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2009 E-Lacrosse Feature: Even with a loss, the Wings are back!

I do Philadelphia road trips pretty regularly. I'll try to cover a high school or college game on the same day as a Wings pro indoor game. This past Saturday, I was able to see a triple header -- Haverford played McDaniel, Drexel played Sacred Heart and then the Wings hosted the New York Titans with Casey Powell, Ryan Boyle and a host of other American box stars.

I had run into Wings coach Dave Huntley at a Calvert Hall game and he mentioned that he thought the game against the Titans on April 19 would draw really well. I marked the date and planned to go. A week earlier, Athan Iannucci, the second-year pro out of Hofstra, scored three goals and broke Gary Gait's National Lacrosse League record of 61 goals in a season. So 62 was the theme for the night and the celebration of Athan's accomplishment was enjoyed by over 17,000 people. Gait sent a video message and they had a video presentation with darn near all of the 62 goals. I captured a bit for you, which I've posted below.

Iannucci was a first-round draft pick and No. 8 overall by the Wings in the 2007 NLL Entry Draft as well as the first overall pick in the 2007 supplemental draft by the Chicago Machine in the much smaller outdoor pro league, Major League Lacrosse. Iannucci has been on the radar of true box fans for a while, winning the Nieuwendyk Award as the top rookie in the OLA (Ontario Lacrosse Association) Junior A Lacrosse League in 1999 before winning three Minto Cups (Canada's Jr. A Championship). In 2007 Iannucci was the leading scorer in the Canadian senior league with the New Westminster Salmonbellies and the Wings' leading scorer as a rookie. Box players often play two pro seasons, one in Canada in the summer and the NLL from January until May.

Whether it's Iannucci, the new coach or just winning that is the cause, the Wings are back, or more importantly, the Wings fans are back. For years, the Wings drew better than any lacrosse crowd and only a few seasons ago, it waned off to a respectable but lower number. The fall in attendance coincided with a drop in quality on the floor. When the team is good, the place is packed. And they are quite good now, even though they lost this past game to the Titans behind a league Player of the Week effort by New York forward Pat Maddalena. Iannucci added four goals to his already best-ever 62 in the losing effort.

The Wings lost that night but it is so obvious that the winning ways in Philadelphia are back. Huntley exudes a quiet calm, Iannucci explodes with some sensational offense a few times a period and they added a fan favorite in Geoff "in-your-face-off" Snider to a cast the crowds already know and love led by Jake Bergey. The fans have been rejuvenated, and the Wings fans, whether a 10,000-person 2005 crowd or Saturday's 17,000, are easily the best I have ever seen in any sport.

The Philly sports fan is unique. I remember waiting in a line for tickets 10 years ago and speaking with a whole group of Philadelphians who had come down to the arena complex to see the minor league hockey game, which ended up being sold out. Instead of leaving in disappointment, they just walked next door to see their first pro lacrosse game. I have met so many others like them since and I still see that same group all the time at Wings games. They were hooked that very night and now hold season tickets. The Wings have a 70 percent season ticket-owning crowd, I was told by a fan this week. If you watch the video, you will see that they rock the place and are a true 7th man.

A majority of the seats at a Wings home game are filled with people wearing a Wings jersey from years past if not the new number 23 Iannucci jersey that has to be the best-selling shirt in town. And yes, Iannucci was a huge Michael Jordan fan and picked the number 23 accordingly. One guy in front of me had taken his Gary Gait jersey and covered the name on the back with a taped-on piece of paper reading IANNUCCI. The "Nooch" is already loved. So is Snider. These fans love their team and its members. You can't find anything close in the MLL and in most NLL towns. I will say that Denver seems to be similar in nature but I can't make that drive four times a year to verify it.

And that brings me to the reason why I'm spending so much time in a baltimoresun.com blog talking about a Philly team. It's just an hour away! If you've never experienced a Wings game you are missing a true lacrosse experience. I still have a physical warmth come over me when the players take the floor and a whole packed arena erupts. I have seen it in Philly, Toronto and Denver and each time I am slightly overcome. It is like the NCAA tournament but it's just a home game with non-players in attendance. There are few people at the NCAA tournament not connected to lacrosse through their own experience in the game. But most of the people at a Wings game never played a game of lacrosse in their lives. They are just fans. They are, in fact, the most elusive thing in the game of lacrosse. They do not exist in Baltimore or New York. There are some in Canada and must be some in Denver, but otherwise, nada.

