Philadelphia Wings' Hunter Lemieux is guarded by Knighthawks' Ryland Rees. Photo: Rochester Knighhawks
It was a familiar feeling when Hunter Lemieux entered The Blue Cross Arena. The Philadelphia Wings rookie did not need to be shown the way to the locker room or the route to the turf. Instead, to Lemieux, this was like a home game.
Just two years earlier, he played at the rink in downtown Rochester, NY, as a member of the Armory in the Upstate Collegiate Box Lacrosse League (UCBLL).
On March 19, nearly 30 members of his family watched Lemieux and the Wings defeat the Rochester Knighthawks 9-8 in overtime. It was a familiar outcome for Lemieux, who was 4-0 at The Blue Cross Arena during the 2021 UCBLL campaign.
"It felt good to play there again" said the 24-year-old forward following the Wings’ victory. "I was familiar with it after playing there in the summer a few years back. It was a great feeling winning the game in front of my friends and family."
His season in the Upstate Collegiate Box Lacrosse League helped solidify him as a first-round pick in the National Lacrosse League Entry Draft. Lemieux's path to the NLL began in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, and made several stops along the way, eventually taking him back to the Flower City before reaching Philadelphia.
The Roberts Wesleyan attackman returned to Rochester in 2021 after COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the Ontario Lacrosse Association Junior A league. Lemieux had two solid seasons to his credit in Burlington, but missing his final junior season could have impacted his NLL draft stock.
As players scrambled for playing opportunities, Lemieux did not have to look far to find a suitable alternative. Lemieux was in luck as that summer, USBOXLA expanded to western New York with the founding of the UCBLL.
Playing in the league, which included talented players from the US, Canada, and Indigenous communities, he had one last shot to impress the professional coaches and scouts before the September National Lacrosse League Entry Draft.
One of his Burlington teammates, Luke Pilcher, clued him in on the USBOXLA-backed college league.
"Yeah, Pilcher pushed me to play because I was waiting for the border to open up" said Lemieux. "Once I realized that it wasn't going to open up, it's kind of when I decided that I had to because it was my last summer (before the draft)."
Lemieux joined the Armory for the final three games of the regular season and helped the top team in the UCBLL lock up the number 1 seed for the Mearns Cup Playoffs. The hulky 6-2, 215-pound forward added another scorer to an offense loaded with talented players like Pilcher (RIT), Casey McDermott (Johns Hopkins), Joey Pezzimenti (Albany), and Kaleb Benedict.
Photo: Rochester Knighthawks
Lemieux scored two goals in each of his first three regular-season games and posted a pair of goals in the inaugural Mearns Cup Finals as the Armory knocked off the Hawkeyes 14-11. The Armory advanced to the National Collegiate Box Series (NCBS) National
Championships in San Jose with the win.
The lacrosse world converged on the suburban arena at the NCBS event, held at USBOXLA Nationals. With general managers, coaches, players, and scouts from the NLL watching, Lemieux put on an impressive display as he scored 11 goals and added five assists in five games. In the opening contest of the tournament, he propelled the Armory to an impressive 12-11 comeback win over the defending champion Rivermen of the Ohio Collegiate Box Lacrosse League (OCBLL).
The Armory fell behind 8-1 in the first half but rallied with 11 second-half goals. Lemieux helped fuel the rally, scoring two of his three goals in the third quarter as the Rochester club got within two at the end of the third at 10-8. Lemieux, who finished with five points, also dished out the game-winning assist as Camden Hay scored with just eight seconds to play.
Lemieux would help the Armory reach the NCBS Finals and posted one goal and one assist in the title game as the Armory fell in overtime to the Royals of the California Collegiate Box Lacrosse League (CACBLL). The Rochester forward was named to the All-NCBS First Team for his efforts.
"Hunter Lemieux was added late to the team, as he showed up and made his presence felt right away with his strength, size, and box lacrosse IQ, which was very impressive for an American player" said Armory head coach Ron Cogan. "I could tell he had some experience in the game of box lacrosse, and it showed.
“Hunter was one of the biggest contributors to our success at the national tournament in San Jose; he has that knack to make a big play when your team needs it. Hunter is a natural leader; he leads by example, he sets the tone for the team to see how to play the game, whether it's setting hard picks, or hustling back to shut off a fast break, or battling in the corners for loose balls. The team was very fortunate to have played alongside someone like Hunter, and I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to coach him. That summer is one that me and the team will never forget."
Pilcher, also named a first team all-star, praised Lemieux for his contributions to the Armory.
"Hunter is a great teammate, leader, and person" said Pilcher. "He consistently had a positive attitude and always gave 100 percent. It was a pleasure having Hunter join the Armory and helping us get to the championship in California."
