Tuesday night in Dartmouth, lacrosse is booming.
In the hollow, echoey guts of Bowles Arena, a barn-like hockey rink hidden deep in the outskirts of Dartmouth, lacrosse sounds like a series of small explosions. Twelve players, along with coach Norman Hum, have gathered to practice on the arena's ice surface—with the ice temporarily removed. It's late April. Save one young security guard, the lacrosse players are the only souls anywhere near Bowles Arena tonight. The scoreboard at one end of the rink is still glowing, but the wooden bleachers are deserted.
From the waist up, the team could almost be mistaken for a group of hockey players. The helmets are different—full cages wrap around to protect the players' faces—but the bulging shoulder pads and jerseys are similar.
The shorts and sneakers, though, are a dead giveaway. So are the funny looking sticks.
"Hey—hey!"—Hum corrals all 12 players at one end of the rink, and demands their attention. His voice bounces around the hollow arena—"Passes go Boom! Boom! Boom! and to the net. OK?"
It is not a question. The practice drill sergeant, Hum leans against a tall narrow lacrosse net placed at one end of the rink, which comes up to just under his shoulder. As he talks, he traces the pattern of the next drill, pointing with a hockey-gloved hand.
Three players are to weave the length of the rink and pass the ball between them as they go. The players set off sprinting, but one of the first passes goes awry—the intended recipient makes a flailing swing with his stick as the ball sails over his head.
The player—black jersey, "Salem" on the front, "35" on the back—turns to chase down the ball. Hum—"Recover! Recover! Recover!"—is immediately upon him.
With almost every missed pass and errant shot, a dense rubber ball about the size of a small orange is sent careening into the plexiglass or thick wooden boards. The pros can nudge 100 miles per hour when launching a lacrosse ball; all-star competitions have yielded 108, 109 mile per hour rockets. Although nothing in Dartmouth is moving that fast, the staccato THHHWACK! is startling. Like random gunshots.
Three at a time, the players make their way up and down the rink, with Hum trailing. He jogs behind his players, back and forth, back and forth, over and over. When a lacrosse player sprints with the ball, the basket (or "head") on the end of their stick rhythmically rocks back and forth above or beside their head—
centrifugal force helps to hold the ball in place. The stick looks like a silent metronome, moving in symphony with the player's stride. It's almost hypnotic.
Eventually, there's a protest from one end of the rink. The players stop running.
"Hey, uh, Normie...we need some water."
"Water?!" Hum, laughs. "Are you guys alright?"
Hum is merciful. The group breaks up; some players get drinks, some start taking long shots towards the net at the far end of the rink—balls arc towards the rafters, and then rain down at the other end of the arena. More gunshots.
Collectively, these guys are known as the Halifax Orangutans, although the team has had other titles—for a while, they went by the Frosted Frogs. You could also call them a de facto Nova Scotia provincial team.
At the moment, there is no senior lacrosse league in Halifax, which means many of the players for the Orangutans don't have a suitable league to compete in. Almost all have day jobs—lacrosse is treated as a hobby, something else to be scheduled in around the rest of their adult lives and responsibilities.
Still, these are some of the most experienced lacrosse players in the province. That's why many members of the Orangutans have been selected to participate in this week's World Indoor Lacrosse Championship, being held at the Halifax Metro Centre. They won't be playing for Team Canada (with one Albertan exception, all of the members on the Canadian national team are from BC or Ontario)—this practice is to help the Nova Scotians prepare for a May 7 exhibition game against the visiting Czech National Team.
Aside from one small "World Indoor Lacrosse Championship" poster placed along the side boards, which features an aggressive-looking blue maple leaf holding a lacrosse stick, there's no indication that this practice is in preparation for an international sporting event, let alone a world championship—even for an exhibition match. Lacrosse in Nova Scotia is growing, but remains a relatively small sport—small in profile, and small in the number of participants when compared with recreation goliaths like hockey or soccer. The chance for Nova Scotians to compete with international lacrosse opponents is unprecedented; a major opportunity.
And a scary one.
"Yeah...I dunno. I think it's going to be rough."
