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A safer era for the sport has Americans dreaming of the box big leagues

By Paul Tutka, 08/24/18, 6:15AM PDT


Many of today's Team USBOXLA players dream of one day competing in the NLL (Photo: Sherri Thomson)

It wasn’t that long ago that both amateur box lacrosse and the professional platform for the game, the National Lacrosse League, were likened more to pro wrestling than a serious sport in the United States.

During the first half of the NLL’s existence, previously known as both the Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse League and Major Indoor Lacrosse League, the vibe was often vicious, reckless and filled with fights that made ice hockey brawls seem composed in comparison. The violent video evidence can still be found on YouTube, complete with digital rubbernecking view counts and comments. 

Sure, during the 90s and 2000s some arenas were rammed with rabid, often blood thirsty supporters of the NLL and their favorite franchise, but that no-holds-barred game play and promotion proved unsustainable long term.

Times changed. The sport, for the most part, didn’t. 

Plenty of pops were pounded, merch tables mauled, and of course a steady stream of game-day tickets sold, but one thing was largely lacking… kids. And that lack of youthfulness would soon negatively impact the league and many of the franchises that previously packed their home barns. Although other club-crippling conditions can be cited, the league’s overall approach on-and-off the floor was not working for most markets. 

American youth can now not only watch their favorite pro team as a fan, but also play for their Jr. NLL program too (Photo: Knighthawks Academy)

Of course, there were American-based youngsters in the stands screaming alongside their old man, but like their parental units, they were often fans not functioning players partaking in the game on weekends. Canadian teams, largely the Toronto Rock, seemed to buck that trend when they entered the league in 1999 with whipped-up boys whirling their tees in the air after the home team netted another. The Canadian kids played at the rink and partied in pro stands, a perfect formula for extended growth from grassroots to Rock game days. 

Or was it? 

Fast forward to today and box lacrosse participation across most of Canada is dwindling at alarming rates. The kids that begged their parents for seats at the ACC were not only no longer longing to see their favorite star players. A decade or so ago other franchises, like the recently returning Philadelphia Wings, turned up the family-friendly dial in an attempt to salvage the season tickets they once sold out of, but whether it was too little too late or the approach was just too heavy handed, it clearly didn’t work.

In 2018, the box lacrosse landscape in the US is significantly different. American youth are finally playing the sport. Not the way those viral videos on YouTube glorified the gruesomeness of the game, but through safety, structure and skill. The US Box Lacrosse Association has over 18,000 members currently with players, coaches and officials training and competing all over the country. Soaring stateside stats like this had never been seen and are currently showing no signs of slowing down. 

From California to Connecticut, more Americans are playing box lacrosse than ever before (Photo: Sherri Thomson)

The NLL too has made major strides that seem to be paying off. The league highlights skill over sucker punches, finesse over fighting, and has cleaned up their one-time barbaric reputation. Instead of promoting and allowing craniums to be crushed by flying fists, the NLL has made player safety, including concussion awareness and prevention, a pivotal part of their overall strategy. With the help of Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz, the league has recently welcomed back the Wings, added a franchise in San Diego, sold the Vancouver Stealth to the NHL’s Canucks, and will enter the 2019 season with more teams than they’ve had since 2010. 

The Colorado Mammoth, who seemed to find the right balance of good, clean family fun and that party atmosphere reminiscent of the league’s early days, have been a model franchise in that regard. The club has committed to not only enticing youth to watch their games, but playing the sport as well, soon entering their fourth year of USBOXLA-sanctioned programming

Between the work done by USBOXLA and the NLL in recent years, the sport of box lacrosse in the US, from top to bottom, has never thrived quite like it is today. 

Prior to his unexpected and tragic death this past December, Dave Huntley joined USBOXLA in an official capacity as both a club director and a consultant for National Collegiate Box Series leagues. A legend in the sport really in any available role you could serve, Huntley spent much of his life living in the US, but was born and bred in the Toronto area, his home. 

During the summer of 2017, Dave spent time at Toronto-area rinks watching various levels of box, including a bunch of Junior ‘A’ lacrosse. He was largely disappointed and discouraged with what he saw. 

