For some NHL players, lacrosse provides training for life on ice
The police officer spied the five-liter Ford Mustang peeling down the Ontario highway, some 80 kilometers over the limit, and gave chase with his siren blaring. Expecting some speed-thirsty punk behind the wheel, the officer instead found an embarrassed 19-year-old, who quickly offered an excuse for his haste. “I’m really sorry, officer,” blurted Gary Roberts. “Believe it or not, I’m trying to race back to play in a championship lacrosse game.”
Until the officer forked over a $300 fine and a scheduled court date, Roberts had fully intended to chomp off everything he could chew. That afternoon, in the fall of 1985, he was headed from training camp with the Ottawa 67s, his club in the Ontario Hockey League, toward the Toronto suburbs, where his Whitby Warriors were competing in the finals of the Minto Cup, the pinnacle of junior lacrosse in Canada. The Warriors wound up repeating as champs, but Roberts was delayed long enough to arrive at the arena too late to dress. “The speeding ticket cost me my last lacrosse game,” Roberts says. “It wasn’t the right decision to risk my life for lacrosse, and trying to juggle lacrosse and hockey at the same time was a little over the top, but I loved it.”
Here Roberts hardly stands alone. No other sport approximates the pace, style and punishment of ice hockey quite like lacrosse – in particular, the high-speed, five-on-five-plus-goalies indoor brand called box lacrosse, where crosschecks to the spine are just as kosher as passing and shooting. “A haven for muggers,” Washington Post columnist Kenneth Denlinger once wrote of box lacrosse, nine years before Roberts’ costly traffic stop. “Players get penalized two minutes for sins that would draw 5-to-10 years anywhere outside the arena.” So ask any NHLer who grew up wielding sticks with blades in the winter and ones with pockets over summers: They’ll vouch for lacrosse’s utility in their currently profession.
“The biggest thing is trying to make plays under contact,” says Buffalo’s Matt Moulson, a 2004 fourth-round draft pick of the National Lacrosse League’s Rochester Nighthawks. “That translates over pretty uniquely to hockey.”
“You take a little more of a beating that way, so just spinning off hits, moving through traffic, and whatnot,” says Islanders captain John Tavares, who played in Ontario until age 15. “I think that really helped me in hockey, the same type of plays out of the corner and in front of the net.”
“In both sports, when you cut down to its basic math, they’re both games of give-and-go,” says Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who graduated from Hofstra University as a four-year letterman with 74 goals in field lacrosse. “You give it up to get it back. It’s all intertwined.”
Indeed, the sport runs deep through hockey’s history. Box lacrosse was ostensibly invented by ice rink owners seeking an offseason attraction. The first pro league in 1931 featured teams dubbed the Toronto Leafs, Montreal Maroons and Montreal Canadiens. (Sound familiar?) Wayne Gretzky played during his youth. So did fellow Hall of Famers Adam Oates, Joe Nieuwendyk, Brendan Shanahan, and Bobby Orr. Today’s active alumni include Ottawa’s Kyle Turris, Florida’s Reilly Smith, Tampa’s Steven Stamkos, and Chicago’s Jonathan Toews.
It’s not hard to draw personal parallels, either. “I was probably the same as I was as a player, just being a little rat,” says forward Dave Bolland, who in his youth was coached by Shanahan’s brother, Brian, and eventually got drafted into junior-A by the Missassagua Tomahawks. “I was always a little bit mouthy.” Whereas a concerned Calgary Flames scout eventually convinced Roberts to quit lacrosse, convinced the 12th overall pick in 1984 would get hurt during the more-than-infrequent line brawls, Roberts’ 2,560 career NHL penalty minutes suggests the physicality hardly waned.
Nieuwendyk, meanwhile, led the NHL with 31 power play goals during his Calder Trophy-winning season, many of which came on net-front deflections that he attributes to hand-eye coordination honed in lacrosse. A former teammate of Roberts and the leading scorer on Whitby’s ’85 Minto Cup squad, Niewuendyk also remembers the brutality well: “We used to cut the palms out of our gloves. I remember those hackers up in Peterborough. You’d lose your fingernails every summer. But I loved lacrosse probably more than hockey when I was growing up.”
Like everyone else who made it big on the ice, Nieuwendyk ultimately realized that hockey offered a more lucrative career path than lacrosse. He had enrolled at Cornell University intending to play both sports – he attended the field lacrosse team’s preseason banquet and everything – but got drafted by Calgary after his freshman year and quit for good. Stars forward Brett Ritchie grew up in lacrosse-mad Orangeville, Ontario, spending summer nights watching the junior-A Northmen and playing catch with his friends on the arena floor during intermissions. He eventually suited up for the Northmen at 15 years old, and says, “If you were to tell me that both leagues were the same quality and you had the same opportunities money-wise and everything else, that would’ve been a real tough decision.”
Still, memories endure. When his father died almost two years ago, Nieuwendyk remembers cleaning out the house and finding a plaque with a lacrosse ball mounted on top, commemorating a season in which he reached 200 goals. “I got 29 points in one game,” says Oates. “I think that’d be my favorite.” Moulson recently attended a Nighthawks game and received his draft jersey, which he plans to get framed; his kids now outfit themselves with gear from the Buffalo Bandits, the local NLL box lacrosse team. Back home last summer, Ritchie estimates attending at least one Northmen game per week, though he’s too old to join the kids at intermission anymore. Now under contract with the Arizona Coyotes but on long-term injured reserve and rehabbing in Florida, Bolland occasionally flips his television to watch NCAA or MLL (Major League Lacrosse, the United States’ pro field league) games.
“Every winter, I’d go right from hockey into lacrosse, then once lacrosse was over – boom -- hockey would be starting again,” he says. “I miss it. It was a fun sport. If there was more money in that, I’d play.”