Dispatch from England #2

Dispatches from England – Canada at the World Lacrosse Championships – 2010 – #2

As Team Canada boards its flight from Toronto’s Pearson Airport to Manchester, England, there is a palpable sense of levity and excitement in the air.  The World Cup of soccer has literally just ended as we walk out of the departure lounge onto the jet away. It is clear that a large contingent of Canadians with lacrosse on their minds will soon be on their way for an adventure that promises to be both a showcase of skill and athleticism as well as a wonderful multinational gathering of friends of the game.

The core of Team Canada is well known to each other, and includes the likes of John Grant Jr, Brodie Merrill, Jordan Hall, Geoff Snider, Billy-Dee Smith and Shawn Williams, all veterans of past World Cups and umpteen NLL and MLL Championships. Intermingled among the veterans are upstart rookies like Garret Billings, Kevin Crowley, Kevin Huntley and Ryan McClelland, young studs full of promise but still uncertain of their roles alongside veteran players who not long ago might have been their childhood heroes. Coach Huntley and his assistants move easily between both groups, as they must because it is their job to mould this group of disparate talents into a band of brothers that is capable of defeating the heavily favoured Americans, not to mention highly talented teams from Iroquois, England, Australia and Japan which are all looking to upset one of the front runners. In the days ahead, there will be many highs and lows but as the plane carrying Team Canada lifts off from the tarmac at Pearson, there are only good thoughts and great lacrosse ahead.

There is relatively little in the way of historical notes on the history of lacrosse or the origins of the World Championships of lacrosse on the internet.  Fortunately, we do have Donald Fisher’s superb book Lacrosse: A History of the Game as our back up. According to Fisher, between 1867 when the sport was formally codified and the 1920’s teams from Canada, the USA and England played each other on a fairly regular basis.  However, the game of lacrosse split into two major faction’s in the 1920’s when the construction of arenas in Canada led to the creation of the sport of box lacrosse. For a variety of reasons Canada abandoned field lacrosse within only a few years and the US and Canadian lacrosse communities drifted apart for close to fifty years.

In 1966, in an effort to get Canadian and American lacrosse teams playing against each other once again lacrosse teams from Ontario and Michigan staged an exhibition game combining rules from both box and field lacrosse, This inaugural exhibition was held in Windsor, Ontario and led to the first World Lacrosse Championships, which were held in Toronto in 1967. This expanded competition included teams from Australia and England with Canada represented by the Peterborough Pepsi Petes and the US represented by the Mount Washington Lacrosse Club of Baltimore.  While it took another seven years for the inaugural championship to lead to a second championship, the World Lacrosse Championship has been held every four years without interruption since 1974 and has expanded from four teams to more than 30 countries. Manchester hosts the championship in 2010 for the third time in its history.

We are now three hours into our flight and somewhere east of Newfoundland and I can hear Billings, Hall and Kevin Huntley cutting the cards for another game of cribbage. To my left is Johnny Mouradian, recently inducted into the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame and the current General Manager of Team Canada. Starting in 1974, Mouradian has participated in 7 world championships as a player, coach or executive.

Besides his executive role with Team Canada, Mouradian is a keen student of the game and has noted a multitude of changes in the way the game has evolved since his first World Championships in 1974. Mouradian points out that the biggest change in the game over the past 36 years from a Canadian perspective has been the extent to which the box centric Canadian’s have learned the field game and he points out some hilarious anecdotes which highlight just how far the Canadian’s have evolved. For example, in 1974 Canada’s goalie dressed in box lacrosse goalie equipment and held his stick between his legs as the attackman from other nations hurled shots over his head – and into the net.  At the 1974 tournament which was played in Melbourne, Canada arrived with only three long poles which were constructed of wooden box sticks that had wooden handles taped on to extend them to proper long pole length. Of course, Team Canada was dressed in long sleeve box lacrosse jerseys with the requisite hockey buckets (Canadian slang for helmet) on their heads.  On the 1974 team, only two players, Mike French and Johnny Mouradian had ever played in an NCAA game and none of the players had ever played for their country before.

