”

The Swarm pays for the housing of nine players living in St. Paul. Fourth-year defenseman Joe Cinosky has his own place in Minneapolis and forward Todd Baxter is living in his hometown of Eden Prairie.

Cinosky currently coaches the club lacrosse team at the University of Minnesota and previously helped coach high school lacrosse in Mounds View and White Bear Lake. He’s one of just a few Swarm players to have lived locally prior to this season.

After graduating form the University of Maryland, Cinosky — a New Jersey native — chose to live in the Twin Cities instead of opting for the long-distance commute that most of his teammates endured every week.

“The Swarm does a great job of taking care of us, providing housing. Expenses are very limited at that stage,” said Cinosky, Minnesota’s first-round pick in 2008. “Right out of college, it was a no-brainer for me, and to get away from home as well. Minnesota’s a great place. I really enjoy the community atmosphere.”

Cinosky isn’t the only Swarm player to have embraced coaching on the side while living in Minnesota. Tao, who is part Native American, visits the Prairie Island Indian Community in southeastern Minnesota to teach lacrosse to kids ages six to 16.

“I’m half Native, so even in the recruiting process with Minnesota, (the Swarm) took that into consideration. They mentioned that they play a big role in the Native community, and they play a big role in supporting the Swarm as well,” Tao said. “I’ve just been able to go out there and help them coach. It’s kind of cool to give them a role model and let them know that there’s a good future in lacrosse. If you work hard, you can get there.”

The Swarm and the rest of the nine NLL teams only play games on weekends. Minnesota is just like the rest of the league in that many players fly in from all over North America — the majority from Canada — on Fridays for one or two games on the weekend.

But things are changing, and the Swarm players have seen the benefit of more players staying in town. They have a regimented schedule, with lifting and film sessions on Mondays, shoot-arounds on Wednesdays and more lifting on Thursdays before welcoming the rest of their teammates on Friday.

“With every athlete, there’s always that competitive edge. Even having guys at workouts, we’re pushing each other and helping each other get that much better,” Cinosky said. “Being able to come out and do things, activities together, kind of the team bonding, if you will, even though it’s only half of the guys, it goes a long way on the floor when you know somebody better than getting together once a week.”

Still, not every player on the Swarm roster lives in town. Most simply can’t afford that luxury. The average salary is just $18,000 for the season, just over $1,000 a game.

But it’s not about the money for the Swarm, and those living locally are doing the best they can to make it all work — on and off the field.

“We don’t make the millions and millions of dollars like the NHL,” Benesch said. “Every team in this league has guys flying in, flying out. That’s just how it’s been and that’s I think how it’s going to be until we start making millions.”

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