Being a pro sports fan means you hear athletes saying it’s not about the money, they just love to play the game. Often, they say that just before or after talking about how insulting the contract they’ve been offered is. Among the great things about being a lacrosse fan is you don’t often have to hear such disingenuousness. These guys really do play the game because they love it. They have to; very few make enough playing the sport to preclude needing another job.
But even among the world of beauties that is lacrosse, Kedoh Hill is refreshing. He had a steady pay cheque coming as a member of the National Lacrosse League’s Rochester Knighthawks. It wouldn’t keep him in Dom Perignon and caviar, but it helped to support him, his girlfriend and their six-month-old. The trouble was, he wasn’t playing and it just didn’t feel right.
Hill hadn’t been in the lineup this year and hit the floor for the Knighthawks just five times in 2012. Last year, he could maybe understand not getting to play more, even if he didn’t like it. He had yet to establish himself at the pro or senior level and it was looking like maybe he wasn’t the steal he’d seemed to be when Edmonton snagged him 29th in a draft that it didn’t even look like he had entered.
But then came last summer. After initially discussing with Six Nations Chiefs coach Rich Kilgour the possibility of getting traded to Ajax so he could play regularly, Hill agreed to have a go at earning more floor time. History shows that it worked out better than either could have imagined. Hill led the team and was fourth in the league in goals and finished third on the Chiefs in scoring behind Colin Doyle and Cody Jamieson.
Hill was so good out of the gate that when all the Chiefs top guns returned partway into the season, Kilgour felt he had no choice but to keep him in the lineup, so he ran Hill out the back door. His effectiveness as a transition player didn’t go unnoticed around the league; he was named Major Series Lacrosse’s Rookie of the Year.
About the talk he had with Kilgour, Hill had this to say. “I said just give me five games where I know I’m going to play and I’ll show you what I can do. That’s what happened and I just kept playing and playing and did good and the coaches liked what I did. That’s the opportunity I was looking for.”
With that brilliant summer behind him, Hill went to training camp with the Knighthawks brimming with confidence and excited to establish himself as a solid pro. One potential problem was pretty obvious when perusing the Rochester roster as the season neared. The right side of their offence included Dan Dawson, Casey Powell, Stephen Keogh, Mike Accursi and Craig Point. Still, Hill felt he’d earned a shot to play and prove to his coaches that he could help the team.
That’s not how it worked out. So five weeks into the season, with his confidence waning and his passion for the game reduced from a raging fire to a precariously flickering flame, Hill’s agent Chaka Bainbridge secured his release from the team so that he could join the Canadian Lacrosse League. “Financially it’s not a good move for him at all, but Kedoh just wants to play so badly that I asked the Knighthawks to release him,” Bainbridge told IL Indoor. “I really don’t think it will be long before another NLL team picks him up, though. I believe he’s good enough to be a starter with any team in the league.”
CLax’s Iroquois Ironmen certainly snapped him up eagerly and his addition to the team paid immediate dividends. Hill scored 4 goals in his CLax debut last Sunday and could have had twice that many. On a day when Durham Turfdogs Scott DeFrancesco and Nic Grasby produced 7 goals and 10 points, respectively, Hill was far and away the most dynamic player on the floor. He revelled in CLax’s two-way game, running the floor like a deer and scoring some spectacular goals.
Hill says the game was exactly what he’d been hoping for. “It made me realize that lacrosse is fun and it always should be fun playing. It just reminded me of my talents and what I can do and what I can’t do.” There wasn’t much he couldn’t do in the game, except for help the Ironmen secure a win. Durham came back to take the game 14-13, dropping Iroquois to 0-3 on the season. That was hardly Hill’s fault, but it bothers him that they weren’t able to pull out the victory. “I told the Ironmen, I don’t know how long I’m going to be here because what if I get picked up by another team,” he said. “But for the time that I’m here I’m going to do what I can to help the team win. I like winning.”
Besides helping them get some wins, Hill’s goal is to get back to feeling the way he used to about the game. “Right now I’m just trying to sharpen up my game and get my confidence back, just keep the ball rolling with my lacrosse. To be honest, I started losing my passion for lacrosse cause I was sitting out and wasn’t doing much with the [Knighthawks].”
The most enthralling of Hill’s goals last week came shorthanded. He was at the top of the penalty kill diamond; he grabbed the rebound of a shot that bounced off the back boards in a high arc and took off for the other end of the floor with a pair of Turfdogs in hot pursuit. Grasby managed to knock the ball loose from Hill’s stick, but the new Ironman tracked it down in the corner and bulled his way back towards the net. As he was getting knocked to the floor, Hill whipped his stick around his body, burying a sublime over-the-shoulder shot.
Frankly, it wasn’t a shot that a lacrosse player should generally take: shorthanded, low-percentage and potentially leading to a breakout the other way. It sure looked pretty when it went in, though. Hill says he couldn’t explain why he just knew he had to take that shot. It was something he felt. “I don’t know why. I had seen a couple of the Ironmen games and I knew they were struggling on offence,” he said. “I thought, here’s my chance to get my offence going, I’m just going to do whatever it takes. That first half I was just go, go, go and try to make something happen. On that one I saw the goalie going down and I just threw my stick around me and it ended up going in. I didn’t even know it had gone in but then I heard everybody cheering and I was like, Oh Yeah.”
That quote captures a lot of why Kedoh Hill made the choice to give up an NLL salary for the relative pittance he earns in a CLax league that features great, exciting lacrosse but is still battling to establish itself and generate the revenues that will allow it to increase player salaries. First, he’d been going to watch CLax games. As much as he pointed out that his passion for the game had been suppressed, he still loves lacrosse.
Second, the instincts that made him one of the most dangerous junior players around are still there. While he can explain that he saw the goalie going down and realized there was an opening that he could hit, the process isn’t nearly as rational as it sounds in his description. There was no time to think those thoughts during the play: that was pure skill and instinct taking over.
Third, the “Oh Yeah” sounded like a kid in a candy story who just discovered that his favourite treat is on at half price. And after all, he really is still a kid despite being a new father. Hill is still just 22 years old and looks younger than that. And his youthful passion for the game is back with his rekindled confidence.
“I’m still kicking myself for dropping my NLL salary but I’ve got to start somewhere again, trying to re-establish myself,” he said. You wouldn’t know he was kicking himself judging by change in the tone of his voice when he switches from talking about not playing in the NLL to hitting the floor in the Canadian league. Hill is a lacrosse player. It’s in his blood. That means he needs to play. “That’s why I was thinking I had to go back to the beginning, to what made lacrosse fun,” he said. “CLax has been perfect for that.”
Hill may not be long for CLax; it can only be a matter of time before another NLL team picks him up, especially if he keeps playing the way he did last week. But for now, he’s just enjoying the ride. For fans of the Iroquois Ironmen and lacrosse in general, the enjoyment is mutual.Stamp is a TV sports announcer and lacrosse lover whose skill set made him a defender but who always dreamed of being a goal-scorer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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