Fast-forward to 2010 and as Mouradian points out virtually every player on the team has an extensive resume that includes significant game experience at the NCAA, CUFLA, MCLA, NLL and MLL level as well as participation in U-19 and Men’s World Championships. Yet despite this clear leap in terms of experience and sophistication, Mouradian still feels that the box game remains at the heart of the Canadian approach to field lacrosse. While many Canadian lacrosse aficionados agree, Mouradian, shares some interesting insights that go beyond the clichés that abound regarding Canadian lacrosse. 
Most students of Lacrosse are aware that box lacrosse is played in a confined area and features a 30 second shot clock as well as aggressive physical contact. From Mouradian’s perspective this influences the way Canadians play the field game in several ways. First, the 30 second shot clock shifts the games from a coaching centric game to a player centric game. This is because the shot clock limits the time and therefore the extent to which a coach can control the decision making on the floor or field. Box lacrosse is a read and react game and this style carries over to the way Canadian’s play field lacrosse even though the international game features no shot clock.  In the box game, a missed shot or pass creates a broken play that a player must react to in a matter of seconds or risk the loss of possession of the ball. As such, even in the field game, Canadian lacrosse players tend to have a fairly high degree of discretion and independence (for better or worse) to react to sudden changes and opportunities in the game. 
According to Mouradian, a second difference between Canadian lacrosse and the rest of the world is the extent to which Canadian’s learn to play the game below the waist. Because Canadians play in indoor arenas they face numerous rebounds off the net, goalie or side boards that must be dealt with when the ball and stick are below the waist. Many of these rebounds or missed shots find their way into the corner of the box and once again, the successful player must be adept at corralling and scooping a ball and getting it back into play in relatively short time frame. While the idea of playing lacrosse below the waist might sound a bit odd at first,  the skills developed down low are in Mouradian’s view why Canadian’s seem to excel at retrieving ground balls and certain types of rides. Mouradian also believes that most Canadian’s develop a comfort with the low cradle which sets up the mechanics for better shooting and passing techniques.  It also means that most Canadian’s play with their pockets more centered in their stick which allows for a quicker release and a better ability to aim. 
Of course, the Canadian game is not without its flaws although Mouradian believes that criticisms of the Canadian style of play are exaggerated. Canadians are often criticised for their inability to play with both hands. However, Mouradian points out that the box game really doesn’t allow enough time for hand changes – as he reiterates, box lacrosse is a “read and react “game. Instead of the switching hands, Canadians learned that an over the shoulder pass or shot was more effective in terms of speed and was also a better means of protecting the ball with the body. Nonetheless, the over the shoulder pass and/or shot is rare amongst non-Canadians and is considered by many to be no more than a trick shot with no place in the modern game.

The Canadian game is also weak on dodging and once again Mouradian believes that our box lacrosse roots explain most of this. As Mouradian points out, most Canadian box lacrosse offences resemble a basketball style motion offence and because of the size of the goalie relative to the net, most offences strive to get a man “inside” the opposing teams defence. Indeed, most box coaches are happy to give up the outside shot.  Thus, the strength of the box lacrosse game is the use of picks, screens, rolls, and seals as a means of getting inside the opposing teams defence for a close in shot. However, even a good outside shooter in Canada rarely shoots from more than 20 feet from the net and thus there is very little in the Canadian game that provides a foundation for effective dodging. Indeed, rather than try to learn the dodge-and-shoot game later in their careers, most Canadian teams simply choose to build their field lacrosse offences around box lacrosse strategies instead.
We are now making our final descent into Manchester – the weather is wet and overcast – a lot like the weather was in Manchester in 1978. The plane is much quieter now and some passengers are rousing from their sleep while others fidget with last minutes adjustments to their carry-on items. There are no more card games going on.  There is a tone of seriousness and focus that has come over the Canadian contingent for the first time since the plane has left Canada. The 2010 World Lacrosse Championships are no longer in the future as the future has arrived today.

Today’s Schedule – Monday 12 July, 2010
Current weather – overcast, occasional light rain, high of 22 Degrees Celsius
Noon until 2PM – Team Practice
8PM til 11PM – Player and team meetings

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