Growing box lacrosse among youth of the U.S. is not an impossible challenge

Jamie Munro and 3d Lacrosse are among those taking the lead in teach box skills to American youth. (Photo: Casey Vock)
Jamie Munro and 3d Lacrosse are among those taking the lead in teach box skills to American youth. (Photo: Casey Vock)

In the past year I have written about the future of box lacrosse and where I see its best chance for success in the coming years. That place is the USA, a country with the population to support growth. This weekend, the USA lacrosse community converges on the City of Brotherly Love for its annual convention. Hopefully, there will be some mention of indoor lacrosse and some more plans of shaping a future for the game with our neighbors south of the border. The sheer numbers of USA lacrosse players should promote interest in our exciting Canadian national game that has all the earmarks of hockey without the need for ice or skating. Of course, indoor lacrosse is just a spin-off of the emerging field lacrosse game down south but again, it has to start its boom somehow and there has never been a time in history where American interest in lacrosse as a sport is what it is today. Questions remain, like why and how will indoor lacrosse prosper in America?

Indoor lax is mostly being passed off in the USA as a clinic or camp component to build skills for field lacrosse instead of having its own focus these days. Indoor lacrosse hasn’t even been considered as more than a sport Canadians play in most U.S. locales to this point.

What we are describing is what Jamie Munroe, owner of 3d Lacrosse, has already identified and explored. Munroe is luring campers with skill-building instruction tagged as box lacrosse to “Canadianize” them. This is the latest thing the big camp “players” are working through in exposing field laxers to elements of the indoor game for improvement in their own resume’s.

This is a win-win for both sports. I want to believe the two sports can co-exist. The exposure to indoor will create the need for more USA indoor lax and outlets. The big problem, the same one the monstrous field lacrosse growth in the USA has had to deal with is … infrastructure.

Coaching, refereeing, support, organization and fund raising is the key to adding indoor leagues and players anywhere. No different than all other community sports. US Lacrosse getting on board to support indoor lacrosse being played in their country as a credible alternative to outdoor field lacrosse would be the ah-hah moment.

I reached out to US Lacrosse boss Steve Stenersen to ask that exact question. I was expecting to hear the same old rollerball-brutality argument but was quickly consumed by an honest and frank discussion about the growth of ALL LACROSSE stateside.

Stenersen shared the notion that US Lax is dedicated to making lacrosse work for everyone, including the multitudes of recent field lacrosse start-up programs of the last decade for both men’s and women’s programs, already two completely different entities. Mr. Stenersen stressed that these programs need guidance through their formative years so that success can be a destination and it is an ongoing, exhausting exercise for US lacrosse to keep up with the growth.

Stenersen communicated he isn’t down on the indoor game but that they weren’t able to dedicate time or resources to explore its potential yet. While that wasn’t exactly what persons like myself would want to hear, it also wasn’t a dead end conversation. But indoor lacrosse remains undefined in the USA.

Steve also relayed that “US Lacrosse is exploring the merits of developing a hybrid form of the boy’s field and indoor games that would be better designed and suited for the younger players based on their physical and cognitive development stages. A form of the game that would require smaller playing surfaces than field lacrosse requires to enable a young player to touch the ball more while learning the fundamentals thus increasing enjoyment. A National Player Development Model is being considered and this youth hybrid would be part of that movement. The growth of lacrosse in urban areas where field space is limited is yet another driving factor.”

Fast forward to an American system starting kids in some form of 6-on-6 lacrosse with a shrunken field. Eventually, America would be better versed from a young age with box fashioned skills. Throw in 4 walls and 2 goalies with pads and smaller nets and you have a launching pad for players and parents to experience the joys of a true indoor lacrosse experience to really get the fall ball winter season rockin!

The sport of hockey discovered back in the early 1970s that it needed a base of youth hockey leagues to take hold in its new NHL cities to create a hockey culture in those hockey destinations. This is a similar path indoor lacrosse must attempt to replicate some 40 years later in its hopes to push the sport to its ultimate level.

Setting up shop in a outlying US destination like Idaho or Georgia will prove to be the challenge. The idea needs to be sold to the local community start-up field lacrosse programs to build their skills year round in “fresh” lacrosse town.

Teams from these start-up areas can close the gap on established lacrosse organizations with the introduction to indoor play. I’ve experienced this first hand with the Youth Box League of Minnesota’s Swarm. Growth into the box league from the north and east of Minneapolis in the first two years of participation catapulted those teams involved to a competitive status in high school field lax. Two years after being schedule fillers for the established Minnesota organizations, these newer teams were fighting for wins in their spring leagues thanks in part to skill refinement through box play. The Swarm have grown their league every year since its inception through customer satisfaction and results much like the Stealth and Mammoth.

Sadly, I’ve also had two separate experiences in Minnesota and Philadelphia years back where I had the opportunity to ask a young laxer at our practice facility if they had attended a Wings/Swarm game? The answer both times, NO.

No, because their parents weren’t investing a night of their life and over an hour’s drive time into a sport they know nothing about. Most parents can’t relate to field lacrosse since they didn’t grow up with it themselves, so why commit time, effort and money to watch a professional indoor game? Indoor exposure and leagues will help change that mentality. Herein lies the challenge and the payoff.

Building value in the box game in the USA is the name of the game. Lacrosse won’t always have to be viewed as it was by the old guard of decades past. New U.S. states are continuously getting involved in the sport and suffering start-up issues. Simplifying field lacrosse for 6-9 year olds is something indoor lacrosse was built for. Having those same kids age up and continue on their path of building box lacrosse skills for whatever sport or reason will help grow the game in the USA. Collecting associations along the way and eventually creating travel teams to take to tournament play in the USA and Canada is a natural progression that will bring deeper interest from the Red, White and Blue in the next generation.

There were periods of time in my life when I was young that seem so far off in the distance that I couldn’t imagine what they might look like. When I first hit the bar scene in 1983, Prince’s song “1999″ was high on the playlist. One of those bar nights I stopped to consider the world in another 17 years and just laughed at the thought of being 35 years old.

My initial thought was that a 35 year old was old enough to play “Old Timers” hockey. Man that seemed old! Now 30 years later it’s even funnier to me looking at it from the other side or over the hill.

As I sit here today I can honestly see the USA playing indoor lacrosse as a credible sport in the future and in my lifetime. When that day comes I will want to party like its 1983 or even 1999.

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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