Last year, just 13 American players appeared in a National Lacrosse League regular season game.
Mitch Belisle, Kevin Buchanan, Greg Downing, David Earl, Ryan Hotaling, Mike Manley, Brett Manney, Brian Megill, Chris O’Dougherty, John Ranagan, Joey Resetaritis, Joe Walters and Joel White make up that oh-so-little list. Some might attempt to argue the dual-citizenshipped Earl out of that conversation, but after growing up in Connecticut on grass not concrete, he definitely gets included with this red, white and blue bunch.
After some off-season roster rearranging and more likely to come leading up to the 2017 campaign, there’s a very good chance we’ll see even fewer Americans in the league this upcoming season than maybe ever before. Or will we?
The Toronto Rock recently and shockingly traded for the rights of current field lacrosse frontman and former NLLer Paul Rabil. This past week they also surprisingly signed Major League Lacrosse standouts Tom Schreiber and Kieran McArdle. For a franchise that has only had three true Americans play for them over their 18-year history – Kevin Finneran, Bill McGlone and Eric Law – to say these transactions were unexpected or out of character would be putting it mildly.
With that said, the moves have sparked significant discussion surrounding both leagues, much of that chatter centered around athlete availability and a lack of real box-specific experience in today’s hopeful American pro player.
In large part, it’s those two roadblocks that have transitioned a league once built on the backs of an army of eager and athletic Americans, to one that now barely boasts a dozen US players across nine franchises.
The availability matter is one for the pro leagues to figure out between themselves, if of course either is even all that turned off by the current climate.
Rabil has made it quite clear that he can no longer play in the NLL due to the league’s overlapping schedules. His stance has garnered mixed responses.
The backend of the NLL’s campaign clearly spills into the MLL’s training camp and – this year at least – 25 regular season games. Rabil and many other Americans are not prepared to shortchange their primary loop, teammates, fans, media and even sponsors. Can you blame them? In any other pro sport, if your top (healthy) player was a no-show for training camp let alone a single regular season contest, they’d be put on blast instantaneously. Their reps would be ruined. Trades surely demanded through social media by team supporters. It would undoubtedly get ugly.
While some NLLers currently skip out on early MLL action, few if any have ever been absent from their NLL gig in order to play outdoors when their teammates first hit the field.
An (on the surface) impressive 32 players that played during the 2016 NLL season also competed in the MLL this year. The current MLL regular season is 14 games long. Not a single one of the 32 players fit into 14 games. In fact, the average games played from that player pool was just about seven starts. Would Rock management, teammates and fans be cool if Rabil played just half their season this upcoming year? Not likely. Clearly Rabil isn’t OK with that scenario either.
In regards to the seemingly somewhat strained relationship between the two leagues, MLL commissioner Dave Gross recently explained to Lax Sports Network:
We have different business interests right now. There’s not a good guy or bad guy in this situation. If anything, when we talk to TV networks, they keep pushing us to start earlier and end a little bit earlier. Both leagues just have to look out for what their best interest is. In a partnership you have to have trust, and I think we have to build that first with that league before we could do anything with them.
At the end of the day, like Gross stated, the NLL and MLL are businesses. They are businesses that have to make the right decisions for their own growth, for their own personal financial health and ultimately, for what makes the most sense for themselves, their players and their fans.
This whole overlap ordeal isn’t as easy a fix as some seem to think. Good luck to both Gross and the now not-so-new NLL commissioner Nick Sakiewicz on finding a workable solution, if again, either feels one is required.
The second issue, however, is already being addressed. Not by either pro league, but by the US Box Lacrosse Association, who have been teaching real box lacrosse to youth across America since 2010. Currently, USBOXLA has over eight thousand registered members, making the association the biggest box-specific group in the country. No one else comes even slightly close.
Prior to USBOXLA setting up shop, the box lacrosse landscape in the US, especially at the youth levels, was an unsanctioned disaster. Earlier this year, Colorado Mammoth President and General Manager Steve Govett stated:
In the US, it really is the wild west when it comes to youth box lacrosse. It’s a complete free-for-all. There’s other groups basically just doing whatever the heck they want, whether they know what they’re doing or not. It’s shocking really.