Dave Huntley was inspired to make the sport of box lacrosse safer and more skilled for North American youth (Photo: Matt J. Wiater)

Huntley spoke of the same unnecessarily violent style of lacrosse that plagued the NLL during the pro game’s beginnings, even describing one Junior ‘A’ contest where police were required due to the ugliness between two clubs that had gone well beyond a heated on-floor rivalry. He spoke of a version of the game that lacked respect, care and honor, even meeting with other Canadian lacrosse leaders during his stay to brainstorm ways to fix the sport he had loved all his life. 

What Dave witnessed last year worried him, that is, until he watched a Colorado Collegiate Box Lacrosse game online that same summer. 

“This is the future,” Huntley said during an NCBS conference call just months prior to is unfortunate passing, speaking of USBOXLA’s safety-first approach at all levels of the sport. “If the game is going to move forward, skill and safety have to be the first priorities. Parents will not sign their kids up for what I watched. They just won’t.”

With youth participation in Canada declining, although there are clearly other issues at play, Huntley’s assessment of the sport in his home nation certainly seem accurate. 

Right now, the NLL is largely made up of Canadian-born athletes. Although American participation has spiked ever so slightly in recent seasons, the totals are closer to all-time lows than record-breaking highs. 

That will change soon enough.

The CCBLL was an example of the type of box lacrosse Huntley hoped would become a blueprint for the sport in the US (Photo: Lacey Den Hartog)

This upcoming weekend, the NLL will be holding their Jr. NLL Tournament at the Toronto Rock Athletic Centre in Oakville, Ontario. While NLL rosters are made up of approximately just 6% US-born players, Jr. NLL teams are a helluva lot higher. Locals from cities in every American NLL market will be representing the pro club they cheer for, not far from where Dave Huntley grew up in fact. A huge supporter of youth box lacrosse in the US, Huntley would be no doubt be thrilled with what will take place this weekend. 

American youth can now not only be fans of an NLL franchise, but also play the sport in a safe, skilled and structured environment through USBOXLA. While the addition of new expansion teams and the launch of ground-breaking OTT platforms are critical for the league’s future success, dropping your child off at a rink and allowing them to play the sport the way it was intended to be played is that critical first step that so many in the industry had skipped for so many years. There are no shortcuts. 

As they do every June, USBOXLA sends a group of peewee, bantam and midget players to Coquitlam, British Columbia to participate in the prestigious Trevor Wingrove Memorial Tournament. The rosters, known as Team USBOXLA, make up the association’s national team program, and includes some of the very best American youth box lacrosse players competing in the country today. 

Even just several years back, there were not many American teens looking for a life in the NLL. US youth barely knew their local franchise name, let alone picturing themselves being drafted by them one day. There were some, surely, but with no outlet to play legitimate box, well, it’s the exact reason why just about a dozen Americans played in the NLL in 2018 (and only five played a full 18 game season). The NLL/MLL overlap doesn’t help, but that roadblock is insignificant when compared to the countless years of American youth not even knowing what legitimate box lacrosse looked like, let alone the opportunity to experience it on a regular basis like they do today. 

Of the nearly 75 Team USBOXLA players that represented the red, white and blue this year, nearly all of them said they dream of one day playing in the NLL, and unlike a decade or more ago, they’ll have the box-specific skills to turn fantasy into reality. 

Below, hear from Team USBOXLA standouts, some of whom will be in Oakville this weekend wearing a jersey they hope to again be sporting not simply as a fan, but a legit American-born pro player when they’re older. 

Team USBOXLA represents the very best of American youth box lacrosse (Photo: Sherri Thomson)

Q: Do you hope to one day play in the NLL?

“Yes, I do dream of playing in the NLL. I watch as many NLL highlights as I can on the NLL mobile app and then try to do them on my rebounder and net at home.” – Liam “Nitro” Andrews, Team USBOXLA Peewee & Minnesota Stars

“Yes! I dream of playing in the NLL and work toward that goal everyday.” – Judd Phillips, Team USBOXLA Bantam & Cali*Lax ALL-STARS

“Who wouldn’t want to play in the NLL?” – Danny Swingos, Team USBOXLA Bantam & Burning River Lacrosse (Ohio)

“Absolutely I want to play in the NLL. I dream of being an American playing as a goalie in the NLL one day.” – Andrew Williams, Team USBOXLA Midget & Minnesota Stars

“Yes. I am so excited to be able to play for the Jr. NLL in August too. I want to play lacrosse all the time! I want to play in college and keep going as far as I am able to with this sport. I love it!" – Bridger Hodne, Team USBOXLA Peewee & Denver Elite

