November 14, 2011

Crossover Skills: The Canadian-American Dynamic

How Canadians adapted to the men's field game, and what Americans can learn from their success

by Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com

"Playing time reflects where you come from; the greater the field reputation, the greater the playing time. It's a shame because box players could and will have a big influence on the field game in the future.
I know it" -- Former Syracuse attackman/box player Emmett Printup Sr., in American Indian Lacrosse: Little Brother of War, 1991

Kyle Wharton didn't think twice.

Zach Palmer's truly Canadian behind-the-back shot in a rainy rivarly game against Maryland last April provided a snapshot of skills learned growing up playing box lacrosse.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com 

A left-handed attackman from Johns Hopkins, Wharton was renowned for his side-arm release and blistering shot. A devastating catch-and-shoot routine that had been engraved in YouTube lore a year earlier when he went top-shelf against Towson and left a massive hole in the back of the net.

But facing arch-rival Maryland last April, the senior sniper found himself having to move his feet rather than just set them. Carrying against a shortstick at "X," Wharton used a pick and dodged hard up the right pipe. He didn't draw a slide -- the Terp defenders had switched on the pick -- but the screen gave him both time and space to survey the field.

As Wharton split to his off hand, linemate Zach Palmer searched for space above the crease. The Terps had zoned up, and Palmer, a diminutive 5-foot-7, 160-pound southpaw from Oshawa, Ontario, brought his stick close to his chest and started shaking it. A welcome invitation, that even though he was in a small seam between two Maryland defenders, he wanted the rock. Wharton, trusting the sophomore, flung it in.

Palmer caught the pass and immediately felt Maryland's hyper-athletic, hyper-aggressive longstick Jesse Bernhardt position himself on his ball-side shoulder so as to prevent a shot. Cradling the stick away from his body, and feeling no pressure over his right shoulder, Palmer whipped the ball behind his back from eight yards out and past Maryland goaltender Niko Amato.

The Canuck's crafty, soft-handed response awed the rain-soaked crowd and tied the game at nine with eight and a half minutes to go (Maryland had led by as many as five goals just a quarter earlier). The Blue Jays would go on to win 12-11 in overtime.

Up in the press box, veteran color guy Paul Carcaterra marveled at the sophomore's flashy handiwork around the goal.

"Are you kidding me? Look at this shot. Unbelievable ... Can you say SportsCenter?"

Carcaterra's slack jaw eventually gave way to an explanation, as he connected Palmer's behind-the-back histrionics with his north-of-the-border background.

"You look at the type of kids that can do this; it's the Canadians who have that box lacrosse background. Wow," he said.

At the post-game press conference, Maryland coach John Tillman made a similar correlation.

"Some crazy things happened on the field. We have a guy covered inside, they throw it to him and he throws it behind the back and scores. But there's a guy who was one of the best players in Canada a few years ago, and that's why he's at Johns Hopkins. He's in traffic, he's got a guy all over him, throws it behind his back. He's probably one of two people in the country that can make that play."

***

Canadians making an impact in Division I men's lacrosse isn't a new phenomenon. Ontario native and Cornell legend Mike French helped lead the Big Red to the 1976 national championship. Oshawa's Stan Cockerton was a three-time First-Team All-American for North Carolina State in the late 1970s and remains third on the NCAA all-time scoring list. British Columbia's Tom Marechek and Paul and Gary Gait dominated at Syracuse during the late 1980s and early '90s.

But over the last decade, as defenses have become more athletic and six-on-six goals more difficult to score, coaches have increasingly sought players who grew up north in the box. In 2001, only one of the top 40 scorers in Division I was Canadian (Loyola's Gavin Prout). By 2006, nine were, and in 2010 that number surged to 15.

It's not just a smattering of slick inside finishers either. Brodie Merrill, from Orangeville, Ontario, reinvented the longstick position at Georgetown. Kevin Crowley, a do-it-all, end-to-end midfielder from British Columbia, was a 2010 Tewaaraton candidate at Stony Brook. Last season, Denver midfielders and Ontario natives Cameron Flint and Jeremy Noble wreaked as much terror between the stripes and on wings as they did on offense.