Chad Gray, a 27-year-old member of the Orangutans, takes a moment away from practice to talk about the upcoming exhibition. Gray picked up lacrosse when he was nine years old, while growing up in Fall
River. Even with more than 15 years experience under his belt, Gray is wary of the Czechs.
"I imagine they've been practicing all year, playing year round," he says. He takes a heavy breath. "I mean, we're all normal guys, you know? I work seven days a week now."
An electrician by day, Gray is sitting on the players' bench on the floor of the rink, in full lacrosse gear, with the practice still running in the background. He is occasionally interrupted by a thundering teammate running past. Like many lacrosse players, Gray started in hockey, and was introduced to the game as a summer alternative—a way to keep in shape in the off-season.
"Actually, I think lacrosse is a lot more physical and it keeps you in shape a lot better than hockey," he says. "You can't really glide, it's all running back and forth. One of the best sports, I think. Here, you're back and forth a few times up and down the floor, and you're done."
Done as in tired. Gray is sweating for the first half of the interview, hunched over with his elbows on his knees. At times, the practice looks grueling, particularly so during a later drill. Players pass the ball and defend against one another, trying to get a shot on net—basically a light scrimmage. Even among teammates, there is constant movement, and contact—as soon as a player gets possession of the ball, he is poked, prodded, checked and lightly slashed by his defender's stick. Arms absorb most of the abuse. There may be some mercy shown towards teammates, but to an outsider, it still looks rough.
None of which intimidated Gray, even during his first encounters with lacrosse. He was drawn to the game without a great deal of outside influence. Much as he loves it now, Gray can't remember having any one strong lacrosse mentor in the region, at least not when he was really picking up his appreciation for the game.
"I'd go out with Brad and Craig in the backyard"—two of Gray's cousins, also lacrosse players and also still Orangutans—"and we just picked it up, I guess. With stick kills and whatnot, it was us doing it ourselves, really. We'd take our sticks down to the school and pass the ball around, you know...I mean, someone can show you all that stuff, but the only way you're going to improve—"
Gray is interrupted. Quickly, he stands, reaches around his interviewer, and grabs a ball that was about to crack said interviewer—me—in the head. I'd barely moved.
"Hey man—you gotta be quick."
By Wayne Finck's own admission, he's not as quick as he used to be—certainly not as quick as when he first picked up the game. Responding to an ad that he saw in a daily newspaper, Finck can still remember showing up on the Halifax Common to try lacrosse for the first time. It was 1969, and he was 17.
At the time, Halifax was preparing to host the Canada Summer Games, and lacrosse was on the bill. Unfortunately, there were barely any players in the region. As the host province, Nova Scotia wanted to field a team in as many sports as it possibly could. The newspaper ad called on all interested players—with or without experience—to try out. And the chance to play in the Canada Games was the dangling carrot on the end of the lacrosse stick.
"The coach was a retired phys-ed teacher. His only background in lacrosse was from an activity course that he took at UNB," recalls Finck.
"I can remember going down to the Commons, and I can remember the coach well. I said to him, "Will I make this team? 'Cause if not, I'm going over there to play baseball.' Growing up I had a lot of disappointments in terms of getting cut from teams. I wasn't interested in sticking around for any of that."
Finck made the initial team, but then had to compete in a weekend tournament against three other local squads to decide which team would play at the Games. Finck's team ultimately lost that tournament, but his interest in the game would not diminish.
"The next year, in 1970, some of those individuals from those teams got together and started their own league," he says. "You've got to understand, it wasn't like it is now. There's weren't as many of activity choices at the time. I can remember, there'd be high school football tryouts and literally hundreds of kids would show up."
In 1974, a mere five years after trying the game for the first time, Finck uprooted from Halifax and moved himself to Montreal to try out for a fledgling professional league. He didn't make it in '74, but came back the next year and was successfully drafted.
"I made about $8,000 for the season," he recalls. "Now, the money wasn't great, but that was a professional league." Finck emphasizes the word. "We played a 48-game schedule between late April and late September. You could do part-time work, but on the Monday to Friday, that was what you would do. You would play lacrosse."
Finck did not spend much time in Montreal—within a couple of years, the league ran into financial trouble and folded. By 1981, Finck had returned Halifax. But he never stopped playing the game, and continued to promote the sport through his role as a phys-ed teacher, and by volunteering when he could to local development.