Last year, the NLL’s Mammoth partnered with USBOXLA member LXTC to form easily one of the biggest youth box lacrosse leagues in the country. The inaugural season was a hit with players, parents, coaches and pretty much everyone involved. The Mammoth have been one of the few state-side NLL franchises to put this amount of time, effort and financing into properly building the game from the ground up.
Shortly after signing with the Rock, Schreiber said, “Like most American lacrosse players, I have very little indoor experience…” In the not so distant future, that statement will be far from accurate.
But when it comes to today, Schreiber is 100% right. Over the NLL’s 30 years of existence, most Americans that have suited up in the league had little to zero box experience prior to being drafted or taking part in their first training camp.
The American impact on this now Canadian-heavy rostered loop has been, well, an interesting story to say the least. It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster, but stability isn’t far off.
The NLL (first titled the Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse League and then the Major Indoor Lacrosse League) was founded by two Americans – Russ Cline and Chris Fritz – neither of which knew much about the sport when looking for a new project to promote in the mid-80s. In 2000, the CBC described their entry into the game:
In 1984, I left the Kansas City Chiefs organization to start my own business with Chris in sports and entertainment,” said Cline. “We decided to come up with a sport for the 21st century, for the one that we’re in now. We heard about box lacrosse in Canada. We thought, ‘Wow this is unbelievable,’ because this was not exposed at all in the United States.” Originally, they wanted the game to be played on roller blades, but quickly abandoned the idea when they saw a tape of how violent and fast the sport already was.
While box lacrosse was a distinctly Canadian and Native game, the early days of the NLL saw rosters saturated with Americans.
In comparison to the box being played in Canada at the time, early NLL action looked drastically different, mainly due to the fact Americans were playing it in their own unique way. The game lacked the skill and finesse players from Canada could pull off effortlessly (especially with their sticks), but it was faster, more athletic and at times more physical than north of the border believe it or not. It might not have been real box lacrosse, but it was entertaining as hell and became a cult hit not long after opening night.
Here’s what the league looked like coming out of the 80s and into the 90s…
Rosters were made up primarily of Americans, although some Canadian and Native players also found spots in the league both on the floor and in management roles. Make no mistake about it though, the Eagle and MILL were the American response to Canadian box lacrosse, and fans loved it.
Change was coming.
More and more players from Canada would make their way to the league, slowly altering the way teams played, the way they managed their rosters and even how they drafted. During the league’s initial 13 seasons, the first American selected in the NLL’s entry draft was either taken first, second or third overall, never any lower. Since then, that number has slipped significantly.
|Draft Year||1st American Drafted||Team Drafted By||Overall Pick|
|1988||David Desko||New England Blazers||1|
|1989||Brendan Kelly||Pittsburgh Bulls||1|
|1990||Tim Hormes||Pittsburgh Bulls||2|
|1991||Neil Ringers||Boston Blazers||2|
|1992||Jim Buczek||Pittsburgh Bulls||1|
|1993||John Webster||Philadelphia Wings||1|
|1994||Ryan Wade||Philadelphia Wings||2|
|1995||Brian Piccola||New York Saints||1|
|1996||Tim Langton||New York Saints||1|
|1997||Brendan Glass||Boston Blazers||2|
|1998||Casey Powell||Rochester Knighthawks||1|
|1999||Mark Frye||New York Saints||3|
|2000||Ryan Powell||Buffalo Bandits||2|
|2001||Brendan Shook||Columbus Landsharks||16|
|2002||Josh Coffman||Albany Attack||8|
|2003||Josh Bergey||Toronto Rock||8|
|2004||Ryan Boyle||San Jose Stealth||3|
|2005||Ed Brown||San Jose Stealth||11|
|2006||Jack Reid||Rochester Knighthawks||10|
|2007||Frank Resetarits||San Jose Stealth||5|
|2008||Paul Rabil||San Jose Stealth||2|
|2009||Max Seibald||Boston Blazers||8|
|2010||Ned Crotty||Colorado Mammoth||11|
|2011||Joel White||Rochester Knighthawks||10|
|2012||Joey Resetarits||Calgary Roughnecks||6|
|2013||Tucker Durkin||Philadelphia Wings||19|
|2014||Zach Rogers||Colorado Mammoth||32|
|2015||Tim Edwards||Buffalo Bandits||36|
|2016||Matt Kavanagh||Georgia Swarm||28|
It was clear, the Canadians and Natives that grew up playing the indoor game, excelled in the NLL at a greater rate than most Americans. That’s not to say US-born players weren’t also some of the game’s most elite, but it was a far cry from what we witnessed in the 80s and most of the 90s.