Yet as many college coaches are outsourcing to Canadians, youth lacrosse in the United States has rarely tried to adopt or mimic the same settings, techniques or drills that make former box players so proficient around the net.

This seems peculiar. Why should Palmer and a few of his Northern brethren -- as Carcaterra and Tillman attest -- be more adept at catching and depositing the ball in tight spaces? Not to mention the numerical evidence suggests that early indoor exposure makes kids significantly better players.

Last season, according to Canadian businessman and lacrosse enthusiast Jason Donville, there were 119 Canadian Division I lacrosse players, even though the Canadian Lacrosse Association (Canada's US Lacrosse equivalent) reported around 8,000 people in the entire country playing field lacrosse. In contrast, US Lacrosse's 2010 Participation Survey counted close to 380,000 people playing field lacrosse in the United States. Despite these disparities, the Canadian national team won the FIL World Lacrosse Championship in 2006, and came within two goals of beating the Americans again in 2010.

American college coaches -- many of whom have had a front-row seat watching Canadians sophisticated stick skills and catch-and-shoot prowess -- see the indicators.

Virginia's Dom Starsia, discussing sophomore attackman Mark Cockerton (Stan's son) winning the Minto Cup this past summer said:

"When you watch Canadian kids score, when you see their skill level around the cage, you wonder to yourself, 'Jeez, are we teaching kids [in the U.S.] the wrong things?'"

In a LaxMagazine.com article last May, Denver's Bill Tierney echoed similar sentiments. "If I was US Lacrosse, I wouldn't let any kids play field until they were 10 or 12," he said. "Until box lacrosse grows in the United States, it'll continue to be this way."

***

How do you draw fans to stripped hockey rinks in the summertime? For hockey promoters in Canada in the early 1930s -- whose gate receipts melted with the ice every spring -- the question drove them to invent a sport that would suit the rinks' playing surfaces during warmer months.

What they ended up creating -- box lacrosse -- was considerably different than its outdoor counterpart. Besides having boards for boundaries, it's six-on-six instead of 10-on-10, cross-checking is legal, there are no long sticks and the goals are significantly smaller (4.9 feet by 4 feet in the National Lacrosse League). There's also a 30-second shot clock and, at the higher levels, fighting -- in the NHL tradition of jersey-grabbing and flailing fists -- is just a five-minute major penalty.

The sport's originators were motivated by money. While their early forays weren't particularly successful (the first two indoor leagues folded almost immediately), box eventually gained traction in tight-knit towns across Canada and on Native American reservations.

Johnny Mouradian, currently the general manager of Canada's national indoor team and the GM/coach of the NLL's Philadelphia Wings, was one of the first box players to cross over into American college field lacrosse in the 1970s.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

There are a number of reasons why this different version of lacrosse has ingrained its kids with skills that translate to the field game. Not surprisingly, much can be attributed to the rink.

Johnny Mouradian, an Ontario native who played lacrosse and hockey at Ithaca College in the 1970s and was one of the first box players to cross over into American college field lacrosse, believes that even the way Canadian kids practice against the boards gives them a distinct advantage.

"Our first cradle is below the waist. We roll the ball off the boards and pick it up so the stick's automatically in our fingertips," said Mouradian, also the general manager and head coach of the National Lacrosse League's Philadelphia Wings. "In the U.S., kids in the same age group often pass and catch with their stick in their palms. They end up pushing the ball instead of throwing it."

Repetition also helps develop stick handling. Because the boards ensure the ball stays in bounds, and because there are only five "runners" (the box term for all non-goalies) in the rink at a time, everyone gets increased touches. Continuous end-to-end action replaces defensemen and attackmen waiting -- with their hands on their hips -- for the ball to return to their end.

Moreover, the shot clock and confined space encourage more consistent mechanics. Threading a pass to a partially-covered teammate (often with only a couple of seconds left on the shot clock) means snapping the wrists and whipping the ball overhand. To catch that same pass -- and avoid pressure -- takes not only the requisite hand-eye coordination, but keeping the stick tight to the body.