Baltimore had a few chances to support a team. When the Baltimore Thunder hosted a championship series game in 1998, the crowd was more than double that of any other home crowd that year. The Philly folks had shown up. It was the best crowd we ever had and the most fun I ever had at a Baltimore pro box game since the 1987 championship in the Eagle League that preceded the MILL, which preceded the NLL. After the 1999 season, box lacrosse gave up on Baltimore, but the move just proved that it's not a Baltimore deficiency that doomed the Thunder. It was a lacrosse thing.

The Baltimore team, loaded with talent, moved to Pittsburgh and then Washington and finally to Colorado where they found a home. The MLL is suffering from the same dearth of actual lacrosse fans. They've actually proven a far worse premise. It is next to impossible to find a fan that did not play the game, or at the very least, has a kid who did. But in the case of Baltimore and New York pro efforts, it's proven more than difficult to get even lacrosse playing people out to watch pro games.

The failed efforts of the MLL in so many lacrosse hotbeds also disprove the old standard theory held by so many lacrosse pundits and purists. It was always said that the fans did not come because of the box game's crudities, fights and display of "poor lacrosse habits" for their young kids still learning the game. But those same guys did not buy any tickets for the outdoor pro league when they finally had the chance. Last year the two-time MLL champions failed to draw enough of a crowd to stay in business, in, of all places, Philadelphia. The MLL has repackaged the team as a touring champion with no home in hopes of placing the team somewhere, perhaps in Portland or somewhere else out west. So what makes a team like the Wings succeed fabulously in the same town where the Barrage did so poorly. It wasn't wins and losses. The Barrage won two straight titles and dominated the league. They had hometown heroes leading the squad and cooperation from quite a few in the lacrosse community. It is, obviously, the non-lacrosse connected people that make the difference. It's the NASCAR crowd, or hockey crowd, or whatever you want to call them, but they pack the Wings games and would never even think of attending a Barrage game. Those folks aren't at any of the college games in Philly either, where the average crowd at a Penn or Drexel game is about what the Barrage drew.

So what is it that either draws these folks to the indoor game or repels them from the outdoor version? Perhaps it's the same things that keep the purists from the indoor game in Baltimore and New York -- the fights, loud music and rowdy fans. I myself wrote a scathing report from the sideline of a recent college game about the behavior of some lax dads who were jeering the refs. But at a Wings game, jeering the refs, and the other team, is part of the fan experience.

The whole experience could be very disconcerting to the real purist or puritan. When the opposing team is introduced, after each name is announced, the whole crowd yells "SUCKS," even if it's Ryan Boyle or Casey Powell, who obviously don't. The announcement of the opponents' names is followed by that of the game's referees and each of their names are also amended with the same requisite cheer from the crowd. After all of the guests have been insulted, the last name to be announced is that of the shot clock operator, a Philly resident and the crowd erupts in approving cheers as if to infer that he's with them.

Like a hockey game, this is where that behavior is acceptable within lacrosse. The refs feed on it and are part of the show. And it is a show, with a soundtrack constantly playing. The game is real and the refs call the game to the best of their abilities, which are rated and evaluated regularly. But the event is a show and it's entertaining as hell. I was surrounded by fans during the intro and after inquiring about my camera and finding that I was "press," they made me participate in the shouting of "SUCKS" after a few of the opposing players names (sorry guys) and it was cathartic. You should try it -- at a Wings game, not at your next youth game.

It sounds like a circus, but that was next door, literally. This crowd, while not typical of a lacrosse crowd at Homewood or Charlottesville, knows the indoor game. They are as sophisticated as any fans about the rules. An obvious non-call gets the whole place to their feet, on cue like it were a goal or big hit. They are baseball-like in their attention to the history and the players. Retired players like Kevin Finneran, Dallas Eliuk and Tom Marachek will always be recognized and asked for autographs at a Wings game.

The Wings crowd is clever, too. Many years ago the Wings used to play an actual vinyl record of the national anthem before games. The record become worn and scratched and eventually developed a faint hiss at a very regular interval as the needle passed a particular scratch in the record. The crowd had gotten used to it by the time they replaced the record and the record player with a brand new CD player and a much cleaner copy of the anthem on disc. But the crowd would have none of it and to this day, even when a live performer is singing the anthem before 17,000 fans, the crowd itself adds the slightest of hissing sounds at the same regular intervals where they were used to appear for so many years.

