Over the past two years, Wes Berg has been busy.
While his lacrosse loaded agenda was already spilling over the sides pre-2014, he’s been particularly popular since.
At 21-years-old, Berg bagged an unlikely gold medal with Canada at the 2014 FIL World Championships in Denver.
He followed that up with a Senior season rewriting collegiate lacrosse history books when the Denver Pioneers won their first National Championship, a tournament Berg was also named most outstanding in. When you score as many goals solo as the opposition’s entire roster does (Berg scored five times in Denver’s 10-5 title-clinching W over Maryland), a most outstanding anything only seems natural.
The 188 DI goals he finished with tie him for seventh all-time in NCAA history too, sandwiched in-between legends like Gary Gait (192) and Tom Marechek (182). No big deal.
Last summer Berg played Senior ‘A’ ball in Canada, was a first round draft pick in the National Lacrosse League, is currently one of the indoor league’s top rookies, and also works with the US Box Lacrosse Association and their academy to grow the game at the grass roots level in the US.
Like we said, he’s been kinda busy lately.
Berg’s built an ambidextrous resume that makes him maybe the best spokesperson for the box game in the US. USBOXLA goes 1-on-1 with one of today’s top lacrosse talents, but also one of the best examples as why developing box lacrosse in the US – the right way – is an absolute no-brainer.
Photo Credits: Coquitlam Adanacs by Ward Laforme Jr., University of Denver by Will Schneekloth and Calgary Roughnecks by Candice Ward/Calgary Roughnecks.
So we know you as a Coquitlam guy, but depending on where you go online, your hometown also comes up as New Westminster. Double life?
No, no, no. I’m from Coquitlam 100%. I’ve seen that too though. Not sure what happened. Was posted wrong once years ago and comes up the odd time.
So before any national championships, gold medals or Minto Cups, how did your lacrosse career get started in Coquitlam, where not playing lacrosse is frowned upon?
Exactly. I started really young. Think I’ve had a stick in my hand since the age of one. I used to crawl around the arenas with it while my older brother was playing mini-tyke. When I was 8-years-old, the Coquitlam Senior ‘A’ Adanacs had loaded up their team with guys like John Grant, Colin Doyle and Kim Squire. They ended up winning the Mann Cup that summer. To be able to walk down the street and see the greatest players in the world playing lacrosse was amazing.
Coquitlam has really showcased a strong developmental system in recent years too.
Yup you’re right. A big reason for that is the quality of their coaching. I was fortunate enough to have been coached by Dan Perreault through most of my minor playing days. You’d usually have an assistant from Senior helping out too. And you look at the Junior ‘A’ program today, there might not be one better over the past decade. We’ve won the past seven BCJALL league titles, and that’s a testament to the program they run. For me, it made a big difference to be brought up within Coquitlam’s system.
What do you remember from that 2001 Mann Cup winning Coquitlam side you watched as a kid?
It was really cool being able to watch them play. This was NLL quality lacrosse, if not better at the time, and it was in my backyard. That was also the year it was held at the Pacific Coliseum, which for summer lacrosse was very cool to see. Looking back, I was pretty lucky to have been able to have watched that team up close like that.
Although at the time you were only a 17-year-old Intermediate call up, you played for an unbelievably good Coquitlam Junior ‘A’ team that won over 30 games and lost only twice all season en route to a Minto Cup. What was that like?
Being so young, I didn’t really know what to expect, I just wanted to play and contribute. You look back on it now and realize how good that team was. There was probably close to 15 players on that team that today play in the NLL, which is unheard of. People were saying how strong the Orangeville Northmen were that year, which they were, but we ended up beating them three times in the Minto. Our offense was so good. We had the likes of Mark Matthews, Robert Church, Ben McIntosh and a bunch of other guys that could all produce, and defensively we were strong too. Plus, we were able to win that Minto on our home floor, which made it even more special. It was an unforgettable summer.
That season also marked Curt Malawsky’s first year guiding the Adanacs, the same coach you now have in the NLL. What has “Mouse” taught you?
