The Successful Debut of Canada's Newest Jr. A Box Lacrosse Team
By Ted Montour
In classical Greek mythology, the Titans were the 'elder gods', who ruled the earth before being overthrown by Zeus and the Olympians. In Ottawa, the Titans are the newest club to join the Ontario Lacrosse Association (OLA) Junior A league (for players 17 to 21 years of age), the premier junior box lacrosse circuit in Canada (with all due respect to my colleagues in British Columbia).
The Minto Cup, until recently awarded to the winner of a best-of-seven-games series pitting Ontario against British Columbia, and emblematic of the Canadian Junior A box lacrosse championship, was originally presented in 1901 as a senior men's field lacrosse trophy. Beginning in 1937, and with the exception of 1941-1946 when Canada was busy winning WWII, the Minto has been won 43 times by Ontario teams, including an unprecedented seven consecutive years from 1963 to 1969 by the Oshawa Green Gaels, and eighteen times by British Columbia teams, most recently in 2004 by the Burnaby Lakers .At time of writing, the 2005 Minto Cup, now in tournament format with the admission of an Alberta representative, has just been won by the Burnaby Lakers, over the Six Nations Arrows.
Junior A lacrosse clubs in Ontario are individual franchises, and the league is governed by a Council of team representatives, a general manager or executive member from each team, and a Commissioner, under the jurisdiction of the Ontario Lacrosse Association (OLA) and the Canadian Lacrosse Association (CLA). In recent history, teams have joined the Junior A league usually by advancing from the Junior B ranks (although there is no automatic promotion or relegation), the "B" designation having mostly to do with the size of the community and player base of each team, and only consequently with the quality of play. Nevertheless, Canadian Junior A lacrosse, historically much like Canadian major junior hockey, has sent a majority of players to the pro's, going back to the 'original' National Lacrosse League of the 1970's. In the 2005-06 NLL entry draft held earlier this month, the first ten players selected came from Canadian Junior A box lacrosse.
The Ottawa Titans are a brand new operation, albeit with deep roots in the Ottawa and Eastern Ontario lacrosse communities. Two junior B presidents from Ottawa area teams, the Nepean Knights and the Gloucester Griffins, got together in 2003 to take up the initiative that many people had talked about for the better part of a decade, putting together a group of volunteer organizers (eventually including yours truly to handle media relations), and developing the franchise proposal. After months of lobbying and several league Council sessions, the group announced in February 2004 that the Ottawa Titans would join the OLA Junior A league and begin play in the summer of 2005.
The next big milestone for the fledging organization was the selection of a head coach, and the circumstances of that can only be described as serendipitous. Titans president Rad Joseph, a former Jr. A goaltender himself, was attending a winter meeting of the Ontario Lacrosse Association, and at a social event, struck up a conversation with Pete Vipond. Vipond is an Ontario Lacrosse Hall of Famer who won Minto Cups as a player and coach, and is the winningest coach in Canadian major lacrosse, having lead his beloved hometown Brooklin Redmen to five Mann Cups between 1985 and 2000 (Brooklin, Ontario is a longtime lacrosse town, now part of the larger municipality of Whitby, itself a "bedroom community" East of Toronto). Pete was also an original draft choice of the NHL Oakland Seals, and more recently served as Head Coach of the New Jersey/ Anaheim Storm, late of the NLL. What began as a casual chat soon developed into serious negotiation, but it did not take too much persuasion to convince Pete, who regularly came to the Ottawa area on business, to become the Titans first Head Coach. In Pete Vipond, Joseph had landed a genuine whale, whose appointment surprised many in the Canadian lacrosse community, and delighted all those involved with the Titans.
Another key goal in the development of the Titans was the establishment of a strong relationship with the nearby (one-hour drive) Akwesasne Mohawk community. Akwesasne Mohawk Territory is situated principally on Cornwall Island in the St. Lawrence River, bestriding the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, as well the state of New York, and is home to many generations of lacrosse players, as well Mohawk International Lacrosse. This relationship got off on the right foot almost immediately, when the Titans executive undertook a search for assistants for Head Coach Vipond, choosing Akwesasne schoolteacher and lacrosse and hockey coach Joe Phillips, along with Ottawa area residents Chad Fairfoull, Mike Jamieson, Greg Kent and André "Biff" Leduc.
Within the same time frame, the annual OLA draft of graduating midget (15- and 16-year-old) players took place. The politics of the OLA Jr. A are such that the expansion Titans went to the bottom, not the top, of the selection order, of the two-round draft of players from minor lacrosse associations not associated with Jr. A centres; nevertheless, the Titans were able to barter their first-round pick for the rights to a high-scoring Ottawa player who had been taken the previous year by the Peterborough Lakers. Kyle "Bucky" Buchanan would go on to be the Titans' leading scorer.
In early April 2005 things began to get serious, with a prospects camp held in Cornwall, another St. Lawrence River community (immediately adjacent to Akwesasne) with a long lacrosse history, a Cornwall team having been defeated by the Ottawa Capitals for the very first Minto Cup in 1901. Thirteen players from across Eastern Ontario earned an invitation to the Titans inaugural main training camp, which got underway April 15th. The eventual roster of some 20 players was composed of virtually equal parts Gloucester, Nepean and Akwesasne boys, with Buchanan the only one among them with any Jr. A experience, called up for one game by Peterborough in 2004.