"The side-arm throw and the side-arm catch are acceptable in field," said Sean Allen, a longtime youth coach in Ontario who now teaches box in the U.S. through Jamie Munro's 3D Lacrosse clinics. "In box, it's all off your collarbone, which is essential to crossing over the middle or working in tight areas."

The smaller goal (it's four-by-four in youth leagues) has ramifications as well. To put the ball past entirely padded netminders who take up most of the cage (if there's any net to shoot at, it's the size of a lacrosse ball), box players have to keep their stick in their strong hand and to the inside to improve shooting angles and precision. Being an efficient shooter means focusing more on deception and playing poker with the goalie than on speed and placement. Naturally, when Canadians get outside, and see those remarkably inviting six-by-six goals, they -- Tierney notes -- "might as well be shooting at the ocean."

With less than 20 square feet of net, players need to get to three or four yards dead center to score. So box offense relies, not on the alley dodges so prevalent in field, but on two-man games, picks, screens, flips and slips. This teaches guys how to create space using more than their legs, and generally makes Canadians particularly crafty goal scorers. It also translates well to the college game where well organized defenses and hyper-athletic longsticks are the norm.

There are other reasons for the proliferation of box players. There's no specialization indoors. Growing up, Merrill, the six-time Major League Lacrosse Defensive Player of the Year who is known as much for his transition abilities as his defense, wasn't relegated to throwing long passes at practice. He was playing short stick, learning how to move his feet on defense, picking up "loosies" and getting the types of touches usually reserved in America for more offensively inclined players. Not to mention playing with a stick with which he could feel comfortable. In Canada, youth players don't use 72-inch sticks that are bigger than they are, but often cut down their shafts and play with sticks they can handle.

"A ten-year-old playing with a six-foot stick completely stunts his growth," Munro, the former Denver head coach, said. "I remember coaching my son's youth team and some kids were playing with chopped-down sticks; the ref started throwing flags."

***

There's real precedent for different versions of games and different training methods developing more sophisticated and nuanced skillsets. For years, European basketball training has focused less on winning games and more on imparting general fundamentals. So unlike American big men, tall Europeans aren't tracked as post players until relatively late in their careers. It doesn't always work out in the NBA's structure, but the value of learning the finer technical skills most associated with perimeter players was probably most evident when Dirk Nowitzki, a seven foot German who could handle and shoot the ball as well as any point guard, took the NBA playoffs hostage in June.

More than decade ago, a British school teacher named Simon Clifford wondered why Brazil was such a dominant force in international soccer. After traveling through the country, Clifford found that much of that success could be attributed to a lack of field space in the cities. Without expansive green pitches to play full-field, kids in favelas and other urban recesses focused their energies on Futebol de Salao (Futsal). Translated to mean "football of the hall," this version is played in tight confines and with a weightier, more compact ball (it was initially a handball ball) that can't be booted downfield. Legends like Pele, Rivelino and Zico all credit the game with developing their own ball-handling wizardry.

Kids' playing in stricter quarters wasn't confined to Brazil. Other countries had begun moving away from England's traditional "kick-and-run" training model, adopting "small-sided" games that, like Futsal, encouraged creativity, quicker decision-making and more touches. In 2010, three alums (Andrés Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Xavi) from FC Barcelona's La Masia school -- where small-sided instruction is considered crucial -- were nominated for FIFA's best player award. Currently, the US Youth Soccer Organization promotes the small-sided philosophy, saying it makes kids' "more physically efficient," "more skillful" and offers "more involved playing time" and "more opportunity to play on both sides."

***

Over the past three seasons, more than 30 alums of Brodie Merrill's Hill Academy have signed with NCAA Division I and Division II schools. Merrill, shown here with the NLL's Edmonton Rush, is now with the Philadelphia Wings.
© Edmonton Rush

It's not a seamless transition from box to field. Many Canadians are almost exclusively one-handed, have never dodged longsticks and are prone to too much run-and-gun (the internal shot clock never stops ticking, it seems). For all their effectiveness around the cage, Canucks don't shoot with the same kind of velocity as Americans. Former Virginia bomber and Whitby, Ontario native A.J. Shannon is more exception than rule.

"They're not perfect," said Munro. "They're just better players then they would've been if they had grown up in the U.S."

