I love lacrosse.
Played it when I was a kid one year, when I disagreed with the direction of the local softball team (I was a second-baseman, not a third-baseman). Wasn't any good. Actually, I was pretty bad. But at least I got to see some good goaltending by Jim Ward and the modern bulldozer of a player that was Billy Gardhouse. Once saw Gardhouse destroy his sneakers by jabbing a step so hard into the tar-top of the local box that the sole stayed there while Billy's foot and the top of the shoe went the other way.
Now, I know lacrosse is violent. Doesn't jibe with my dislike for boxing, does it? But properly played, lacrosse is an art.
Just now, I finished watching the Toronto Rock of the National Lacrosse League beat the Edmonton Rush in an entertaining game. But as entertaining as many Rock games are, the lacrosse I see today pales in comparison to what I was covering as a sports reporter 25 years ago.
I'm not a fan of the rule changes in the NLL version of the boxla game I love. Back in the day, you couldn't go into the crease with the ball, regardless if the last step you took was outside the goaltender's barrier. It made Bill Coghill and Paul Suggate interesting players as they explored how well the refs could detect their encroaching as they dived around, and more than occasionally, into the crease.
I don't like the large centre zone. It makes chasing penalty-killing teams impossible and eliminates the role of the human rag doll played by the likes of Joe Madeiros. Joe would get the ball in the offensive zone while on the penalty kill and the other team would send two, and then three, men to try and extract the ball. He would be battered about (yeah, I know I'm glorifying violence) for the whole two minutes, as often as not. That's right, the penalty killers didn't have a shot clock. It was great entertainment to see just how much punishment Joe and his ilk could take.
Joe was a specialist. Today, EVERY player is a specialist. There are no lines, just offensive and defensive units. About half of each 30-second possession is spent changing from one to the other. That is NOT entertaining. Lacrosse IS the fastest game on two feet, as Jim Hinkson was fond of saying. But not when the players are trotting to the bench or to the floor to get ready for 15 seconds of frenetic play. About the only advantage I can see to this system is that it allows under-sized offensive prodigies like Josh Sanderson to play the game. Mind you, Josh isn't much taller than Chuck Li was and Li and the Oshawa Green Gaels were dominant with him on the floor. Okay, so Gaylord Powless' presence might have had something to do with that.
The plastic sticks they use today with either hand don't permit some of the ball-handling wizardry that was a hall-mark of the teams of the past. Sure, Josh Sanderson, John Grant and the recently retired Gait boys, Gary and Paul, can still handle the stick like there's no tomorrow. But even Grant would agree he can't handle the stick as well as his dad, Big John. And even Big John wasn't the best handler on his squad. He played with (and for) Bobby Allan. The best of the handlers in Bobby's day could fake a pass left, fake a pass right, over the shoulder and then fire an underhand pass to a wide-open creaseman for a goal, all in a blink of an eye.
I miss the days when goalie Barry Maruk, Dennis' probably more-athletic brother, would regularly join the offence up the floor. He'd average a goal a week, about three assists a game, and would throw his body around the goal area with reckless abandon. Bob Watson, a smallish man, despite the humungous goalie costume he inhabits, shows many a Maruk-like move while tending goal. But I've never seen him venture up to the offensive area, let alone become a scoring threat.
John McCauley, Gus to his friends, and I counted myself amongst them, coached the Brampton Excelsiors in those summers between NHL seasons. Gus was possible the smartest man I knew in sports. There was a day when he started acting up on the bench, hurling accusations of blindness and assorted other failings at the referees. He was given a game misconduct and kicked out of the game. Surprised at how this NHL referee could go crazy at the lacrosse zebras, I asked Gus why he'd pulled the stunt, was it to get his players going? "Mugs," he replied with a smile that bordered on a knowing smirk, "Did you notice how many players we had on the floor at the time?" Assuring him I hadn't, he continued, "Well I did, and it was one too many." In order to save his team a penalty call, he'd gotten himself a misconduct that would cost him $25 out of his pocket. And that's why his Excelsiors were national champions. Everybody talks about the tragic loss the NHL suffered when he passed away, way too early. It was worse for lacrosse.
Maybe he'd be able to talk the purveyors of lacrosse to get rid of the music during game-play. Hell, I'd deep six it completely, just so the PA guys (and I was one, and an offender) could dial it back a hundred notches and not scream at everybody, just to be heard over the soundtrack. That alone makes it hard for me to get up off the couch, with it's access to a remote control to lower the volume, and head off to the headache-inducing environs of the Air Canada Centre.
So, it seems I have a lot to complain about lacrosse. Yep. But here's the kicker. Even with all of the changes not for the better, lacrosse is two hours of usually thrilling entertainment. It's got the violence, but it's got defence and offence. It's got individual thrills and great team plays. It's frequently tight to the finish, and you don't break ties with penalty shots or ever-lasting overtime. You get your money when you pay for a lacrosse game.
I love lacrosse.