The game of lacrosse is great in any form it’s played, but box is the best of them all

Marty O'Neill
Marty O'Neill

A while back, Lacrosse Magazine staffer Bill Tanton wrote about the end of indoor season and how he really didn’t think much of box lacrosse, Canada’s national summer sport. For some time, I’ve wanted to write a rebuttal to this article in hopes of building an updated and progressive perspective into the world of box lacrosse, especially in the USA. Lacrosse, as a sport, is not the “Baltimore only” or exclusive Northeastern exercise that it was in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Field lacrosse growth in the USA is explosive in California and other climates that support year-round play and development. The numbers and growth of the sport are all pointing westward and there is no indication that will stop any time soon. There is a larger appetite for the game these days south of the border and some of that hunger is for the Canadian version of lacrosse: box lacrosse.

Mr. Tanton described how he doesn’t respect indoor lax or its skilled players of any recent era, relating back in time when they slapped some makeshift league together in suburban Baltimore in 1962 or his time covering early-90s MILL. I’m guessing he never traveled to Ontario in that summer of 1962 or any time since to watch some real Canadian box or current NLL lacrosse.

Tanton covered games in the ’90s of the Baltimore Thunder, whose American coaching staff lacked the in-depth teaching skills for indoor. The Thunder imported the odd Canadian player to help out while they recruited the latest, greatest graduates in America’s hotbed of lacrosse talent. I played against those Thunder teams that were bolstered with their talented field players from the leading NCAA universities, but Baltimore teams never could get it right.

Year after year the Thunder struggled because they had no serious coaching direction. Conversely, up the road in Philadelphia, Canadian box coach Dave Evans was recruited, adding to the Wings’ foundation for championship teams in the same era. The Thunder regularly lacked a plan and grinders ready to do the dirty work that came with the Division II and III players like we hired in Boston with the Blazers that translated better to indoor lacrosse. We also employed lots of Division I players from New Hampshire, Brown and other less notable programs.

The Saints in New York and Philadelphia’s Wings has similar makeup to our Blazers. My personal evaluation was that these players came in with less expectation and entitlement and worked harder to succeed in the MILL than some of the Division I Hopkins and Carolina boys. That has never sat well with the old guard watching from Baltimore. I’ve grown tired of hearing how indoor lacrosse is basically “rollerball” to these U.S. traditionalists from eras gone by. There is far too much skill, team play and theory to deny the sport of box lacrosse its due. I also understand that indoor lacrosse is out of their control.

There was also much U.S.-bred success in that Bandits-Wings dominated league of Canadian stars and our roll-up-your-sleeves coaches in Boston (Ron Fraser-Steve Connelly) were a credit to the sport with their attitudes and steady effort.

Kevin Finneran, Toby Boucher and Charlie Blanchard graduated from the Ohio Wesleyan program headed by a young Mike Pressler and the trio were very refined in their box lacrosse skillset. Other guys who had a cup of tea in Boston my first year were goalie/Loyola head coach Charley Toomey and 3D Lacrosse guru Jamie Munro. Not sure what Toomey would say he thought of his season with the Blazers but Munro is using his few games of experience to set himself apart from others in teaching field lacrosse with “Canadian Box” skills integration these days.

The other part of Tanton’s piece I would like to set straight was about ex-Notre Dame goalie Scotty Rodgers being hired as a Minnesota Swarm goon. I think I know a little about this one since I was the GM drafting him.

Scotty was handpicked by Swarm owner/GM and Notre Dame alum John Arlotta to be on the Swarm that year but was lacking skill in every capacity (goalie-forward-goon) to fill a team position. The thought of having an All-America field lacrosse goalie make the transition to indoor forward like Brett Queener or Quint Kessenich before him was the platform.

As for goalie, size alone doesn’t dictate anyone will be a good goalie indoors. If that was the case, all teams would go out and get the biggest guy available. American Sal LoCascio relied on his skill and not his size to get by as a box goalie. Same for guys like Nick Rose today. What I learned is that Scotty really didn’t want it that badly, or else he may have had a chance over time if he put work into either position. I think the same could be said for many Americans who venture with one foot indoors; it’s just not their thing.

Again, I have a little experience trying to convert “fieldies” to the box. In that process I’ve tried to shield them from the intimidation that is sure to come from Canadians itching to test their mettle. In 2001-02, the Philadelphia Wings team I managed as a rookie GM started five American NCAA rookies on opening day. Kevin Buchanan is another player I’ve worked with and gone an extra mile for to assure him a chance to succeed indoors. I also wouldn’t just roll Scott Rodgers out on a NLL floor and make him a target for the Brandon Francis’s and Tim O’Brien’s of the world until he was ready and willing for that kind of action.

I respect Bill’s viewpoint. That’s not my beef.

I’m debating on behalf of the U.S. players and coaches like Dan Marohl, Paul Cantabene, Eric Martin and Ron Fraser that have sacrificed themselves in the past to learn an indoor trade, or better yet, for the ones who are about to try. The ones who have a passion for indoor and a desire to succeed.

Lacrosse isn’t an easy sport to define. I’m biased; so is Bill Tanton. There are two versions of lacrosse cemented by two countries. They require two skillsets, mindsets and theories. The two versions differ on every level and are only linked by the stick and the ball they both use.

My dream is to see indoor lacrosse played in the NCAA one day and to flourish in the USA. If you step back and take a look, it’s a natural: Arena atmosphere, better television properties and widespread appeal to today’s high-speed appetite of our youth. Indoor is a better spectator sport to me and even if I’m biased I come with the NCAA’s best Final Four experiences in Philly, Baltimore and Boston to fall back on. I watched Major League Lacrosse live in every host city in 2001 and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ve watched high school contests at every stop I’ve lived south of the border and loved that lacrosse was being played in any form.

I just like box more.

Bill, you should try to catch an NLL game this winter. The brass of the NLL has almost outlawed fighting with the penalties they assess. Overzealous hitting is punished with a three-goal non-releasable 5-minute penalty. Intimidation is down so much so that league heavyweight champ Rory Smith wasn’t required to drop his gloves once in 2012 (I’m sure much to his angst). Smith was, however, voted to the start in the 2012 NLL All-Star Game. The game is about speed and decision-making and systems nowadays.

Sounds like a requirement to play field lacrosse doesn’t it?

O'Neill is a three-time Mann Cup winner and former general manager of the Philadelphia Wings (2001-2004) and Minnesota Swarm (2004-2010), where he was twice named NLL GM of the Year (2007, 2008).

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