I can’t even explain how much I learned from him then and now. He brings another level of intensity to his teams. He helped me grow as a player and I feel fortunate to have him coaching me again in the NLL, hopefully for many more years to come.
Over the last decade, that 2010 Coquitlam team is the only B.C. side to win the Minto Cup, the rest of course coming from Ontario. Why do you think it’s been so difficult for B.C. to compete at that stage?
Well, from just a numbers game, Ontario has a bigger pool to pick from, which obviously helps a lot. That we can’t really do much about. In Ontario though, you’ll see teams kind of band together leading up to the trade deadline a little better than B.C. does. There’s teams in B.C. that just don’t really like one another, and are maybe unwilling to make the deadline deals you see in Ontario, whose stronger sides get two or three top players from teams that know they have no chance. Those deadline day players can often make a big difference by filling in a hole or providing much needed depth. I think that all-for-one mentality has helped Ontario gain an edge when it comes to the Minto Cup.
The Minto Cup format is changing again this year, going back to a round robin style versus the more traditional seven game series. What are your thoughts on the seemingly never-ending changes the format keeps getting?
I actually don’t mind the round robin or tournament style part of it, as long as the final is decided by more than one game, which I don’t think necessarily decides the best team. A best-of-three, best-of-five if possible, but not just a single game to close it out. We’ve seen one bad call or lucky break decide games in lacrosse, and I would hate for a Minto to come down to that. With the round robin I think we’ve seen teams dirtying it up less, which you typically get in a best-of-seven. I like the win-to-get-in approach the round robin provides too. I’m not sure what the perfect answer is, but I don’t mind a round robin style as long as the final is determined by a series of games.
How did you end up playing DI lacrosse at the University of Denver?
Well, Mark Matthews, who I already knew, was going there when I checked out the school. He had good things to say. I knew hockey players that went there too, and they had nothing but good things to say. They had a strong business program, which was important to me. And then when you go out to visit the DU campus, it’s extremely impressive. With Bill Tierney there and of course Matt Brown, there was a real buzz around the program and their future. At the end of the day, it wasn’t a difficult decision.
Bill Tierney and Matt Brown – a dominating collegiate coaching tandem past, present and most probably future too. How did they impact you?
I’ve been fortunate to play for Brown not just at Denver but with the U19’s and the national team too. He’s been amazing for my career. What he’s accomplished both with Denver and Canada is remarkable. And Bill Tierney’s resume clearly speaks for itself. He has that ability to always get the best out of his players and knows how to build a winning program. I can’t say enough about either of them.
2015 was obviously a magical year for the Pioneers. Two moments really stick out. The first being the overtime winner you rifled against #1 ranked Notre Dame in the semi-finals.
Well, we have a pretty strong rivalry with Notre Dame, but that was kind of secondary really. We had a good team all four years that I was there. Every time we got knocked out in previous years, it was always by a goal or two, and I think all the guys my age on that team were just sick and tired of being so close year after year. We wanted to win more than anything. To beat Notre Dame the way we did was incredible. I think most considered that game the national championship because we were both so strong. It was a nerve-racking but memorable game for sure.
And then that second moment was obviously your dominating 10-5 win over Maryland in the final, where DU was so suffocating from start to finish.
We went into that game thinking there was absolutely no way any team was going to rob us of winning the national title. There was just no way. I think Maryland maybe ran out of juice by that time, and we just felt we were destined for this no matter what shape they were in. No one was taking that moment from us.
Want to rewind back to the semi-final quickly. The Irish had stormed back late to force that one into OT after you guys looked like you had your title ticket stamped. Not sure Notre Dame could have asked for a bigger boost or momentum swing. A DU W seemed unlikely. What was the vibe on the sidelines after the fourth finished?
As much as you want to stay positive, I’d be lying to say I didn’t feel a bit anxious after the way we let them come back. They had all the momentum and we had none. Mentally, that’s difficult to move past for sure. But with that said, we were confident. We knew that Trevor Baptiste could win that opening face-off in OT. We had a plan in place, we knew what we would run depending on what they showed us, and we ran that plan to perfection. Even with everything that had just taken place, we maintained focus. It was a defining moment for us.
