Lacrosse playing brothers Pat and Brodie Merrill have strong ties to Montreal.
Their father, Peter Merrill, was born and raised in the city _ Lachine, to be exact _ and they were, too, so it will be a homecoming of sorts when they play for Canada against the formidable Iroquois team in the Bell Centre at 2 p.m. on Nov. 17. Their dad will be there to watch.
Peter Merrill played football at the University of New Brunswick and was pretty good. “I tried out with the Alouettes (of the CFL) but didn’t make it,’’ he recalls.
He would eventually be part of a pro sports team in Montreal, but it wouldn’t be football. Merrill moved his family to Ontario just before his boys reached their teens to chase a business opportunity and they settled in Orangeville, which is an hour’s drive northwest of Toronto. It is a lacrosse hotbed and the kids quickly caught on, and they soon became prominent players. Terry Sanderson, now GM of the National Lacrosse League’s Toronto Rock, lives in Orangeville and he soon had Peter Merrill helping coach his senior lacrosse team in nearby Brampton.
When Sanderson was named head coach in 2002 of a new NLL team in Montreal, the Express, he didn’t need to do much talking to induce Merrill into being an assistant coach. It was a memorable time for all involved.
“It was awesome,’’ recalls Merrill, who had the benefit of being bilingual.
Montreal’s 32-17 win in Calgary in its NLL opener was a record-setting affair, and the Express followed that up with a 23-16 win over Calgary in their home opener in front of more than 10,000 spectators. Tracey Kelusky, the Peterborough, Ontario, native who now plays for the NLL’s Buffalo Bandits, was the captain. The Express finished that season with an 8-8 record.
“We really had a good following in Montreal,’’ Peter Merrill recalls. “For that home opener, the place was hoppin’. We almost made the playoffs that year.’’
Alas, that was the only year for the Express. The Toronto ownership group packed it in. Lack of a local stake in the club was one of the reasons for the premature demise of pro lacrosse in Montreal.
“You have to have somebody from Montreal involved who really believes in it,’’ says Peter Merrill. “It would also help if they had some players from Quebec on the team to add local flavour.”
“I felt really strongly at the time about staying. I wanted it to continue. We averaged 8,000 or 9,000 a game. But we needed to be in the community a little bit more. We went into the schools and communities and I believe people were ready for a pro lacrosse team to stick around but ownership didn’t hang in long enough to keep it going.’’
A Toronto-Rochester NLL exhibition game was played in the Bell Centre last December and Peter Merrill was there to watch Pat play for the Rock. The game drew 7,269 spectators.
“It was definitely a dream come true,’’ Pat Merrill said of his first lacrosse game in his home city. “We grew up as a huge Montreal Canadiens fans and we got to tour the Habs dressing room during that trip.”
“The crowd was very enthusiastic. They were really into it. It seemed like a knowledgeable fan base. That created a cool atmosphere for lacrosse.’’
The Nov. 17 game will give Brodie Merrill, who is the captain of the NLL’s Philadelphia Wings, the opportunity to play lacrosse in the Bell Centre for the first time.
“It’s very exciting,’’ he says. “It’ll be really special to play in front of family and friends. It’s a rare opportunity. Being from Montreal and always having that connection to the city and to the Canadiens, it seems a little bit surreal to be going back to play lacrosse in that building. I’m very much looking forward to it.’’
Childhood memories linger.
“My dad took me to a playoff game in the Forum,’’ Brodie Merrill recalls. “I must have been pretty young because I fell asleep during the game. There was a famous brawl between the Canadiens and the Philadelphia Flyers. My dad tells me I slept through the brawl.
“But I have a lot of great memories from Montreal. It’s such a great hockey city. I have a lot of great memories of playing outdoor hockey there. There’s always a reconnection I feel to the city every time I go back.’’
Pat Merrill and his kid brother knew little about lacrosse during their early years in Montreal. Hockey was on their young minds.
“We all wanted to be a Hab when we got older,’’ he says. “Luckily for Brodie and I, we landed in Orangeville where lacrosse is so big. Going back to Montreal to play lacrosse kind of feels like going full circle for us. Our parents and Brodie and I were into sports when we lived there and to play at the pro level in the Bell Centre is pretty cool.’’
The Merrills live lacrosse daily.
Peter Merrill founded The Hill Academy, a private high school for dedicated student athletes, in 2006. Pat, now 34, Brodie, who turns 32 on Nov. 5, and younger sister Tory are lacrosse coaches at The Hill.
“I love sports,’’ Peter Merrill replied when asked why he took the risky leap into setting up the school just north of Toronto. “The whole premise of the school is based on the reality that it is very difficult for a young person to excel in sports and academics at the same time.’’
It all seems to be working at The Hill. Lacrosse and hockey are the main sports. Enrollment has mushroomed to 150 and graduates have been placed at Canadian universities and at prominent U.S. schools. Recent grad Jason Noble (Cornell) was the No. 2 pick in the NLL entry draft on Sept. 16, and he’s joined the coaching staff at The Hill.
“We’ve got a ways to go but our mission is being accomplished,’’ says Peter Merrill.
He’d love to see the NLL return to Montreal.
“I know that in 2002 there was a sincere interest to keep the NLL in Montreal. I’ve talked to a number of groups, including ex-Canadiens who had a lacrosse background, about putting a (ownership) group together. Montreal and Quebec have really strong lacrosse roots. There is a Quebec senior league, which both Pat and Brodie have played in, and a strong Frist Nations presence in area. With the right ownership, it could be looked at again.’’
As far as international play goes, the Montreal game will be an important first step in Canada’s preparations for the 2015 world indoor tournament in Buffalo and Syracuse. The Merrills intend to be there. Canada edged the Iroquois in the final of the last world indoor tournament, which was staged in Prague in 2011.
Dean French, chairman of Canada’s national team programs, says he’ll never forget the integral roles played by Pat and Brodie Merrill on that gold-medal team.
“There is something special about watching brothers play together at any level of sport,’’ says French. “Seeing Patrick and Brodie win a world championship together in Prague is one of my fondest Team Canada memories.’’
“What I remember the most from that experience is how the team came together,’’ Brodie Merrill recalls. “We had a good group of character guys.”
“When the tournament ended, we all felt like we wanted to spend more time together. It was a group that had instant chemistry from the start, and great leadership. It was a fun experience.’’
Canada’s best lacrosse players will be reunited on Nov. 17. For more information on the event, click here.
Written by: Neil Stevens