Recently, box players have benefited from increased exposure to the outdoor game. The pushback from a generation ago -- when some old-timers questioned the merits of teaching field lacrosse at all -- has dissipated. While Canadian kids still start indoors, where the boards and small goals help form the foundation of their skills, some box programs now have a mandatory field component. There are even select teams traveling to the United States to compete against American kids.

The Hill Academy exemplifies this hybrid approach. Located in Toronto's northern suburbs, the private school's lacrosse program is a one-stop shop for Canadian kids preparing to play NCAA lacrosse. The Academy, which is directed by Merrill, develops "more complete lacrosse players," integrating the "creativity and stickwork of indoor lacrosse with the discipline of field lacrosse." Over the past three seasons, Hill has become one of the premier high school field teams and a poaching ground for college coaches, as more than 30 alums (Palmer, Jason and Jeremy Noble, Travis Comeau, among others) have signed with Division I and Division II schools.

"We want to teach the nuances of field lacrosse, but not overlook our box backgrounds," Merrill said. "Finding that balance is our goal."

As much as the uptick in the number of Canadians can be attributed to their gaining outdoor experience, more opportunities also now exist in the States. Twenty years ago, when Printup Sr. said "playing time reflects where you come from; the greater the field reputation, the greater the playing time," he was pointing out that at the time a number of people in the lacrosse world considered box to be a worse form of lacrosse (or not lacrosse at all).

But the "Air Gait," Merrill ripping a goal in transition and Mark Matthews's devastating toe-drag are persuasive visuals. Today, there's no question that college coaches better understand the skillset cultivated indoors, and, more often than not, want to co-opt these "hybrid" players for their own teams. So native box players aren't just learning field and trekking south to Denver or Delaware with some box pads and a pipedream; they're going on scholarship.

In lacrosse, innovation tends to come from college coaches and trickle down to the high school and youth level (watch 12-year-olds play and you'll probably see some version of Tierney's quick-sliding defense).

As Division I lacrosse programs continue to invest in guys with soft, box-styled hands that also understand how to play field, the cross-pollination the Canadians are using has begun to take root in America.

***

When Munro took over as Denver's head coach in 1999, he had to recruit for a school that didn't offer much name recognition, had just transitioned from Division II and was around 1,700 miles from either Baltimore or Long Island.

But he had played professionally for the Boston Blazers in the early '90s and seen firsthand how much his skills improved indoors. Over the next decade, Munro began combing Canada's junior leagues for talent, recruiting guys like Matt Brown from Burnaby, British Columbia and Geoff Snider from Calgary, Alberta.

The indoor influence went beyond personnel. During pre-season, the team played boxla twice a week, and Munro (with the help of current Princeton coach Chris Bates) transcribed a box-style offense -- filled with two-man games, picks and off-ball screens -- for the Pioneers to use in the half-field. From 2003 to 2008, Denver won four regular season Great Western Lacrosse League titles, made the NCAA tournament twice and transformed from Division I outpost to focal point of the box-hybrid revolution in college lacrosse.

Now a broadcaster for ESPNU and chief executive of 3D Lacrosse, Munro still advocates the small-sided approach. His own son even suits up for St. Catharines' bantam squad in the summer.

"I think kids should exclusively play box until fifth or sixth grade and then be introduced to field concepts at a fifty-fifty split with box," he said.

But Munro also believes field-trained players can quickly develop box skills (finishing on the small goals is the one thing he says takes years to transfer). His company introduces the rough-and-tumble sport in a variety of ways. There's fall and winter indoor leagues that have slotted practice time and provide instruction on how to play box (it's not field under a roof). 3D club teams in Denver and New England spend a significant amount of their training time indoors. So-called "immersion camps" in Colorado, Southern California and Ontario expose American kids to two days playing exclusively on a stripped rink, where guys like Sean Allen teach the nitty-gritty behind throwing a pump fake or setting a pick.

"So much development came out of there [the immersion camp]. Kids would say afterward: 'I've never improved this quickly. I've never learned more,'" Munro said. "The right environment can do a lot for a player. You could do shooting drills [on box goals], say nothing, and kids would get a lot better."

