Lacrosse: Game On!
A curious hockey enthusiast turns his sights to lacrosse, a sport with deep roots — and avid fans — in Orangeville
Hack, whack, slash, chop, cleave, bludgeon, batter and smite. My first impression of the sport of lacrosse comes at me as a baffling thesaurus of violence.
Idle curiosity and ten bucks admission draws me to the opening match of the Orangeville Jr. A Northmen’s season. Lacrosse thrives in this town and our players are nationally respected. Still, I’m curious about what draws this crowd – the indoor arena is fullish on a balmy, late-spring evening – and what draws people to participate, or allow their children to participate, in a sport whose organized assaults, as they first seem to me, make ice hockey look like lawn bowling.
In the Tony Rose Arena, an absence of colour abounds. The floor (ice out, concrete in), the stands, bannered walls and much of the crowd are shades of grey and black. Northmen colours, as it turns out.
Pregame, young wannabes are thundering small white lacrosse balls off the boards with lacrosse sticks and the racket they make is counterpoint to their sneaker squeaks and the neighbourly greetings in the stands. The rink’s glass is peppered with messy ball smudges unlike the black scars hockey pucks leave. The aroma in the air is last week’s sweat, this evening’s lacrosse mom’s cologne and French fries yet to be eaten.
There has been a lacrosse team in Orangeville since the 1860s, almost always a successful one. The Orangeville Dufferins were Ontario’s first Provincial Champions in 1897. The Senior Northmen, founded in 1987, and the organization’s Jr. A and B men’s teams are perennial powerhouses in the historic sport. Now, there are also boys’, girls’ and women’s house and rep leagues.
Local attendance is among the highest in the province, the Northmen women’s organization is among Ontario’s largest, and the list of Northmen championships, both provincial and national, is unparalleled at 20 gold medals and counting. “We throw away the silvers,” one official half joked. Last August, the Orangeville Jr. B Northmen went on to win their league’s national lacrosse finals in Saskatoon. Four other Northmen teams, including the undefeated senior girls’ team, were Ontario champs.
The crowd here tonight to cheer on the Northmen cuts across age, gender and my preconceptions. They’re into it, shouting and stamping as the home team enters. There are lacrosse moms and dads, teens, seniors, hyperactive tykes with lacrosse sticks, cognoscenti in team gear, a lounging cynic (me) and players’ girlfriends, avid and texting. The standing area behind the net is the preserve of thick, thirsty-looking men in ball caps. Northmen of yore, here to exhort the current generation.
“I know every one of them,” says Bob Clevely about the alumni crew. Bob is general manager of the Jr. A Northmen – himself a senior team alumnus and a Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame inductee. His son D.J. is coaching the Northmen on this night. His wife Fiona Clevely is team secretary. His rec room is a shrine to the successes of Orangeville lacrosse and the personal relationships that have fuelled it over time.
“Giving back is almost an expectation,” he says when asked why Orangeville is such a lacrosse powerhouse. “It’s how we develop.” After they age out of the league, many championship players come back to coach the next generation of four- and five-year-olds, he says. “All the kids my son’s age are now coaching in the minor system. It’s a huge advantage.”
There are 17 to 20 players on the Northmen team I’m watching, and their age spread is about the same. The goalie’s equipment is huge. His sweater sleeps three and his shoulder pads might fit through a barn door. He wears a sporting goods store of protection, with big leg pads and pointed booties. His stick’s basket is so much bigger than that of his teammates, it looks like it could land a trout. Looking like he’s five feet wide, he guards a four-foot net into which he inserts his butt. I don’t see how opponents can find the daylight to score.
Every player wears a helmet and protective face cage. Like the goalie, players are top-heavy with padding. Anything below the torso seems like an unprotected afterthought – shorts, bare legs, dingy socks and shoes in black or white. There are no hulking endomorphs. I soon learn why. In lacrosse, you run.
The arena’s rock soundtrack ceases. The action begins after the anthem, a crescendo of sticks hammering the boards at the bench, a guttural team chant of “North – men!” and a way-too-loud buzzer. Do they ramp up the hockey claxon just for lacrosse?
We’re in a contemporary setting, but this sport originated long before Canada (or hockey) existed. It began as a First Nations game honouring gods, settling disputes and bonding communities. The Mohawks called it begadweor, “little brother to war.” French Jesuit missionaries disapproved, but gave it its current name. European settlers soon embraced it. Montreal dentist William Beers modified and codified it, and by the 1930s it had moved indoors (to summer-idle hockey arenas) to become box lacrosse. Outdoor field lacrosse, which women’s teams have embraced, has evolved to have limited contact, but it’s no less competitive.
