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February 1, 2013

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Shot Clock, Slow Pace? Allan Has Seen it All Before

Indoor pioneer wrote rules to bring quicker pace to box game more than 40 years ago

by Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | Censer Archive

Future Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Famer Bob Allan played in the 1954 Mann Cup, which is featured in these highlights from the CBC.

The visiting team had traveled nearly 2,800 miles — past Great Lakes, through flatlands and badlands and eventually to the coast — to play for a title. They trekked all that distance to compete. But facing a superior opponent, they knew using their zone defense offered the best chance to win.

The home team, undaunted by the gimmick defense, raced out to an early 3-1 lead. The two-goal cushion, however, wasn't large enough to coerce the visiting defensemen — packed into the backline like sardines — to come out of their zone and pressure. Their opponents saw no need to challenge either. Staid gridlock followed as attackers threw the ball uncontested around the perimeter and chewed clock. During the second quarter neither team attempted a shot. Even the home crowd, watching its team pass and catch its way to a championship, hissed and booed.

Today, reducing "the fastest game on two feet" into a glorified game of catch is common practice. The past decade has been the "Gilded Age of Possession," in which coaches run big-little inverts as much to manage games as to score goals. Players spend the first 40 seconds of every possession in some complex substitution package. Stick manufacturers pump out offset heads and mesh kits that make the ball increasingly difficult to dislodge.

But the aforementioned championship did not happen in this century, or even in America. Instead, it occurred during the 1967 Mann Cup between the Vancouver Carlings and Brooklin Redman. Despite having traveled from southwest Ontario to British Columbia, the Redmen (clearly an antiquated nickname today) took Game 1 in the best-of-seven series. After Vancouver won the next three games convincingly, Brooklin put in their zone. The scheme worked: The Redmen upset the Carlings 11-4 to force Game 6.

What occurred next could be compared to college basketball's "Four Corners" offense, popularized by North Carolina coach Dean Smith in the 1960s before the institution of a shot clock. Vancouver, after taking that initial lead, sat on the ball. Brooklin retreated into a zone and fans indiscriminately heckled both teams. The Carlings won the game and the Cup, but no one was happy.

The stalemate in Vancouver caused the more progressive elements of the box lacrosse community — people who preferred constant crosschecks and odd-man rushes to nihilist stalling strategies — to advocate a faster game.

"There were a number of coaches who were really disenchanted with the way the game was played," said Bob Allan, one of the greatest box players in history who coached Peterborough (Ont.) at the time. "It was rather slow and boring at times — both to play and to watch — because of the unlimited time of possession."

Coaching Pioneers like the late Jim Bishop from Oshawa and Toronto's Morley Kells soon began hatching plans to launch a new professional league with a more fan-friendly rulebook. They convinced existing franchises in Vancouver, Victoria, New Westminster, Coquitlam, Toronto and Peterborough to leave the Western Lacrosse Association (WLA) or the Ontario Lacrosse Association (OLA), while creating expansion teams in Montreal and Detroit almost overnight. By 1968, the National Lacrosse League had been established, with eight teams and two divisions.

Writing the new rulebook fell to Allan. A "Boro Boy," Allan began his career in the 1950s as a hometown fixture for a dominant Peterborough outfit. Lightning quick with a plethora of fakes (including his renowed backhander) and a nose for the goal, the future Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Famer won MVP awards, Mann Cups and scoring titles over the next decade. At one point, a bitter feud between teams in British Columbia and Ontario erupted over which owned his player rights.

Besides being more possession-oriented and isolation-focused, the indoor game was less specialized than it is today: Teams generally used three five-man units that were expected to go both ways. There also were no helmets, facemasks or elbow pads, as guys indiscriminately crosschecked with wooden sticks. Only 5-foot-8 and 145 pounds, Allan had his tricks — going for a loose ball in the corner meant getting very close to the wall so he "didn't travel too far after getting hit," he said. Still, his postgame forearms were completely swollen.

"The more rules you can put in that take the game away from the coaches and gives it back to the players, makes a better game."

— Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Famer Bob Allan

After one of the league's initial meetings, Allan, who was the most accomplished player of the group, was given a week to take everyone's recommendations and create a more fluid game. Using the NHL, NBA and various lacrosse rulebooks as templates, Allan, a teacher and coach at Peterborough Collegiate at the time, stayed up until the wee hours of the morning purging boxla of its more tactically sinister elements. The following Monday, he and the other league pioneers finalized the new league's canon in a hotel in Oshawa.

"I wrote it but I didn't come up with all the content or all those changes." Allan said. "I had a lot of input — it was a collaboration of ideas from a number of coaches."

Instead of facing off every time the ball went out of bounds, possession was immediately given to the non-offenders (and faceoffs would only occur after a score or at the beginning of a period). The sizes of the goal cages also were increased. Most radical, a shot clock was instituted.

The rules underwent some subsequent tweaks after a feeling-out at the beginning of the season. The shot clock, initially 45 seconds, was changed to 30 to speed the game up even more. Because teams began shooting the ball over the net to purposely regain possession and reset the clock, Allan recalls having to specify what was an ambiguous rule: The timer only would reset if the ball hit the goaltender.

"I'm a firm believer the more discretionary calls you can take out of a referee's hands — no matter what the sport — and the more rules you can put in that take the game away from the coaches and gives it back to the players, makes a better game," he said.

With lightning-quick restarts and rapid-fire possessions, attendance increased. Although the new league lasted only two years (it turned out that an operation spanning two coasts was expensive to run) — the rule changes stuck.

Said Allan: "[The new game] was just faster and much more appealing to the fans. No one wants to see a team get the ball and hold it for two minutes ... [Fans] like to see offense, they like to see the ball move, they like to see back-and-forth action and they like to see pretty goals."

In many ways, boxla's insistence on protecting tempo, scoring and offensive creativity in the face of defensive innovation was a precursor to later developments in other sports. For instance, the NBA and NFL recently have responded to rugged, more physical defenses by outlawing the handcheck and implementing the 5-yard no touch rule, respectively.

Allan, the coach of the Canadian national team that upset the Americans at the 1978 World Games as well as one of the first to advocate that box players to play field, is the Director of Player Development for the Philadelphia Wings of the current National Lacrosse League. He still lives in Peterborough and even has the original rulebook that changed the indoor game forever.

Last summer, when he learned the college field game had changed its rules so that officials would start a 30-second countdown if they felt like a team was stalling, Allan reiterated again: "The more you take discretionary calls away from the referees; the better a game is going to be."


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