After a life-long relationship with the sport, Finck is the closest thing Halifax has to a living lacrosse encyclopedia—local or otherwise.
"The game owes me nothing," he says fondly.
Conversely, it could be argued that Finck owes nothing to the game—especially not to the game as it currently exists in Halifax.
In the early '90s, Finck was still in town, as were a number of other dedicated lacrosse players trying to get the game off the ground. The key to that, as Finck and others considered it, was to establish a youth league.
"It was a struggle then," he says. "It was frustrating. There would be 50 kids one year, and next year they'd lose 25 and get 25 new ones. In those years it was always 50 or 60 kids with a 40 or 50 percent turnover. We could never take that next step.
"Then 1998, 1999, lacrosse was starting to play more on TV. The Toronto Rock came into existence in 1999, started to televise their games. That was certainaly a huge factor in the growth of the game once the year 2000 rolled around."
Never underestimate the power of television. The rise of the National Lacrosse League—a cross-brorder Canada and US pro league—has helped propel the game's growth immensely. The NLL plays the indoor version of the game (referred to as "box"), the same version that will be on display this week during the Indoor World Championship. It's a fast-paced, physical sport, well-suited to TV. Although still under financial stress, the modern NLL is on its way to gaining stability like no other lacrosse league before. (The Rock, the league's most bankable team, regularly plays to more than 15,000 fans and continues to turn a profit, despite not owning their arena or concessions and paying CTV Sportsnet roughly $30,000 per televised game in broadcast fees.)
In addition to the increased profile in Canada, the game has also made strides south of the border. A 2004 Sports Illustrated article dubbed lacrosse "the fastest growing sport in America."
You might say that Wayne Finck's son helped contribute to that boom, both here and in the US: In 2004, the younger Finck, Dan, was picked up by the Philadelphia Wings of the NLL in the draft. Just like dad, Dan has become a professional lacrosser. Dan returned to play in Halifax for an exhibition game last fall, and runs an annual summer lacrosse camp for local kids who want to learn from a living, breathing local lacrosse hero.
The goal in the early 2000s, says Finck, was to harness all of the sport's momentum and inspire a new generation of players in Halifax. Wayne, along with other local enthusiasts Steve Brown, Bruce Hamilton and Brian Thompson, capitalized on the sport's newfound visibility to try again for a local youth league.
"In the spring of 2000, we more or less said, "Let's form a league. We'll call it the Metro Minor Lacrosse League.' Our goal was to recruit enough kids to make a four-team pee wee division, or a four-team bantam division. So the kids that came out would have a league to play in with other kids their own age."
That first year, they reached their goal, fielding 14 teams across three age groups. The next year, the league had 27 teams. Then 57. Then 76. Then 85. Then 99.
"Now, we've kind of topped out at just below 100 teams for the past couple of years," says Finck. But he sees the World Championship as a bit of a parallel to the 1969 Canada Games, the first that introduced him to the sport—he's hoping for another spike in registration in the wake of this year's competition.
"I think this has a similar potential to raise the profile of the game, no question," he says. According to Nova Scotia Lacrosse president and World Championship chair Bill Brydon, the provincial governing body would like to increase registration in the province to 5,000 players by 2008, a far cry from the struggles of the early- and mid-'90s. Establishing a proper senior league is also an ambition.
"And personally," says Finck, "I'm excited to see some of these guys play the game. For a city like Halifax to be hosting an event like this...all credit to Mike LeLeune and Bill Brydon and all of those guys who brought this event to the city."
Sunday, May 6—a week and a day before the official start of the Worlds. Slowly, people are arriving and gathering on the sidewalk on Carmichael Street outside of the Metro Centre. The crowd is a mixed group of lacrosse players and tournament organizers—so far, no sign of event manager Mike LaLeune. Word is, he's on his way.
Some people in the crowd, the ones in the red and black track jackets, are players on the Czech National team—the imposing challengers set to square off against the Orangutans. They landed last night in the Halifax airport, late. After over-shooting to Montreal, the team had to wait in the airport for roughly five hours before backtracking to Halifax. Most, understandably, look tired.