Players face off at centre concrete in an odd squat-lunge clash, scrambling over the floor stencil of the team’s surly Viking-head logo. The visitors today are the Peterborough Lakers. The game starts briskly and stays that way. Those of us raised on hockey assume slashing or crosschecking is always forbidden, even in the scrappiest beer leagues. Not so in today’s game. Hack away! I watch, slack-jawed, while one player is subjected to a 40-yard assault, with a running defender chopping at him like he’s cordwood.
Helpful fellow spectators next to me explain that all that stickwork on opponents is controlled, tactical and legal. Mostly. I gather blows to the head or legs are prohibited. The object is apparently to hit the opponent’s stick, dislodging the ball. The jersey of an on-court official reads “Nurse” and for a long while I’m thinking, “Hell, it’s so rough they need on-court medical personnel!” It turns out he was one of the refs, surname Nurse, but I wouldn’t have been surprised.
Lindsay Sanderson is a vice-president in the Northmen organization and acts as liaison to the Jr. B team. He is one of the senior members of the local Sanderson lacrosse dynasty. He was a six-time Ontario, four-time national championship-winning Senior Northman in the 1970s and is a Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame member, as is his late, legendary brother Terry. Both are also in Ontario and Orangeville halls of fame. Terry’s son Josh will likely follow in a few years. He has already been inducted into the National Lacrosse League Hall of Fame – which includes players in Canada and the United States who played in the league. (Josh now also carries on his father’s business Sanderson Source for Sports on Orangeville’s Broadway.)
Lindsay begs to differ with my characterization of his game as violent. “It’s not,” he says pointedly after the game as we sit in lawn chairs overlooking his front yard just outside of town. He prefers to describe the play as “controlled aggression.”
Lindsay asks me to imagine a lacrosse ball tossed out onto his front lawn. “You and I are going to get it. We’re about the same age and size. [Sixties, burgeoning waistlines]. I don’t know your skill level. [Nil.] You may be better than I am. Faster. Stronger. But be ready to pay a price. I’m going for it!”
Still, he quotes research that shows injuries are less frequent than in other sports. I looked it up – it’s true! Lacrosse ranks behind such relatively benign sports as soccer, volleyball and golf for injuries.
Players are well protected and rules are rigorously enforced – no back or head contact, or sticks swung in arcs of more than a foot – much more than they used to be, Lindsay says. “It has become a speed game now, a track meet. It is quickness, speed and skill at threading a ball at 100 miles per hour. Learn and understand.” I vow to follow his directive.
A closer look at lacrosse
Sticks aside, I do have to admit that unlike hockey, Canada’s national winter sport (lacrosse was officially declared Canada’s national summer sport in 1994), I witness no fighting, face washes (a charming move in which a hockey player grinds his glove over another player’s face), trash talk or milling team-to-team belligerence in front of the nets during the game I watch.
Like hockey, there are three periods, six players a side, zones and players score by putting it past the goalie. There are refs, whistles and, I am learning, rules. Plus lacrosse bench doors get a better workout than in hockey. I notice players exit by one, enter by the other, and don’t jump over the boards.
By the end of the second period though, I’m getting a little fidgety, but it is nothing a seat with a back (not available) and a beer (ditto) wouldn’t cure. I settle for a hot dog from the snack bar.
A family game
A generation ago, the girl behind the snack bar was Courtney Matthews. She’s now mom to four lacrosse players – sons Liam, 13, and Ayden, 10, and daughters Mackenzie, 9, and Riley, 7. Between home and away games and two practices a week, each, “we don’t get a lot of downtime,” Courtney says with a laugh as we sit at her kitchen table while Mackenzie juggles a ball with a pink-accented lacrosse racket. “The kids love it. We’re used to it.”
The family had no background playing lacrosse (she swam; her husband Curtis played hockey), “except that I was born in Orangeville. Everyone played.” Her boys play because their cousins – Sandersons! – play, and the girls play because their older brothers play.
“Being on a Northmen team, you develop a sense of family. You are with those families a lot. We become friends. The kids become friends. Liam has been playing for half his life. His best friends aren’t school friends, they’re lacrosse friends.”
Liam loves lacrosse for its competitiveness, both with and against those friends. “I try to play hard for my teammates. I like the competition,” he says. Asked if he would love the game as much if they didn’t keep score, he pauses. “It would be different… but I’d still love it.”
