Fans might see the Halifax Thunderbirds assistant captain heading to the faceoff dot by himself, but it takes a village to take care of business for the professional lacrosse club. Or rather, it takes a full nest.  

At the start of every quarter and after every goal, for and against, Jake Withers must line up against the opposing team’s faceoff man as a packed nest of Thunderbirds fans trains their eagle-esque vision on him.  

Possession of the ball is everything in lacrosse. Withers either wins the face-off outright or he gets back on defense in an attempt to recover the ball with a ferocity that can be seen in the gleam in his eye that he shares with fans. Withers, nicknamed Wiz, is charged with electrifying the Thunderbirds and the home crowd.  

After his three-goal effort during a March 15 win against Panther City (Texas), Thunderbirds forward Clarke Petterson told The Signal he thinks Withers is the MVP for the Thunderbirds and the National Lacrosse League (NLL).  

“He’s the best faceoff man in the league,” Petterson said. “He’s our best defender, really physical … he’s our best player all around.”  

By mid-March of the 2023-2024 NLL season Withers had won 249 battles for balls that were up for grabs. The next closest player had won 152 loose balls.

Remote team-building

The Thunderbirds were in third place in the Eastern Conference at mid-season and after two straight losses had to reclaim the second-place spot with a win against Panther City. Only the top four teams from each conference make the playoffs.  

It’s up to the captains to make sure the boys have a shared understanding as a team of what they need to improve on. Between games, especially after a loss, Withers said “keeping it face to face” is crucial.  

Jake Withers
caption Jake Withers, seen here in front after winning a face off, says Halifax is on the map in the world of box lacrosse.
Thunderbirds photo team

Most professional athletes live in the city they play for, at least during the season. The majority of Thunderbirds players, however, live outside the province even during the season. Withers, who’s from Peterborough, Ont., suspects fans think that because most of the team lives outside of Nova Scotia they don’t see each other between games.

Withers said most players live around the Greater Toronto Area and can drive to Curt Styres’ Iroquois Lacrosse Rink on the Six Nations Reserve on Tuesday or Wednesday nights for practice.  

Styres has been the owner of the Thunderbirds since 2008 when they were known as the Knighthawks and played in Rochester, N.Y. He drafted Jake in 2018 during the team’s second-last season in Rochester. They moved to Halifax at the end of the 2019 season, a year after Withers’ Rookie of the Year campaign. 

Juggling act

Five seasons later Withers’ team pressures have grown alongside those off the floor. He says when players can’t make a practice or game it’s usually because life outside lacrosse takes priority.  

Last March he and his fiancé, Claire, welcomed their first little girl, Charlie, and have another baby due this June.  

Withers said when it comes to balancing family with lacrosse “it’s obviously challenging sometimes, but I’m very blessed to have such a great fiancé who works with me and allows me to play the game I love and travel basically every weekend from December to June, and then to have the best career in the world.”  

Withers is referring to his other career, firefighting for the city of Oshawa, Ont., a line of work he started the month after his fiancé gave birth to Charlie. Lacrosse is still a growing sport and supporting a family can be tough on an NLL salary that reportedly averages $25,000 a year.

Jake Withers
caption Jake Withers juggles two careers – lacrosse and firefighting. Here’s he’s seen holding his baby girl Charlie with one of his Oshawa Fire Department captains.
Claire Tenwesteneind (Submitted)

“I have great captains and chiefs; I love them to death,” Withers said of his firefighting colleagues. “My crewmates are not only very understanding about my lacrosse career, but a lot of the guys and girls will watch my games and bring up the good and bad nights when I see them at work. 

“I’m fortunate and lucky … it’s working out so far.”   

Building block

But what keeps Withers engaged? No matter how strong his love for this team and for the sport itself, playing professional lacrosse on top of firefighting and being a father wears on a person. Part of what gets Withers on the plane to Halifax a little over 24 hours before game time is the desire to continue to be a part of lacrosse experience that is unlike anything he’s had before. 

The popularity of lacrosse is growing but usually it’s only a big draw in hotspots sprinkled throughout North America.  

In the off-season Withers plays for the club he grew up with, the Peterborough Lakers, a group that’s been synonymous with the town since before he was born. 

Being from Peterborough Withers said he is not used to being a part of a town like Halifax where lacrosse is emerging from hockey’s shadow.  

“It’s just such a unique city, and it has the potential to be the next Peterborough or Six Nations or any other place where lacrosse is just as big as hockey. To be here at the start of it all … it’s kind of a dream come true.” 

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