Lemieux’s play in the UCBLL and NCBS National Championships attracted attention from the NLL scouting departments as representatives from the Knighthawks, Buffalo Bandits, and Halifax Thunderbirds watched Lemieux play. Ultimately, the Philadelphia Wings selected Lemieux in the first round. He was well known to Wings general manager and head coach Paul Day, as Lemieux was coached in Burlington by Wings defenseman Alex Crepinsek and then-Philadelphia forward Brett Hickey.
"In the first round of the draft, we were eager to draft Hunter Lemieux" said Day. "Hunter was at the top of our draft board, and when it looked like he was going to be available at 15, we were lucky enough to trade down to get another second-round pick for next year."
He was surrounded by friends and family as he heard his name announced in the first round during the virtual NLL Entry Draft. The Armory forward admitted that the season spent in the UCBLL impacted his development and helped him get on several teams' draft boards.
"I think it helped just being able to play for one more summer because of all the unknowns not playing for a whole summer" he said. "I think it was a great experience. It's one of the best leagues, and I think it was run better than many American leagues."
One Wings player who knows all about using his collegiate box experience in the pros is Lemieux's teammate Trevor Baptiste. Baptiste went from the Colorado Collegiate Box Lacrosse League to the Wings as a first-round selection in the 2018 draft. Baptiste, who has become of top faceoff men in the NLL, sees a ton of potential in the Wings' rookie forward.
"He has a lot of size. He's tough and can bang bodies," said Baptiste. "I am always extremely impressed with rookies coming in. Just by the nature of the NLL, it is tough to crack a roster as a rookie, especially as an offensive player. It takes a lot of skill just to be a part of it. But, he has gotten a lot of playing time this year, and I am excited to see him grow as a player."
Another player interested in Lemieux's development is Lakeview, NY native and Wings forward Joe Resetarits. Resetarits is one of a handful of American offensive players with Philadelphia, whose lineup includes also Blaze Riorden and Matt Rambo.
"For Hunter to play in Canada and the collegiate box league, he took the time to work toward his dream. And now that he's here, it's a cool story," said Resetarits. "He's a talented kid who keeps working every time he's out there and gets better every week. So, when he's in, he's done his job; he's going to get better, and you see flashes of what he can do and how talented he is."
Lemieux made an impact in his pro debut on December 17, scoring the game-winning goal with 2:29 left to give the Wings a 13-12 road victory. He buried a shot from in tight after several stick fakes to record his first NLL tally against the Georgia Swarm.
"I always say it's better to be lucky than good," joked Lemieux. "It felt good to get the first one, and I guess it was lucky to be the game winner."
He would notch his second goal of the season on January 20 against Panther City. So far this season, he has posted a pair of goals and one assist in six games. He admitted that the transition to the NLL has been a learning experience, as it is for most rookies.
"I would say that it is a lot different than anything I've played before," he said. "You can play as much box lacrosse as you want, but it's definitely a lot different when you play it at that level. All the guys in Philly are super supportive, which has helped with the jump (to the NLL)."
Lemieux was the first of six UCBLL players selected in the NLL Draft, which is the most of any NCBS league. Currently, he is the only one playing in the National Lacrosse League, with four of the players chosen in 2022 still playing collegiately. Lemieux knows the importance of playing in the league and encouraged high school and college students to play in the collegiate box lacrosse league.
“Do it. I think there's such a difference in playing box lacrosse rather than field lacrosse," he said. "Just being able to work in tight quarters, you see it in field lacrosse all the time, like forcing the middle and guys constantly dropping passes. I think that's the biggest difference, like being able to catch contested passes when there's a deep pull on you. It happens more seamlessly when you're constantly under pressure in box lacrosse. I think the development of this league will help players to have future success in box lacrosse."
About the NCBS
The National Collegiate Box Series (NCBS) was established by the US Box Lacrosse Association (USBOXLA) in 2018. First formed in 2017, the Colorado Collegiate Box Lacrosse League (CCBLL) predates the formation of the NCBS, joining the series when it was officially launched a year later. In 2018, the Ohio Collegiate Box Lacrosse League (OCBLL) was established with teams based in Columbus and Cleveland. In 2019, the OCBLL's Rivermen won the inaugural NCBS National Championship beating the CCBLL's Fighting Bison at the 2019 USBOXLA Nationals. In 2021, the Upstate Collegiate Box Lacrosse League (UCBLL), Connecticut Collegiate Box Lacrosse League (CTCBLL), and California Collegiate Box Lacrosse League (CACBLL) played their inaugural seasons. The 2021 NCBS National Champions were the CACBLL Royals. In 2022, the NCBS added the Mid Atlantic Collegiate Box League League (MACBLL).
Photo: Rochester Knighhawks