Like Lindsay Sanderson, Courtney is another member of the lacrosse family who is happy to address the game’s reputation for rough play head on. “It’s a tough sport. You’ve got to love it. You are going to get hit. I wouldn’t say it’s violent. You just don’t go swinging your stick. You are taught how to do it properly. How to dislodge the ball.”
Her kids may even be good enough to entertain the idea of university scholarships. All four of them? “That would be nice,” Courtney says quietly. Field lacrosse is the fastest-growing sport at American universities – and regulations compel Ontario universities to offer parity in athletic scholarships for men and women. Fewer women play lacrosse, so statistics are in their favour. Caledon native Chelsea Crang, one of the coaches of Mackenzie and Riley’s U-11 team (ten years old and under), is one such lacrosse scholarship recipient and, in keeping with the ethos I keep hearing about, a role model who gives back.
As we chat, Courtney’s mention of Chelsea echoes something else Lindsay told me – that the Northmen ethos is all about commitment, passion and work ethic. These were instilled in him during his years playing and now he and his colleagues, and other former Northmen like Chelsea, pay it forward. “What better qualities could you want a son or a daughter to be around? That is why we have such good numbers here in Orangeville. Talent is not enough. Lacrosse teaches life lessons,” he says.
With this in mind, many lacrosse lovers say more could be done locally to recognize the sport and support Orangeville’s success. Local lacrosse legend Josh Sanderson says it’s a disgrace that the Orangeville teams don’t have enough fields to play on at the same time, making in-town tournaments all but impossible. “Alliston has one. Guelph has eight,” he says. “Players are in the rinks when they should be out on the fields.” (Indoor tournaments do happen here, but they risk being overcapacity). Last year the girls’ field lacrosse tournament had to be held in nearby Hillsburgh.
He and others say artificial turf on indoor and outdoor fields is also on the wish list to boost the number of fields available, ensure an earlier outdoor season and a winter indoor season when the Northmen lose their rinks to hockey. Indoor turf may be safer indoors in summer too, since the indoor cement rinks get clammy, slippery and unsafe. “I hope the town wakes up and takes care of their sporting teams. It’s not cheap, but it is an investment,” says Josh.
Not cheap indeed. With infrastructure (drainage, lights, stands) an outdoor artificial turf field costs $1 million to $1.5 million. They were recommended as part of the town’s master plan in 2015. In the meantime, Ray Osmond, director of parks and recreation, says a new national-standard grass field, the town’s second, will open at Lions Park this May long weekend.
“We have suggested to the town that, in the longer term, it look at an artificial turf field once it has addressed the issues with the natural fields,” he says.
Between the buzzers
Back at the game, I head out for some air between periods, where I encounter the Northmen players upholstering a curb in the descending twilight, spitting, swearing, joshing. They’re young, loose and happy (leading 7–4). Many sweaters have been doffed, exposing the odd ice pack and a tapestry of defensive padding fore and aft. The smell, even from 20 metres, is memorable.
By the third period, my sensibilities are adjusting and I have to admit something like enjoyment is creeping up on me. I’m beginning to see fitness and finesse through the ferocity. Lightning tic-tac-toe passes lead to scoring. There’s tricky over-the-shoulder feeds, swivelling fakes and deceptive feints. And running. Ceaseless running up and back, on that concrete.
The game ends as an 8–7 nail-biter. The Northmen win. The Lakers pull their goalie, but the Northmen kill the clock with a spell of nimble, lobbing-it-about back passing. Smart, but too soft, I think, my blood now surprisingly up for sustained mayhem right to the buzzer.
The Northmen cluster in a group congratulation. The crowd leaves content. I drive home to Mono and the losers drive to Peterborough in the dark. Maybe they’ll beat us next time. I hope not.
I might even be there.
Want to get into lacrosse?
This is the year to do it, as it marks the 50th anniversary of Orangeville’s minor program and the 40th anniversary of the Junior A and Junior B programs.
The season begins in May, with the first Junior A home game on May 20.
Do you think your kids would like to try the sport? The Orangeville Northmen Minor Lacrosse Club is holding “Try It Days” on Sunday, April 15, 1 p.m. and Thursday, April 19, at 6 p.m. at the Tony Rose Memorial Sports Centre in Orangeville. Bring running shoes and a helmet – sticks are provided.
For information on these events and updated home game schedules, visit Northmenlacrosse.ca.