One thing it didn’t seem DU lacked last year was confidence. It showed in your play and when coaches and players spoke. You guys seemed mentally tough all year.
Most definitely. That was a big theme for us all year. Even bringing in Coach (John) Orsen to our defense, he put in a lot of stuff to make our defense more aggressive, they dictated play a lot more, which maybe we didn’t have in the past. We had that same philosophy on offense too. We were going to dictate our destiny. We adapted when we needed to. We had confidence in ourselves. That confidence was what finally pushed us to where we needed to be.
Soon after that, you were drafted into the NLL by the Calgary Roughnecks, a team that on paper seemed like a perfect fit for you. Do you know if you were close to going anywhere else?
Other teams did talk to me, but to be honest, I really wanted to end up in Calgary. That was where I wanted to be. My mum is from Calgary and we have a lot of family in that area. Obviously having Curt coaching there was a positive for me too. Plus I knew a bunch of the guys on the team already. I was crossing my fingers during those first three picks that Georgia or Rochester didn’t take me. No knock on the other teams, but I was pretty happy when Calgary got me with that fourth overall pick.
With almost a full regular season in the books, what’s been the biggest adjustment you’ve had to make in the NLL?
The flow of the games in this league are a lot different. Seems like there’s always either a TV timeout, a break to let the cheerleaders on or someone is shooting t-shirts out into the crowd. In Junior I was used to playing pretty much 20 minutes straight through unless there was an injury on the floor. All the breaks in the NLL can really alter the flow of a game. As an offensive guy, I want to be out there, getting a feel for the flow and pace, but in the NLL sometimes I feel I have my stick sitting on the ground for up to ten minutes. Obviously the speed and skill level has forced me to adjust and adapt too. You’re playing against the best players in the world every game, which you don’t get anywhere else obviously.
You play in Major League Lacrosse with the Denver Outlaws too. This year we’re seeing the most significant overlap between the NLL and MLL schedules. We’ve seen some players strictly focus their energy on one league, opting not to miss a minute of their preferred loop, while others like yourself will only jump into the MLL season partway through the year. Is there a solution?
It would be nice obviously to have both leagues figure something out to avoid that overlap. At the same time, if you do that, some of us would be playing virtually every month of the year, which isn’t realistic or probably healthy. Both leagues are also forced to play primarily on weekends since this isn’t a full-time thing, so to squeeze the schedules by incorporating weekdays isn’t really possible either. It’d be nice to figure something out, but I’m not really sure how it’s possible in the current state.
Do you plan on playing Canadian Senior ‘A’ ball again this year?
Yup, I’ll be playing for Oakville again. The plan was to play in Oakville for two years and then hopefully back in Coquitlam after that.
It seems like fewer and fewer top tier names are playing Senior ‘A’ lacrosse, with most teams playing in front of empty stands during the regular season and even playoffs. Where do you see Senior level lacrosse heading?
Well you see Peterborough and Victoria draw really well, but not much past that. I don’t get the same feeling I got when I was 8 and watched that Coquitlam team we talked about. It’s definitely changed both on and off the floor. You see a lot of WLA (Western Lacrosse Association) teams bringing in guys that can barely play lacrosse and are just looking to take people’s heads off. Guys are questioning if playing that kind of lacrosse is worth it. I think there is still that appeal to represent a Senior team in your backyard, but it’s definitely not like it used to be. I think a lot of players are asking themselves if it’s worth injuring yourself in the summer and jeopardizing your NLL season as a result. I’ve heard the stories of how great playing in places like Brampton and Brooklin was decades back. Today you play in those cities and there’s maybe five people in the stands. On the other hand, you go to a place like Peterborough today, and it’s got almost an NLL type feel to it. But you’re right, the landscape is changing.