That list of 13 players that opened this piece is kind of depressing. Not due to the players themselves, all of them are quality contributors, but just the fact that that number is so incredibly small. Those 13 Americans made up about 6% of NLL rosters in 2016, likely the lowest total the league has ever seen.
Even more depressing was last month’s NLL entry draft. 57 players were selected on draft night, but only three of them American. If you’re trying to put a positive spin on those slim US selections, this year’s three is one more than 2014’s record-setting low of two. In 2015, just three Americans were taken. None of these prospects have seen a single minute of NLL action since being drafted.
In 2008, even while Canadians continued to hog more NLL roster spots than any other nationality, the entry draft that year was a smashing success for Americans. Rabil went second overall to San Jose, while four other Americans were also taken in the first round – Kevin Huntley (see Earl’s reasoning), Matt Danowski, Kevin Buchanan and Joe Cinosky.
Unfortunately, due to various reasons, only Buchanan still remains in the NLL today, and most of the 32 US-born players drafted that year barely found a roster spot let alone playing time.
That likely US record-setting NLL class (42% of picks were American that year) also interestingly ignited a draft day decline like the league had never seen before. General managers across the board just simply stopped drafting Americans, who due to those previously mentioned problems – availability and experience – were slowly becoming extinct.
|Draft Year||Total Picks||Americans Drafted||% of Americans Drafted||Americans in 1st Rd|
A total of 18 drafts have gone by since Casey Powell was taken first overall by the Rochester Knighthawks in 1998. That was the last time an NLL franchise has taken an American with that very first selection.
Even while the US player pool was shrinking, Powell became the first American to capture the league’s MVP award in 2010 with the Orlando Titans. Other Americans have impressed during these down days as well, even as recently as this past season. Like previously stated, there may only be 13 NLLers today, but most of those 13 are highly regarded talent.
Joe Walters, considered by many to be one of the league’s all-time best US-born players, was a key cog in the Rochester Knighthawks’ recent Cup run. Although ignored by NLL voters, most media considered Joel White last year’s top transitional threat. Look at Greg Downing’s defensive digits from last year. The Mammoth free agent steal was statistically one of the best defenders not only in Denver but anywhere in the NLL.
Americans may not be filling up NLL rosters like they did decades ago, but their presence is still felt, just to a lesser degree.
With no American Hockey League equivalent and no effective grass roots system previously put into place, proven Canadian skill, which was now more athletic than ever due to the recent red and white collegiate revolution, has taken over the NLL and pushed aside eager Americans looking for a shot. Teams need to win, and the formula for success in today’s NLL doesn’t have room for scheduling conflicts or lack of immediate ability.
While signing Schreiber and McArdle like Toronto did are great headline grabbers, those two highly skilled field lacrosse superstars still have to transition those skills indoors and actually make the team. That’s no easy task. The fact they are offensive players makes that jump even more difficult. Of those often mentioned 13, only Buchanan, Resetarits and Walters have played offense-first roles in this league (Note: Resetarits and Walters have also spent time playing summer lacrosse in Canada). Nailing down the nuances of a forward’s skillset versus that of a defender, who can typically thrive indoors on athleticism, toughness and sound decision making, isn’t a fake it ‘til you make it type environment.
