ONCE PROMISING CANADIAN PROGRAM IS IN A DOWNWARD SPIRAL
By John Weaver
We sat on the roof of the press box at Homewood field and, through the many momentum shifts in the emotion packed contest below us, actually began to root for Team Canada. And they almost pulled off the greatest win in the history of the game over the best US team ever assembled in what we already knew would go down as one of the greatest games ever played. And it felt okay. We could root for Canada after this comeback effort and not really be rooting against anything. History was occurring right in front of us and the Canadians had earned our favor over the last two hours and into overtime. We still wore our US Team hats, so we didn't come as neutral press either. We just loved lacrosse and this was nirvana. We cheered just as hard when the US won and the crowd cheered both teams with some understanding of the milestone they had just witnessed. The teams bowed in appreciation to each other, both leaving every ounce of energy on the illuminated Baltimore turf.
The 1998 final
Everyone there knew that the game of lacrosse was at its peak that hot summer night in 1998. It would certainly soar higher in the far future as more teams from more countries play and win championships or even Olympic gold, but the game we saw represented the parity and sportsmanship between these two great lacrosse rivals and the greatest moment to date in terms of level of skills, the game action and what it meant to the US, Canada and the world. The moment, shared by ten thousand people at Johns Hopkins that night, seemed like a beam of light shining toward great things to come in lacrosse and in the rivalry. But to Team Canada, it would be a harbinger, instead, of a fate they could never imagine unfolding over the next four years.
The national team in Canada is not funded to the degree that the US team is and many of the national players are spread out over the far regions of the vast but lightly populated country. The best lax is played at the farthest two points from each other. They don't really have a national team until they need one for an event. All the players see each other on the fields of the OLA, WLA, NLL and even MLL, and for the three years between that night in Baltimore and the call for Perth tryouts in 2001, the excitement from the last championship lingered. As 2001 unfolded, we all learned that the MLL would prevent the best US players from attending and suddenly Canada was the HUGE favorite and while an asterisk adorned title might be all that was possible, it was certainly theirs for the taking.
The US usually invites about the same amount of guys that play in the MLL to try out for the national team. In fact, the US usually invites the same actual guys to try out. But, we always boasted that we could have picked any team from that tryout group and they would have competed evenly at the games. Our sixth best squad could beat everyone. We would now find out what the seventh best squad could do and folks were suddenly worried. A few older guys blew off the MLL to play and new league draftees were allowed to play but the real cream of the US crop would not go to Perth to face the Gaits, Marachek, Tavares, Grant, Sanderson and the stacked northern favorites. As the games drew closer Gary Gait and Tom Marachek would opt to stay with the Baltimore Bayhawks and win the MLL Championship instead of making the trip with the Canadians, but the team remained confident and the odds didn't change much.
Canada made the 20 plus hour flight to Australia with history in their grasp, but like some of Australia's first European settlers, they made some elemental mistakes and succumbed to the deadly terrain. Team Canada's fatal mistake was that they stopped playing lacrosse somewhere in the second quarter of the first game with the US. In the middle of what would have been a classic Paul Gait scoring stretch, the team, after losing a substantial early lead, started hitting the Americans instead of going for the ground ball. They threw nasty crosschecks, mostly to the head and neck and mostly after whistles like it was some kind of intimidation game plan. The remainder of the contest was generally a series of assaults and batteries witnessed between frequent US extra-man goals and a few moments of individual brilliance from Canadian stars that stayed out of the penalty box.
This was a clinic on poor sportsmanship and 6 on 2 extra man situations. A game the Canadians dominated and should have won on the way to a championship became, instead, the most embarrassing moment in Canadian lacrosse history. They erected a monumental magnet for all the criticism often levied in the states toward the more physical box game which is the Canadian national sport. And while a lacrosse player or fan with a hockey goon mentality can maybe walk away from a 5 point loss after knowing they played 29 ˝ minutes down with a sense that they could have easily won, but instead made a statement, the rest of us wonder what statement could have been more important to make in the World Championships than "We're the best!" A few more goals scored and a little less penalty time served and that statement would have been indelibly printed in the history books.
Not enough credit is given to the US squad for winning the second contest against a much less felonious Canada squad, but an equal amount of blame is warranted on the Canadian side. Nearly losing to Australia in a sluggish semifinal performance, they were lucky to make the final and while they did not bring the thuggery to the championship, they played listlessly and not as a team. In fact, all the Canadian outings in Perth lacked a sense of control and preparedness but featured an abundance of overconfidence. Calling stick checks on American field players is just bad karma for a Canadian box-bred group. Don't ya think?