***

"Even though Canadians had great stick skills, most American field players didn't see the interrelatedness or how they could benefit."

-- William Shatz, American Indoor Lacrosse Association

Mouradian and William Shatz, who run the American Indoor Lacrosse Association (AILA), have a similar if slightly more ambitious aim. The coach/general manager for the Wings and general manager for Canada's national indoor team, Mouradian is no stranger to importing foreign brands of lacrosse. He was on the Canadian team that toppled the Americans in '78, and when he returned home -- convinced there were real opportunities for Canucks in the outdoor game -- began introducing field lacrosse to his PE class at Kernahan Park High School in St. Catharines.

A few years ago, Mouradian starting comparing notes with Shatz, a native Long Islander and teammate at Ithaca. The college chums realized that the U.S. had an inverse situation to the one Mouradian, Cockerton, French, Bob Allan and others had encountered 30-plus years ago in Canada.

"Even though Canadians had great stick skills, most American field players didn't see the interrelatedness or how they could benefit. Johnny and I saw a tremendous opportunity to teach true box," Shatz said.

In 2010, the pair established the AILA, which runs clinics, tournaments, two- and four-day academy programs (similar to 3D Lacrosse's immersion camps), as well as sanctioned indoor leagues in Rochester and in central and southwest Florida. Most important to sustaining its mission, the AILA provides certification programs for potential coaches and referees to learn the fundamentals, rules and techniques unique to boxla.

"Intensive training, education has to be the backbone of what we do," Shatz said.

Added Mouradian: "It's not the fairy dust principle -- that all you have to do is add some glass and boards and play for eight weeks in the winter ... It takes real teaching, and a commitment to learn the indoor principles and the biomechanics."

Shatz's Fire Lacrosse Club, which is mostly focused in the Tampa Bay and Sarasota area, has become a petri dish of sorts for "Incrosse" (a buzzword for cross-pollination). The Club's various select teams are run by AILA-certified coaches and spend as much as 25 percent to 30 percent of their practices inside.

According to Shatz, immersing the kids in plexiglass and pick-and-rolls has considerably elevated their decision-making, stick skills and lacrosse IQ.

Of course, 3D Lacrosse and the AILA aren't the only organizations pushing box programming. Former San Jose Stealth captain Shaydon Santos heads up the US Box Lacrosse Association, which operates leagues along the West Coast and runs a travel box team -- the Cali*Lax ALL-STARS -- that has played in Canada on multiple occasions. Even Tierney's Denver Elite squads incorporate "hybrid" training.

Probably the most compelling case study for box-field integration comes from the professional ranks where, for years, former field players have improved by playing box. Today, elite Americans like Paul Rabil, Ryan Boyle, Max Seibald, Brendan Mundorf, Drew Westervelt and Eric Martin are all big-time contributors in both the National Lacrosse League and Major League Lacrosse.

***

Denver coach Bill Tierney is a supporter of teaching box lacrosse skills to youth players.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

The hybrid approach isn't the only way to develop quality field players. Baltimore's Steele Stanwick and Long Island's Rob Pannell are the top dogs in the college game and never needed confined space or a small goal. Just because the American skillset is different, doesn't mean it's still not vitally important. If a team had three Canucks on attack, they might finish the ball more proficiently, but who would initiate or draw a slide? (Although proponents of incrosse would likely argue that exposure to both versions would make players more balanced).

There are additional, more practical reasons that make it potentially difficult to import boxla training en masse. Unlike Canada, where every town has a hockey rink, indoor space in the U.S. is often limited. And to play true box lacrosse -- where those 12-yard, low angle shots aren't going to score -- means facing well-trained netminders. But the problem in finding quality indoor goalies in America is that very little translates from box goalie to field (or vice versa). Hovering over the goal with a stick under the armpit doesn't develop slicker hands. Staying balanced and anticipating shots doesn't promote quicker decision-making. Unsurprisingly, at a recent 3D Lacrosse box clinic in New Canaan, Ct., Munro brought along two keepers from Canada.