With every other team except one a five- or six-hour bus ride (Peterborough being a relatively scant three hours) away, and an expansion team's schedule, the Titans surprised immediately, winning their season-opening two games on the road, the first a 10-9 shocker over the former Minto Cup champion St. Catharines Athletics. They backed that up less than twenty-four hours later with an 8-6 win over the Orillia Kings, a rebuilding club that had been a play-off contender just three seasons ago. Having dismissed any possibility of the nightmare scenario of an 0-22 first season, the Titans set their sights on winning their home opener, but their aim was spoiled by the Mississauga Tomahawks, who DID go winless in 2004 but managed to top the Titans 9-6. A crowd approaching 1,000, a figure unprecedented in Ottawa junior lacrosse, nevertheless gave their new team a rousing welcome.
Unfortunately, this was the beginning of a seven-game losing streak, including six at home, one of those a 14-0 schooling at the hands of the defending OLA Junior A champion Six Nations Arrows. The Titans broke this skid on the road again the first week-end of June, avenging their original home loss with an 18-11 victory over the Tomahawks.
June would prove to be their most productive, as well as their busiest, month, as the Titans posted six wins, including four in a row, against four losses, climbing into the play-off hunt in the process. They also got that elusive first home victory, a very satisfying 10-6 victory over the hapless Burlington Chiefs. Along the way they bolstered their roster with return to Ottawa of three former Nepean Jr. B stand-outs. Brad Conlon, coming home from his first year at D-III Rochester Institute of Technology, is a rare bird indeed who tends goal in both box and field, having been named to U-19 Team Canada in 2003. Matt Cowie was a Jr. B East Rookie of the Year before being drafted by the Peterborough Lakers. Mickey Gilchrist was also a Jr. B ROTY, originally drafted by the Jr. A Toronto Beaches club, who returned from his first year at Middlebury College with a piece of the D-III national hockey championship as well as the national lacrosse silver medal.
With four games remaining in July, the Titans were battling three other teams for the final two post-season berths, seventh and eighth places in the standings of the twelve-team league. They finished one-and-three, but managed to hang onto that eighth slot, and became the first Junior A expansion team since 1965 to make the Ontario play-offs in their debut season. This emotional high was immediately tempered by the fact that their eighth-place finish earned them a best-of seven series with the Arrows, who had repeated as regular-season champions, compiling an impressive 19-and-3 record in the process. It was back on the bus again, to the brand-new Iroquois Lacrosse Arena, which has been announced as the host venue for the 2006 Minto Cup championship tournament.
Predictably, the Arrows took the opener at home by a 12-6 score, as Ottawa native Callum Crawford, whom the Titans had traded to Six Nations late in the season for future considerations, contributed a goal and three assists. Playing game 2 in Ottawa's Earl Armstrong Arena with humidex readings over 40 degrees Celsius (the equivalent of 108+ Fahrenheit), the Arrows seemed to run out of gas while the Titans maintained their composure. The Titans took an early three-goal lead and then hung on, buoyed by the play of Titans goalie Justin Delormier, a first-year junior from Akwesasne who had not even been the regular starter for his hometown midget "rep" team the previous year, the most unflappable teen-ager you could ever meet, mentored by his goal-tender dad Craig, with whom he shapes and strings his own wooden goalie sticks. Justin stopped everything the Arrows could throw at him, including the attempted first-period "psych" of an equipment measurement demanded by Arrows Head Coach Randy Chrysler, which only resulted in a two-minute penalty assessed against the Arrows for delay of the game. The Titans won 6-5, with the winning goal coming from Blu Grant, a slender Cornwall lad and walking human interest story, who had previously withstood the trials of being the only 'white boy' playing with the Akwesasne intermediates and a fight with cancer.
Game Three, the next afternoon, took shape much the same way, with Ottawa taking a three-goal lead once again, then demonstrating superior conditioning to hold it, this time for a 9-8 win. The Titans found themselves in the improbable position of leading their first play-off series two games to one against the two-time league champs,. Not to mention the fact that their back-to-back victories had guaranteed them one more home game.
The Arrows were not to be denied at the ILA, taking back the series lead with 9-0 and 12-8 wins, to set up more drama in Ottawa the next week-end. The emotions of the moment were heightened when it was announced by the OLA that Pete Vipond and his staff had been named the Jr. A Coaching Staff of the Year, and Justin Delormier, in an unprecedented combination in league history, was selected Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player. The Arrows did not wilt in the heat and humidity this time, however, and although the Titans built yet another early lead, this time to 6-2 in the second period, the visitors steadily drew even. They could not put Ottawa away in regulation, but the Arrows scored the game winner just over a minute into the overtime, then spent the next nine minutes hanging on themselves. Ottawa's dream season had come to an end.
Last month, everyone gathered one last time in the year for a banquet and the presentation of team awards. Four players who had finished their last year of junior eligibility became the founding members of the Titans alumni. There were congratulatory and encouraging words all around, lots of laughs and more than a few tears, but the most resonant words came from Head Coach Pete Vipond, who said " … in two years, we'll win the Minto Cup."
September 16, 2005
All Photos by Neil Hargreaves Photography, Ottawa
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