Thursday, November 30, 2006

Lacrosse's Growth Spurt

Anaheim Storm forward Casey Powell has been playing professional lacrosse for over seven years. He hails from northern New York, and like most Americans, grew up playing field lacrosse. “The sport is certainly growing for sure. Fans are more aware of it on a national basis and throughout North America. We’re looked upon as being more professional. We’re making more money now. People look at us as hockey player-style professionals. In telling people I play lacrosse, they’d go, oh, is that semi-pro? Is that a club team? We always have to correct and tell them, no, it’s professional. Now more people are aware of it.”

Having the professional or bigger-than-life role models has helped impact the growth of the game. “We idolized Gary Gait and Paul Gait,” adds Powell. “Our first game was in 1988, and we watched Gary Gait play for Syracuse. We fell in love with him and his brother’s style of play. We just wanted to be those guys from the day we saw their first game.”

San Jose Stealth's Jim Moss recognizes that regardless of where you were born or where you end up, there is always an opportunity to make a difference and carry a lacrosse stick. He grew up in Ontario and had only lived in California for 18 months at the end of the 2005 National Lacrosse League (NLL) season when he started building a lacrosse network throughout the state. “The lacrosse community here has been so good to me. They just opened their arms to embrace me. I coach probably 65 days of clinics and camps throughout the course of the year. I’m actually coaching a women’s lacrosse team at the high school level in Paulo Alto. I’m the assistant volunteer coach of the Stanford women’s lacrosse team."

Moving to California has allowed Moss to make lacrosse a full-time career. He wants California lacrosse to get to the same level as the rest of the country and in North America so the kids there can compete. "The day I see a kid that grew up in San Jose playing for the San Jose Stealth, I’ll feel like my work has paid off. I’ll make that commitment until that happens.”

Every year, the NLL has a competition committee to look at how to make the game better. Calgary Roughnecks owner Brad Banister has had a turn at serving on it and it’s an integral part of the league’s impact on the growth of the game. “We look at everything. Is there too much holding? Is the game going too slow? Are there too many whistles? Too many fights? Too many high sticks? We go through it all. We want to keep it fast and entertaining. We’re always changing and always looking to get better. We increased the size of the nets three or four years ago to make it more acceptable for field players – Americans. They’re used to the bigger net.”

Colorado Mammoth scout Brad Berrow sees a lot of opportunities in the sport for both growth and learning. He remembers a day when, “You went and played for your community team. We had to make our own pads. Sticks cost $3. As a kid, you don’t think about it. You just can’t wait to play. It wasn’t work, even though you worked really hard at it. You were given the opportunity to try different things so you could use your own initiative and creativity.”

When Berrow started playing in British Columbia, after the minor levels, you might go to Junior B, Junior A, then perhaps Senior B or Senior A. “Of course, there was the old inner city league or the Western Lacrosse Association when I got up. That was the epitome of lacrosse at that point. Two years before I got out of junior, there was an old pro league for three years, then it collapsed. For five months, they were going to pay you $6,000 back in the early 1970s. If you had a job and a family, which a lot of guys did, they didn’t go play, so it wasn’t necessarily the best lacrosse. Then everybody came back to the WLA. When I got up there, it still had the professional mentality, so we worked real hard and took it serious.”

The WLA has similar rules to the NLL now. “You used to have screen or mesh around the back, but the side boards were open,” says Berrow. “You were right next to the action. It really brought the game close in. Some of the guys’ padding was taped and held together, especially goalies. There’s a look to an old-style lacrosse goalie. He’s got gear that’s taped and hanging off him, homemade stuff, but they looked capable. Now the styles are very generic. In the old days, you had a lot of different styles and different type of equipment.”

A sure-fire way to measure the sport's growth is by looking at the NLL and expansion. In 2005, the league welcomed two new teams: Portland and Edmonton. In 2007, it will be Chicago.

Calgary Roughnecks' star Kaleb Toth says it’s great for the league. "Every franchise has that team they try to rival against. Calgary-Edmonton has always rivaled whether it was a spelling bee, hockey, or ping pong. They’ve always wanted to beat the other city. For the league to have that kind of rivalry in it, it is great. It brings out national exposure, Canadian exposure, and ultimately the States. It makes the league that more credible.”

Edmonton's Jamey Bowen recalls that city did try for a team a few years ago. But it didn’t happen. "When Bruce Urban stepped up and made everything happen, it just snowballed from there. The media has been great. The community has been great. It gives some of the Edmonton guys a chance. Three quarters of our team got tryouts because of the team. Even if they tried out and got cut, they’ve got that chance to do that. I just think it will make everything better.”

There is no doubt having a successful professional league gives younger players a goal to expand their playing options.


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