Sports

WHAT’S OLD IS NEW

Lacrosse, Canada's once-declining national sport, is surging, attracting kids to junior leagues and new fans to the pro game

DEREK CHEZZI August 27 2001
Sports

WHAT’S OLD IS NEW

Lacrosse, Canada's once-declining national sport, is surging, attracting kids to junior leagues and new fans to the pro game

DEREK CHEZZI August 27 2001

WHAT’S OLD IS NEW

Sports

DEREK CHEZZI

Two minutes to game time. The coach, skinny with waist-length brown hair, gathers his team around the net to deliver a pep talk. “Are we here to have fun?” he bellows. “No!” the 10-year-olds answer in unison. “Are we here to win?” “Yes!” The team lines up for faceoff and immediately his players in black-and-burgundy uniforms are on the offensive. They charge the net. Passes fly between the attackers, and suddenly the white rubber ball slices past the four-foot-tall goalie, who moves awkwardly in wide shoulder pads.

Cheers erupt from the parents in the bleachers while others scream instructions. “Keep your stick high, Daniel!” a parent shouts.

The scene at the Iroquois Park arena complex in Whitby, Ont., is becoming more typical across Canada as lacrosse, aggressive and fast-paced, surges in popularity.

The number of people getting into the game has exploded: registration increased by almost 30 per cent in each of the past three years, far more than any other organized sport. In 2000, there were an estimated 200,000 players competing in the various versions of amateur lacrosse. That total is still only a fraction of the participation in Canadas other national game, hockey. But lacrosse is gaining, in part because of greater exposure— the game has been featured in movies such as 1999 s blockbuster teen comedy American Pie. But the real boost comes from the televised National Lacrosse League games, specifically from Toronto’s team, the Rock. “It seems to be the sizzle that the kids look for,” says Jim Burke, president of the Canadian Lacrosse Association.

Parents are as mesmerized as their kids. “We like to refer to it as a fever,” says Michelle Hicks, 43, of Burlington, Ont., whose 12-year-old son, Matt, is in his fifth year tending goal for a Burlington ban-

tam-level team. Hicks, like many parents, says it’s the skilful, physically demanding aspects of the game that appeal to her. And the kids themselves love its toughness, which is a lot like in hockey. “I like to hit and be hit,” says Adam Johnston, 14, still flushed 20 minutes after coming off the turf-covered rink. He will be suiting up for hockey this fall, as will the majority of his teammates, but lacrosse is his first love.

Hard contact is the point of the Toronto

Rock’s promotions. Two years ago, advertisements in local papers geared to twentysomething readers boldly read: “This Friday, we welcome the City of Brotherly Love. "With titanium sticks.” Another attraction for both kids and parents is the lower price of tickets—$10 to $35 to see the Rock last season, compared with as much as $145 for a National Hockey League game in the same building. Attend a game today and you join the ranks of beer-swilling young adults and shirtless young boys with chests painted in the home team’s navy and maple leaf red colours. “Families are looking for a night out for under $ 100, and we provide that,” says Brad Watters, president of Lacrosse

Inc., which owns the Rock. After three years of sweat, the team turned its first profit this past season.

In the pro league, the stipend paid to players on Canadian teams—an average of $18,500 for the 6V2-month season—isn’t enough for them to quit their day jobs. So a few weeks from now, policemen, firefighters and teachers will dust off their jerseys and pick up their lacrosse sticks to hack one another, their bare legs vulnerable to turf burns and cuts and bruises from the force of slashes across the shins as another season begins. In the locker rooms, you won’t find energy drinks or specialty foods; it’s beer and pizza for these athletes. “When I started playing lacrosse, I didn’t think I’d be playing in front of 19,000 people,” says the Rock’s Steve Toll, a 27-year-old correctional officer, husband and father-to-be. “It’s unbelievable.” The sport has come a long way from the version played by aboriginals along the St. Lawrence Valley in the mid-17th century and witnessed by the first European visitors. Hundreds of people might be involved in a game played on half-mile-wide fields and lasting up to three days. Today, the NLL games are played inside cramped arenas to rock and hip-hop soundtracks with midriff-baring cheerleaders, beer company sponsors and national broadcasting deals.

There are four types of lacrosse: box, played indoors with a 30-second shot clock; men’s and women’s field, played outdoors and each with a different set of rules; and inter-lacrosse, a non-contact variety played mostly in schools and Quebec. While Canada rules at box lacrosse, most countries compete in field—a fact wellknown to Canadian world team program director Bill Hicks, who must select his final 23 players for the 2002 world championships in Perth, Australia. “Out of the 54 players who will be invited to the Vancouver camp in October, all of them are box,” says Hicks. “In the U.S., they had 300 applications from players who are 100-percent field lacrosse.” Still, box is catching up in popularity. Just recently, the International Lacrosse Federation gave Canada the green light to host the first world indoor lacrosse championships, set for 2003 in southern Ontario. And Canadas dominance at box has cultivated a solid crop of players for the pro league, one reason behind the Toronto teams success story.

Lacrosse, Canada's once-declining national sport, is surging, attracting kids to junior leagues and new fans to the pro game

The Rock originated in Hamilton as the Ontario Raiders, playing the 19971998 season to tiny crowds. Then it was purchased by a group of investors led by Watters, who moved the team to Maple

Leaf Gardens and transformed it into Toronto’s second-tier sports darling. The Rock won back-to-back championships in 1999 and 2000, and last April, before 19,400 fans jamming the Rock’s new home, the Air Canada Centre, lost the title to the Philadelphia Wings. The marketing crew behind the team is lending its Midas touch to the Ottawa Rebel, a twoyear-old franchise, and also to the Montreal Express. The Express, along with teams in Vancouver and Calgary, was added last spring to make the NLL a 13team league; the league plans to add three more cities next year.

The year-old Sportworks Entertainment won the Vancouver bid and named its team the Ravens. “We expect the Ravens to break even in Year 1 and turn a

profit in Year 2,” says team governor Tom Mayenknecht. The group also owns a men’s and women’s soccer team in Vancouver and, through a separate company, the city’s all-sports radio station, amassing the beginnings of a tidy little empire. Sportworks plans to help fund youth lacrosse in the province, a move that will undoubtedly help woo potential devotees. Some franchises are donating a portion of the proceeds from tickets bought by junior players and their families to those kids’ teams.

Jesse Biduke, who began playing three years ago, is the typical fan the pro teams are courting. The lanky 13-year-old, sad that his own season is coming to an end, is eager to see more action both as a player and a fan. “Lacrosse is just a fun sport to do,” he says. More and more kids agree. ES]