When they finally did arrive, the Czechs at least had a warm reception. The team was met at the airport gate by their billets—Nova Scotian families associated with the tournament who agreed to host the Czech players during the week leading up to the Championship.
Today, the Czechs are getting a tour of downtown Halifax, complete with scavenger hunt-style quiz questions. Inside the Metro Centre, some Czechs wearily wander to the centre of the rink to examine the four giant video screens that normally hang over the centre of the playing surface, which have been temporarily lowered to the floor.
And then, suddenly, there's LaLeune, marching briskly uphill towards the Centre. Energetic. Bouncing. Excited. He sticks out in a bright red "Canada Lacrosse" hoodie and thick-framed rectangular glasses.
Roughly two years ago, LaLeune was marching into Cardiff, Wales, to pitch the idea of Halifax hosting the Worlds to the International Lacrosse Federation. It was, as he describes it, a wonderful experience.
"We submitted our bid early to the ILF. We did that because we were prepared and well organized," he says. "We knew the Czechs had been thinking of applying, the US had been considering applying, but because we submitted so early, the ILF read the proposals and said, "Well, this is pretty amazing. They've got all the components, they've got tonnes of experience.'
"When we finished our presentation, they all stood up and applauded. It was just great."
Today, the Burnaby, BC-reared LaLeune is in a slightly different role. After assembling with a group of Czech players—and taking a moment to tell his 15-year-old son Andre to stop throwing-and-catching his lacrosse ball off of the Metro Centre garage doors (To Andre: "I'm going to guess that's not the thing you're supposed to be doing.")—LeLune sets of down the hill, across the Grand Parade and on to Barrington Street, Czechs in tow, to point out a local landmark of major significance.
"For candy, this store—this store"—LeLeune points emphatically towards Freak Lunchbox—"this is the place to go to." Another Haligonian guide is pointing at the sign in front of the store and cheerfully explaining, "It's an Oompa Loompa!" Judging from their facial expressions, the Czechs seem to have varying degrees of comprehension.
LaLeune is smiling during most of the tour, but it's also clear that he's a busy man these days. As he strides around downtown, he receives multiple calls on his Blackberry—small interruptions in his otherwise focused day.
"Hello? Yes...oh, it's good, Ron...it's crazy busy, but it's good...we sold 900 tickets in two hours on Sunday, so...it's starting to move."
The organization of such a tournament is no small feat. Eight teams—Canada, Australia, the Czechs, England, Ireland, Scotland, the US and a team from the Iroquois Nation—will be arriving in Halifax for the Championship, each bringing a roster of between 20 and 25 players, along with support staff. LaLeune credits the almost 300 volunteers who will be helping during the week-long Championship whom, he points out, are not all lacrosse fanatics.
"The big concern that we had was if there's less than 2,000 participants, well, our local league starts now," he says. "If we were going to draw on the same people, they'd never manage to run the regular program and be able to add all these other things to their schedule. The majority of people involved are non-lacrosse people. And they've become almost or just as committed."
Martin Kostka says that the climate here is similar to the climate in his home country. A defenseman for the Czechs, Kostka has only been playing the game for five years—"Not much time to be playing at a World Championship!" In his native country, Canada's national summer sport is just gaining a toehold in public consciousness.
"There are not so many who play," he says, "so it's not as difficult to get chosen for a team like this as it would be in something else."
As for Halifax, Kostka is thus far impressed.
"It's very similar to our city—not exactly, not architechture and history—but the people are friendly, and your downtown seems quite cool. There are some nice bars..." he laughs. "No, no. You should erase that."
The city tour eventually makes its way to the doors of the Split Crow. The tour has been going fine, but it's an unseasonably cold and grey day, and the majority of the group seems in favour of stopping for an afternoon refreshment.
Inside the pub, another World Championship is being broadcast on a silver big screen TV mounted behind the bar—the IIHF World Hockey Championship from Moscow, Russia. And who should be playing—tied, in fact, with just four minutes remaining—but Canada and the Czech Republic.
The players settle in around the bar and watch intently. There are a few mock-cheers after hits, and saves. But the crowd on both sides is polite and reserved, especially considering the national rivalry that's being played out. Today's tour is about hospitality, and no one seems eager to rush into competition.