“Absolutely! I want to be the first full-time female goalkeeper in the NLL. It doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl, it only matters if you can stop shots. I love that about box lacrosse. My goalie gear doesn’t have a tag saying it’s for a boy or a girl. It smells the same, bad!” – Angelina “Cheeto” Price, Team USBOXLA Peewee & Island Box Lacrosse (New York)

“I’ve wanted to play in the NLL since the day I first picked up a lacrosse stick.” – Cooper Ziler, Team USBOXLA Peewee & Cali*Lax ALL-STARS

Angelina "Cheeto" Price hopes to become just the second female in NLL history to crack a roster (Photo: Sherri Thomson)

“It is absolutely a dream of mine to play in the NLL. Coach Ben Prepchuk has been my coach on the Arizona Outlaws for the past three years. He has taught me so much about lacrosse and it would be amazing to follow in his footsteps.” – Ethan Tunucci, Team USBOXLA Bantam & Arizona Outlaws

“Playing in the NLL would be so much fun! Getting to travel with your team, continue playing the sport I love, and meeting many new people along the way would be a great experience.” – Jordon Celeslie, Team USBOXLA Midget & St. Louis Box Lacrosse

“Yes! It would be a huge honor. To one day play for the Mammoth or any team in the NLL would be a dream come true because I love the game. I think I can do it too, but it's gonna be a lot of hard work, which I’m up for!” – Mason Schull, Team USBOXLA Peewee & Denver Elite

“Being from Minnesota it hurt when the Swarm moved to Georgia. As a pro I would love to play for the Saskatchewan Rush! I love their toughness and team colors.” – Hunter Payer, Team USBOXLA Peewee & Minnesota Stars

“I’ve dreamed of playing in the NLL and strive to always play at the high level I possiblly can.” - John Alie, Team USBOXLA Bantam & Denver Elite

“I definitely dream of playing in the NLL. There hasn’t been an American goalie in the NLL in a long time. I want to be the next one.” – Jackson Curtis, Team USBOXLA Bantam & Lax Factory (Maryland)

“Playing in the NLL would be amazing and is something I hope I have the opportunity to do someday.” - Noah Swenson, Team USBOXLA Midget & Resolute Lacrosse (Ohio)

“I love box lacrosse and I would love to have the opportunity to play in the National Lacrosse League in the future. During the NLL season, I try to watch most of the games with my family.” – Eric Bollar, Team USBOXLA Bantam & Cali*Lax ALL-STARS

“The older you get the more aggressive the game gets and I like that. My hometown of San Diego will have its first NLL team so I want to play for them someday.” – Jack Ryan, Team USBOXLA Peewee and SD Box

Many players that represented Team USBOXLA this year will also attend the Jr. NLL Tournament (Photo: Sherri Thomson)

“I dream of playing in the NLL and I am working towards making it a reality. I love box lacrosse and want to share my experience with other US-born players.” – Luke Winkler, Team USBOXLA Bantam & American Lacrosse Academy (Connecticut)

“Yes. I would love to play for the Georgia Swarm because they used to be in Minnesota.” - Wyatt Hunt, Team USBOXLA Peewee & Minnesota Swarm

“It has always been a dream of mine to play in the NLL and to win a championship. As I get older I hope to one day make it to the NLL and play.” – Brady Ruffalo, Team USBOXLA Bantam & Jr. Knighthawks (New York)

“I want to continue to play at the highest possible level of box lacrosse as a I get older, and that means eventually playing in the NLL.” – Preston Corin, Team USBOXLA Peewee & Bucktown Lacrosse (North Carolina)

“If I could make a career out of playing lacrosse, yes, I would definitely want to play in the NLL!” – Preston Blue, Team USBOXLA Peewee & Greater Cleveland Lacrosse

“It would be an outstanding experience to one day be able to play in the NLL. I’d definitely love my job!” - Quinton Elijah White, Team USBOXLA Midget & Minnesota Stars

“Absolutely. It’s been a dream of mine since I first started playing box lacrosse.”- Jack Porter, Team USBOXLA Bantam & Cali*Lax ALL-STARS

“Yes! I would love to be able to play in the NLL!” – Layne Kology, Team USBOXLA Bantam & Minnesota Stars

“Of course, I’d love to do that!” – Payton Hevers, Team USBOXLA Peewee & Denver Elite

Thank you Shay & Matt - Tuts