March 4, 2009

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Star Power: Brace for Fireworks, NLL Fans

by Theresa Smith | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Rochester Knighthawks forward Gary Gait makes his return to Colorado as a reserve member of the East team in Saturday's NLL All-Star Game. Gait is expected to receive a warm welcome from Mammoth faithful.

The willingness of professional lacrosse players to work all week at regular jobs and reconvene on weekends to put on top-notch performances has endeared them to Denver-area fans since the Colorado Mammoth arrived in 2003.

This weekend, Mammoth fans shower the entire National Lacrosse League as hosts of the 2009 NLL All-Star game.

It is the second time the Mammoth have played host to the event, following a turn in 2004, which drew a crowd of 16,742 and featured hits and high intensity, a few notches above the typical all-star fare of the more popular and established brethrens in the NBA or Major League Baseball.

NLL scoring leader Mark Steenhuis, a Buffalo Bandits forward, remembers his first All-Star game, in Denver, as he looks forward to his sixth and a return to the Mile High City.

"It was an unbelievable experience," Steenhuis said. "It was pretty neat the way the fans generate their appreciation for the players. I'll always remember that. After the game we did autograph signings and they were so grateful."

Steenhuis, a blur in day-glow orange footwear,humbly failed to recall that he was the Most Valuable Player of the 2004 All-Star game. When his blend of speed and agility produced another series of spectacular plays in Portland in 2007, he became the first player to win two All-Star Game MVP awards.

Steenhuis expects to be entertained on Saturday night at the Pepsi Center.

"Playing with the all-stars, and kind of being in their category, is amazing," he said. "Some of the things they do with the ball, the shots they make and the passes are unbelievable! It is nice to be receiving one of those passes or giving the ball off and watching them work their magic."

Steenhuis is nursing an ankle injury suffered in the third quarter of his most clutch game ever. Trailing Toronto by two goals on Feb. 20, he scored twice to send it into overtime, then won it in the extra period. The injury almost kept him out of last weekend's game, a loss to Minnesota. He considered bypassing the All-Star Game in favor of rest, but is confident he can play.

New York's Casey Powell, the NLL's second-leading goal scorer with 26 goals in eight games, will miss the East-West clash due to injury, along with Toronto's Cam Woods and Greg Peyser and Philadelphia face-off expert Geoff Snider, who suffered a fractured windpipe last Friday.

They will be replaced by three Titans: forward Brendan Mundorf, rookie defender Stephen Peyser, Greg's brother, defender Jarret Park and Wings' forward Drew Westervelt. Mundorf and Westervelt are a well-known local commodity as members of the Denver Outlaws of Major League Lacrosse, which plays in the summer.

The newcomers join the East team, which will be coached by Jim Veltman, who will be inducted into the NLL Hall of Fame at a Saturday afternoon luncheon in the Pepsi Center.

By a vote of fans, media and general managers/coaches, the East starters are: forwards Steenhuis and Dan Dawson (Boston); defenseman Chris White (Buffalo); and goaltender Ken Montour (Buffalo). Powell and Snider were also voted to start.

The East reserves are: forwards Jason Crosbie (Toronto), Gary Gait (Rochester), Pat Maddalena (New York), John Tavares (Buffalo), Roger Vyse (Buffalo) and Shawn Williams (Rochester); transition player Jordan Hall (New York); defensemen Mitch Belisle (Boston) and Kyle Sweeney (Philadelphia); and goaltender Anthony Cosmo (Boston).

The West is coached by Dallas Eliuk, the other member of the 2009 Hall of Fame class. The West starters are: forwards Colin Doyle (San Jose), Josh Sanderson (Calgary) and Dan Teat (Edmonton); transition player Brodie Merrill (Portland); defenseman Bruce Murray (Colorado); and goaltender Matt Disher (Portland).

The West reserves: forwards Brian Langtry (Colorado), Peter Morgan (Portland), Gavin Prout (Colorado), Tracey Kelusky (Calgary) and Jeff Zywicki (San Jose);  transition players Nick Carlson (Colorado) and Jeff Shattler (Calgary); defensemen Ryan Cousins (Minnesota), Ian Hawksbee (Edmonton), Nick Inch (Minnesota) and Jeff Moleski (Calgary); and goaltender Andrew Leyshon (Colorado).

Steenhuis expects a concentrated, physical effort on both sides.

"We're all competitive, and it is in our nature to get physical like that," he said. "It usually takes one big hit by a defensive player, and everyone kind of lifts their head up and says, ‘Oh, we're playing here,' and then it picks up."

Along with playing for the bragging rights, Steenhuis points out that defensive players want to show their stuff, meaning powerful checks, just as much as offensive players want to shoot and pass.

The most memorable All-Star Game wake-up call Steenhuis recalls was the hit by Colorado's Jay Jalbert's on Glenn Clark in the 2004 game.

"When Glenn came to the bench, he was fired up," Steenhuis said. "And then all of sudden, from that point on, the game was more intense. That one stands out."

Dawson, second only to Steenhuis in the NLL points lead (70 to 69), is making his only trip to Denver this season -- since Boston does not play the Mammoth -- after frequent visits as a member of the defunct Arizona Sting and the Portland LumberJax.

"It is a marquee franchise," Dawson said. "The fans are so passionate. I'm looking forward to a fun-filled weekend, knowing that the Colorado organization will be putting together a five-star event."

East teammate Gary Gait of Rochester makes his return to the Pepsi Center since giving up his Mammoth coaching job in August 2007 to take the Syracuse women's job. After nearly three years in retirement, Gait returned to the floor in January for the injury-plagued Knighthawks.

Gait, who played three seasons for the Mammoth and led them to their lone NLL title as coach, is expected to receive a warm welcome.

On the West roster, Mammoth scoring leader Langtry is making his first appearance as an all-star. While some might view it as another indication of his ability to transfer American, field-bred skills to the indoor game, Langtry is not caught up in the significance.

"I think it will be fun, but that is pretty much the extent of it," he said. "I am just going to enjoy the experience."

A high school coaching conflict will keep Langtry away from Friday's skills competition, and his homebody lifestyle with his wife and young children frees him from ambassador duty.

"Gavin [Prout] will have to be the ambassador," Langtry said. "Since I no longer go out and enjoy the night life, I don't think I would be the best for showing the guys around. Nick [Carlson] and Gavin are really good at that. I think that is where they shine."

As for the on-floor exploits, Langtry is looking forward to playing with Calgary set-up men Tracey Kelusky and Josh Sanderson.

"They are very creative and find the open guys ... kind of like Prouter," he said. "Colin Doyle is pretty sick as well."

The East has won four of the last five All-Star games and boasts a two-game winning streak, including a 17-16 overtime decision in Edmonton last year and a 20-16 win in 2007 in Portland. The only West victory in that span came in 2006 in Toronto, a 14-13 tally.

 


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