Over the last decade, only six offensively gifted Americans have cracked the NLL’s top 20 regular season leaderboard (points): Casey Powell (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011), Drew Westervelt (2010), Brendan Mundorf (2012), Brian Langtry (2009), Ryan Powell (2008) and Ryan Boyle (2007).
The Rock, who need to replace the likes of Josh Sanderson (retired), Rob Hellyer (injured) and potentially leader Colin Doyle (rumored retirement) on their offense this year, are going a replenishment route through Schreiber and McArdle that most US-based franchises haven’t even attempted in recent seasons. Before snagging a roster spot, however, this US duo will need to learn how to play indoors, let alone replace that tremendously skilled Toronto trio.
If only they and so many other Americans were exposed to box growing up, right?
Unlike the Rock’s recent pickups, American youth are now being exposed to the box game at an early age through USBOXLA member clubs all across the country.
Even just a few years ago, you’d be hard pressed to find a kid living in Utah that knew the NLL existed let alone wanting to play in it after college. Today, those kids exist.
“I would love to play in the NLL, especially as an American,” said Logan Dempsey, who lives in South Jordan (Utah) and played for Team USBOXLA U18 during this past summer’s #bctour. Committed to DII’s Adam State University, Dempsey has impressed enough to garner interest from Canadian Intermediate and Junior clubs. “It is something I have started working on since I went up to Canada for a summer in 2015,” he added. “I went up and made an Intermediate ‘A’ team as a first-year American and I thought, ‘Hey maybe this could work out for me.’ So ever since then I have been working toward that dream.”
He’s not the only one.
“It would be an honor to play in the National Lacrosse League,” said Aaron Boyd, who competed alongside Dempsey during this year’s U18 tour and will soon be playing for USBOXLA Co-Founder and University of Denver Associate Head Coach Matt Brown at DU. “If the opportunity were ever to present itself, I wouldn’t hesitate in the slightest to play,” he said. “That would be awesome!”
Boyd will get his fair share of box playing for the Pioneers too, a program that has incorporated box into their regular training regime under Brown’s guidance. DU players also help coach both field and box at Brown’s LXTC/Denver Elite program, a group he co-founded with Bill and Trevor Tierney in 2009 when the three coaches took over the University of Denver men’s lacrosse program.
Denver Elite product Carter Jensen, a regular on Team USBOXLA tours, spent this past summer playing Junior ‘A’ lacrosse for the iconic New Westminster Salmonbellies. He too hopes the NLL could one day be in his future, but admits the part-time pro loop would need to jive with whatever his primary career ends up being. “I would love to play in the NLL one day,” said Jensen, who’ll be playing for DI newbie Cleveland State this upcoming college season. “If the opportunity provided itself where I could pursue a career and play I would definitely take it. I love box lacrosse and it would be a dream to play in the NLL.”
Dempsey, Boyd and Carter are part of a growing group that will be more equipped for a career in the NLL than any generation before them. They’ll have the high-box IQ, proven on-floor experience and passion for box lacrosse that GMs today aren’t used to seeing in US-born prospects.
USBOXLA has ensured that American youth are finally playing and learning the game the right way, and while scholarships (and fun) are usually the main motivator for improving their game through box, a career in the currently Canadian dominated NLL is something Americans are now chasing too.
So don’t get too hung up on those lonely 13. While that stat may not spike as early as this upcoming season, a surge is surely coming. Canadians may have attacked NLL (and collegiate) rosters in the 90s, but the Americans are preparing to counter, and this time, with more than just eagerness and enthusiasm.
It will still take time, but anything worth doing right always does. USBOXLA and it’s soon to be nine thousand members are doing just that.
Hey NLL, see you soon.
– The United States of America
Photos: NLL and Paul Rabil with Team USA photos provided by Larry Palumbo. Paul Rabil action photo provided by Zach Heffner. USBOXLA photos provided by Sherri Thomson.