To the outsider, that might seem flippant or even disrespectful to the anthem, but its not. It's part of the anthem there, like the "O" we shout in Baltimore. Lots of people misunderstand that but we know in Baltimore that the "O" is not intended to be un-American. It's obvious the Wings crowd is not. The game opens with a live enlistment ceremony right in front of everyone, where new recruits are sworn into the service.

17,000 walking around a close space like an indoor arena is a big crowd but a small world. I always run into the same people, many of them field lacrosse people from all over Pennsylvania. This time I had just come from two college games at Haverford and Drexel and saw quite a few of the people from the stands for those games at the Wings game, too. The Wings games are peppered with local prep school jackets and youth program sweats, unlike a typical MLL game. So, while they attract the non-lacrosse people or NASCAR crowd, they also draw the prep school crowd and local lacrosse community.

Baltimore and Maryland, generally speaking, might find that hard to accomplish, for more social reasons. I'll be blunt. Many Marylanders hate lacrosse or more aptly they dislike lacrosse players, or at least the ones they know or knew as kids. I was a longtime fan of the Maryland comptroller while I was growing up. Louis "Louie" Goldstein used to deliver his annual state of the Maryland economy address in rhyming humorous verses. He was a jolly soul from Prince Frederick, Maryland. He came up as a young man with later Governor William Donald Schaefer and later Ocean City Mayor Harry Kelly. I had actually played lacrosse with Schaefer's grandson, but those three great Marylanders all had something in common, I learned from Goldstein. They hated lacrosse.

I had been very curious why the state sport was jousting instead of lacrosse and as the editor of a publication about lacrosse based in Maryland, I decided to ask and report on it. The story called "Surely you joust" was a fun look at the two sports comparatively, but during the research I learned something that I never imagined was true. I called the speaker of the Maryland senate to ask my question and was told that the legislation to make lacrosse the state sport in Maryland had been around for years and was rehashed every so often but that it was always quashed by a group led in spirit by Goldstein.

I knew that had to be wrong. I loved Goldstein and I loved lacrosse. So I called Goldstein's office, figuring I could speak to an aide about what was really going on. Maybe there was always some proverbial "pork" in the "Lacrosse as a State Sport" bill. Somebody may have been trying to sneak some unwise expenditure in along with the obviously unanimously heralded lacrosse measure. I was stunned to not only speak directly to Comptroller Goldstein, but at how polite and frank he was about it. He said that ever since he was a kid, he and the people he knew and liked were bullied or at least condescended to by Maryland lacrosse people.

Goldstein understood as I did, having attended a Virginia military school, Baltimore City College, Boys' Latin and Dulaney for my four years of high school, that lacrosse people came in all varieties and that generally, the folks at a prep school might be more, well, self-satisfied, then some others. He agreed but apologized that his feelings were strong enough to keep blocking the move until his retirement and then, he said, he expected it to eventually pass. He was charming and we had a great conversation about a few other things. It was obvious he was good people and that he warmed up to good people easily.

When he did retire, finally, from public office, the legislation was passed, much to the credit of my friend and former Bayhawks co-owner/GM Gordon Boone. But the lesson was not lost on me. We in lacrosse love our game and know for a fact that it crushes baseball, for example (in my opinion), but we would be better off teaching our lacrosse-playing kids to treat all of their schoolmates with the same courtesy they show their teammates even if they play lesser games.

This shouldn't be so much news to anyone really close to the game. Why do we think the overwhelming initial public reaction to the news of the Duke party and possible rape of a dancer was nothing less than contempt for the entitled? Do you remember how battered around the game and our prep school image was for months? People in towns all over America just substituted the most arrogant rich kid in their town or in their memory for those accused lacrosse players and assumed or at least wished they were guilty. Our game has recovered with the discovery of their complete innocence of the alleged offense, but I fear while we all thumped our chests in vindication, we missed an important discussion on how we are perceived by others as a sport.

In the "City of Brotherly Love" they don't have that issue in lacrosse. Or at least it's far less evident. The mixed crowd jams to the music, cheers the Wings and jeers the officials. There's polo shirts and biker tattoos, varsity jackets and trucker hats, all under one roof, all loving the Wings and lacrosse. You never hear the standard Baltimore lacrosse question -- "Where did you play?" -- because the MOST important factor in the success of the Wings is that most of them didn't.

April 24, 2008
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