Field lacrosse is also growing at exponential rates. Asking youth coaches, many of whom are learning the outdoor game themselves, to teach another variation of the sport with its own nuances and nomenclature (and for parents to then invest in it in these tough economic times) seems like a tall order.

"Our youth coaches need to know how to teach the basics of field, the game we play most, first," said Adam Mueller, a longtime fixture in the professional indoor league who now coaches his own kids in Avon Grove, Penn. "Box leagues will be a great addition but the same can be accomplished with technique and drill work at any level with simple practice."

Cultural differences provide another hurdle. Some have a strong aversion to the more brutish elements of the indoor game. When one considers how field lacrosse is marketed in the States -- with commercials of Rabil unleashing a 111 mph side-armed bomb or Mikey Powell and Chazz Woodson slicing and dicing from behind the cage -- it seems reasonable to wonder if there would be widespread interest in learning to throw off the collarbone or execute a pick-and-slip.

Most important, lacrosse, especially at the youth level, is meant to be fun. Hybrid training shouldn't resemble some Soviet model, where the best kids have a grueling, year-round schedule. Unlike soccer, the large majority of people in the lacrosse community (and US Lacrosse) want kids playing multiple sports.

Box advocates describe various ways to get around these issues. The AILA's indoor league promotes a development model where the crosscheck is replaced by a modified pushcheck. When it comes to facilities, Mouradian attests that as roller hockey's popularity has waned, more rinks have become available. Munro says that any apprehension people have about the sport usually ends after they experience it firsthand. Continuous action in a confined space is more fun for the kids and easier for the parents to watch.

Tierney is more ambivalent. As the coach of an elite Division I program with scholarships, he's going to get great players whether they're from New England or Newfoundland. But he also believes that box creates more technically sound players, and worries about the frenetic growth of the sport in America. He doesn't want lacrosse to be like Little League baseball or youth soccer, where many kids start the sport, but don't continue on to higher levels because they aren't improving or enjoying themselves.

"I think it's time we got smart," he said. "We need to give our kids chances to develop."

***

In 1974, the Canadian national team traveled to Melbourne, Australia to participate in the World Games. They were almost all field lacrosse novices, the game itself as foreign as the Outback. They had constructed three longpoles by splicing together wooden shorties with fiberglass -- but each of them snapped before the tournament had even started. The team's goalies hunkered down on their backline like they were protecting the four-by-four. Because everyone was an offensive guy, they took turns rotating in on close defense. They limped to a last-place finish and were, by all accounts, playing some bizarre version of box lacrosse outside.

Four years later, the Canadian squad headed to Stockport, England with many of the same issues and no expectations. New coach Bob Allan had trouble finding numbers because some of the box clubs refused to let their guys try field. The group had only its second practice in late spring (the tournament was held in July); in which no more than 15 guys listened to a ref explain the outdoor rules. Nobody on the team had any familiarity wielding a longstick, and it didn't help that the poles weren't shipped until June.

But they did have a bunch of players starring at American colleges. Cockerton and goalkeeper Bob Flintoff at N.C. State, Mike French at Cornell, Dave Huntley at Hopkins, Jimmy Calder at Hobart. And many of their teammates were terrific box players who had just never played field. Most important, they were a tight-knit, humble group, eager to learn yet still confident in their own skills. When they were trounced by the U.S. 28-4 in the round robin stage, they dismissed it as an aberration.

They met the American team again in the final. Buoyed by fans rooting for an upset, and John Grant Sr. (Junior's dad) awe-inspiring backhander, the Canadians raced out to an early lead. Rugged defenseman Carm Collins then put the clamps on legendary attackman Eamon McEneaney (two goals). Keeper Flintoff stood on his head.

With the game tied at 16 in overtime, the Canucks called a set play during an extra man opportunity. Instead of ignoring the play call and bum rushing the net (their usual strategy), nerves dictated that the ball move around the perimeter three times. Eventually, French, who had taken over the quarterbacking duties behind the net, found a cutting Cockerton who caught and finished. The Canadians had taken down Goliath. Of course, they didn't down him with some side-armed stone throw. When they flung their rock at him (or in this case, past him), they took inventory, snapped their wrists and brought those slick hockey hands hard over the top.


comments powered by Disqus