LaLeune, for his part, is all business. He stays off to the side and tries to fill out the rest of his quiz questionnaire with a tour partner. And, as soon as Canada wins the hockey game just a few seconds into overtime, LaLeune is hurrying people out the door. Keeping people focused. Keeping people on track.
"I just want to get the ball dropped and start playing," he says later, a few hours after the tour has ended. "I don't see any major complications on the horizon, I think we've planned for it well."
One day later, on Monday May 7, the Halifax Orangutans are back in another echoey arena. Only this time, they've got fans.
It's hard to say exactly how many spectators have come to the Dalhousie Arena to watch the Nova Scotia/Czech Republic exhibition match, but it's a decent turnout. There are roughly 80 fans in the stadium at its peak. Not bad, especially for the Orangutans—the crowd holds an obvious pro-Nova Scotia bias.
"Ya gotta remember, for them, it'll feel like it's three o'clock in the morning," explains one spectator, just before the game's 8:30pm tip off. "I think we could do OK here."
The locals, dressed in red, white and black horizontal stripes, look smaller than their Czech counterparts. Or maybe it's that their equipment isn't quite as flashy. Or their pre-game cheer wasn't quite as loud as the Czechs raucous call-and-answer chant. Still, they warm up with equal passion, filling one half of yet another iceless hockey rink.
As it turns out, Chad Gray isn't in the lineup for the exhibition match—a quick explanation is offered up by teammate Nick McLellan: "I don't know what happened to Chad. I'm guessing, he probably got called in late to work; that guy works like a motherfucker."
The game starts as all indoor lacrosse games start: Two players lean in towards one another, shoulder to shoulder, at the centre of the arena. When the referee starts the game, the two players sandwich the ball between the heads of their sticks. Locked together, they push and grapple for possession.
Norman Hum is on hand behind the bench. Wayne Finck is there too, watching the game in the stands, five rows back. "The boys look good. I'd be a little worried about their conditioning, as things wear on, but I think they'll do fine."
And, generally, they do. Although it seems to take a minute or two for the locals to find their confidence, the Orangutans make it, and keep it, close.
For the first 10 minutes, there is absolutely no scoring, although both teams have their chances. The crowd seems generally impressed by the international visitors—"Those Czechs, they shoot hard. Can't hit the damn net, though."
Finally, late in the first 15-minute quarter, the first goal goes to the Czech team. The second, delighting the crowd, goes to Nova Scotia. The action, which is dictated in part by an ever-present 30-second shot clock, is brisk. It barely stops. Players are constantly running, substituting on the fly, swatting at each other...
By half time, the Czechs have pulled ahead, 8 to 3. By the game's final horn, the Czechs have prevailed, 14 to 9. Not a victory for the lacrosse locals, but certainly not a blow-out, either.
As it turns out, the big bad Czechs aren't nearly so big and bad. At times, they look downright human. In fact, there's a parallel between the two opponents; in the days leading up their first official game, Martin Kostka sounds just as nervous to be playing other international rivals as the Orangutans were to play the Czechs.
"I would like to beat the..." he searches for the right word "...Scottish. But every other winning game will be a plus," he says. "In my opinion, we're here to learn and practice and look at the better players because all of the teams that are participating are full of NLL players. And you can't compare the professionals with the amateurs, like we are."
After the game, and after the Nova Scotian players and the Czechs shake hands, Kostka and his teammates turn towards their Halifax audience—most of whom have been cheering for the other side—and give them a round of applause. It's a polite gesture from the international lacrosse players, a sign of gratitude to their host city.
"Ultimately, I think of lacrosse as a ruffian's game played by gentlemen," observes Mike LaLeune. "It has a veneer of aggression and toughness, and yet we have very few injuries in our sport. And there's a wonderful congeniality. I don't know if that's what really makes lacrosse different, but I like to think it is."
The World Indoor Lacrosse Championship. May 14-20 at the Halifax Metro Centre. Doubleheader round robin adult tickets: $15-$19. Final rounds: $29.75. Tickets available by phone (451-1221) or online www.ticketatlantic.com
Coast news editor Mike Fleury wants you to know that lacrosse has only officially been Canada’s summer sport—yes, just summer—since 1994, when MP Nelson Riisfiled filed Bill C-212. Look it up.