You were still in college when you won gold with Canada at the 2014 FIL World Championships, beating the US on American soil.
We won in states, but it was still special for me because it was in Denver. Anytime you get to play for your country is special. And to be involved in that rivalry between Canada and the US was unreal. A lot of people wrote us off after the first game (the US beat Canada 10-7 to open the tournament) and didn’t think we had much of a chance since the US looked so strong, again. To band together as a country, with guys I either grew up watching or playing with, and then to win gold… not much more I can say except that it was special.
Canadian field players always get American applause for the superior stick skills they developed playing box lacrosse, but what did that gold medal win say about Canadian coaching, strategizing and an ability to adapt in a version of the game Canada is still told their second best in?
I recently watched the 2006 gold medal game when Canada won in London (ON). Geoff Snider was so dominating at the face-off circle and yeah, we had guys with incredible hands that could get their shot off so quick. We had definitely gained a rep for that and it’s what most think of when they talk about Canadian field lacrosse. But when we won in 2014, I think we showed we could really strategize defensively and showed that Canada can be just as athletic as the US too. We were able to shut the US down in the gold medal game because of that. They were kind of dumbfounded by what we showed them and clearly frustrated. They weren’t expecting that obviously. A lot of people might have been pissed off that we were holding the ball too long, not going to the net enough, but we played within the rules and used that strategy to our advantage. The US was afraid to force our hand because of what they thought might happen if they moved, and because of that, we won gold. I think as a country we’re showing we’re more than just a nation with superior stick skills for sure.
In addition to everything else you have on the go right now, you’re also a certified USBOXLA instructor and coach, working alongside the likes of Matt Brown, Jamie Shewchuck and others in Denver to teach legitimate box lacrosse to youth. What has USBOXLA done for the indoor game in the US?
I think what USBOXLA has done is awesome. Before USBOXLA, kids were basically playing a version of field lacrosse in an indoor soccer arena. It wasn’t real box lacrosse. No one understood the rules, or even worse, wore the proper equipment. If these kids playing that version went to Canada to play, it wouldn’t have even been a game. But with the way USBOXLA has done it, it’s made a huge difference. They come in and not only teach the players the right way to play, they teach coaches and refs the right way too, which is so important. Kids are finally learning the game properly in the US and we’re starting to see real growth. And then you see the teams they bring up to Canada, and these US kids can play!
In field lacrosse, these kids get told they’re a long pole or whatever, and that’s all they get to play. How fun is that? Meanwhile in box lacrosse, these kids are playing all over the floor, they are constantly touching the ball, the action is non-stop. As far as lacrosse development, I think what box offers is exactly what kids in any country really need.
A former NLL GM once said, “American kids and parents don’t want to play real box lacrosse. It’s not for them.” Thoughts? Do US youth like legit box lacrosse?
100% they do! From everything I’ve seen running USBOXLA camps, they love it. I’d even go as far to say US kids like box lacrosse more than field once they get exposed to it properly. Ask the kids we coach in Denver. I bet most would rather play box than field if they had to pick one. Obviously I’m a little biased, but I think box is the better game. It’s faster, it’s more exciting, there’s way more going on, there’s no standing around. The balls always in play. The 30-second shot clock keeps things moving at a good pace. You make a bad pass in box, and it’s not a big deal, because your team will have it again half a minute later or less. In field, a middie runs up the field and make a bad pass, his team might not have it again for another five minutes. For development and fun, how does playing only that style help kids grow?
On the other hand, if you don’t teach box the right way, then it’s not going to be fun for any kid. What sport is fun when you don’t have rules or proper coaching? What sport is fun when you don’t have the proper equipment on? What kid wants to go on the floor in box and get beat up because they’re wearing field stuff and no real box pads to protect them? When you don’t do it right, of course it’s not fun. Done right, box lacrosse is the best. I definitely don’t agree with that GM’s statement.
I think what USBOXLA is doing is one of the most exciting things going on in lacrosse right now. What they’re doing is huge for the growth of the game. I can’t wait to see where they continue to take this.