The "Attackman of the Games" John Grant
The team never seemed to have a definitive leader, on the field or sideline. We even heard some criticism of retiring Canadian star Paul Gait for not stopping the team from its brutal behavior in game 1. We know that Paul is a quiet leader, but also that he would have done anything to get back to the methodology employed in the first half when he was on pace for a career game in only the second to last game of his career. The team and coaches let him down in a huge way, though he'd never say that either. John Grant is the leader offensively because he's the best player in the world. He's the man with the ball on the attack, but it often seems like he's better than the guys he's running with because they don't see his lightning behind the back passes coming. We hardly ever follow his fakes and passes accurately with our camera. In the best interests of Canadian lacrosse, Grant needs to assume more leadership by telling guys where to be or just passing overhand so they can see it coming.
2002 Canadian World Games Coach Frank Nielson
Unless the coach, Frank Nielson, was in on the game 1 assault, he needed to stop it within the first couple incidents to stay in control and have a chance to win. Box lacrosse and the Canadian field game have always appeared more "coaches casual", but this was "mob rules". A championship team needs a leader who is respected and in control of the team. These guys looked like a typical All-Star team, unorganized and self accommodating, with no one really claiming accountability for winning or inevitably losing.
The Heritage Cup was well protected by these Canadians
The thing the Canadians always had in lieu of World Games titles was the universally held notion that they were really box players, always the underdog in a field game, and that if they ever got a chance to play the big game in a box arena, they would surely rule supreme. Not a single person ever doubted this for a moment, until halftime of the October 5th Heritage cup when the score read 12-2, in favor of the US.
Hearts broke in Missassauga that day. I saw them. Players were demoralized and 3,800 attendees were stunned silent. The US team did not swarm the field in victory. They stood in awe of the realization that they had just done the impossible, and quite easily. Dwight Maetche should have been hoisted above someone's shoulders but no one even thought about it. Jake Bergey, Kevin Finneran and Mike Regan should have been mobbed by the team, but they too looked up at the score board and just hugged the guy next to them. Tony Resch should have been drenched in Gatorade, but no one was disengaged enough to plot the pouring. The shock resounded. Not only were the Canadians embarrassed visibly, but it was like the Americans were embarrassed for them, not flaunting the win and hardly celebrating.
All in attendance knew that more than a game was lost here. That ethereal "but if we played box…" recoil that Canadians always relied on to get over field losses and continue laying claim to a portion of the lacrosse throne was gone in a poof. They wanted and needed to play this game and the upcoming 2003 World Indoor Lacrosse Championships in order to advance the box game and give it more credence in the international community and in the US. But they traded the presumption, by all, that they were easily the best at the indoor game for the harsh reality that the US's best was far better at that too.
That is not to say that Canada doesn't have more box players, a greater number of quality box players than the US, and the best player. But, the top ten weren't really close. I won't get used to saying it any time soon, but the US just outplayed Canada in every way at the Heritage Cup, billed as the box championship of North America.
Some praise should go to the Canadians for not continuing the unsportsmanlike tenor of the Perth games and for playing and losing like gentlemen. Not much praise though, as we don't thank people for playing fair. While we admire it, we also expect it. But at the Heritage Cup, they might have wanted to at least match the intensity and hard hitting of the Americans. They got beaten up, mostly within the rules, all day long.
There were fewer penalties in the Heritage Cup than in any NLL game I've ever seen. And I don't think a serious boarding occurred all day. The Americans almost never board, but it's a big part of the Canadian game, making it a constant advantage for the Canadians in the NLL. It's a legal hit they can make that they don't often have to take in a game like this. But they might have attempted it 5 times in Missassauga and succeeded twice. In an NLL game it happens maybe 30 times and is a key to killing the other team's offensive possession time. The only huge hit of the game was Jay Jalbert's as he laid out Dan Stroup on a ground ball. Jalbert, despite the French last name, is an American for those of you that don't follow US field lacrosse where he's a superstar. And Stroup is one of the NLL's best, winning Championships only 30 miles away with the Toronto Rock for those of you who don't follow box.
Accountability is really the key to Canada's problems and to the solution, as well. Jack Emmer took full accountability for the US's World Games team and his attention to that responsibility probably attributed to some of the criticism for the team not being as socially available and responsive as past teams. But, we only know that because he stepped up, after our criticism was written, to take responsibility for the team's singular focus. He gets a ton of credit for the win but he'd have gotten double the criticism if the young US squad came home with less than gold. We have not heard anyone take the responsibility for the Canadian behavior and subsequent loss in Perth. We've seen some excuses for the Heritage Cup debacle but no ownership yet. We don't need someone to blame. It's more important than that. For the future of Canadian lacrosse, the World Indoor Lacrosse Championship team in 2003, and the World Games team in 2006, which they may even host, it should be dreadfully obvious that someone needs to take the reigns of the Canadian wagon and steer them back on track toward the place we were going on that balmy Baltimore evening in 1998.
DID YOU SEE THOSE JERSEYS?
Carc's sporting the new REBEL/STX Uniforms!
October 10, 2002