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Stories/Op-Ed

Crouching Liger, Hidden Dragon

How Eli McLaughlin's refocused mindset has helped the Mammoth to the brink of the NLL Finals

The woolly Colorado Mammoth are lucky to have another animal on the team, a wily Liger with skills in lacrosse magic.

What’s a Liger? It’s like a lion and a tiger mixed. Who’s a Liger on the Mammoth? It’s high-scoring forward Eli McLaughlin. The nickname first started out simply as “Li” in high school then later morphed into “Liger.”

“It was off the cuff and just stuck,” says McLaughlin, who at age 28 and with seven seasons of NLL experience is now considered a wily veteran. “It’s a great nickname.”

McLaughlin says he is “Crouching Liger, Hidden Dragon” in the playoffs. He has indeed been dynamite for Colorado since entering the NLL as the fourth overall draft pick in 2014 and being named to the 2015 All-Rookie Team.

This season, McLaughlin set career-highs in goals (38), assists (45) and points (83) to finish 16th in league scoring. His 38 snipes were 10th best, and his four game-winning goals were tied for second.

“Liger is a perfect description of Eli,” says NLL insider and TSN broadcaster Teddy Jenner. “The guy loves to score big goals. He is relentless. His ability to beat you from the outside with a heavy shot and drive hard underneath makes him a very difficult matchup for defenders. He never stands still and you constantly have to be aware of him on the floor.”

Just as important, McLaughlin played in all 18 games during the 2021-22 regular season after being limited by injury in 2020 and 2019. Despite that, Liger was named to 2019 All-Pro Second Team after putting up 35 goals and 41 assists for 76 points in 16 games, his previous career-best numbers.

“Having that extra time off [during the COVID-19 pandemic], and dealing with injuries the last couple of years, it allowed me to get the body right and refocus on how I wanted to be as a player this season,” McLaughlin says.

For McLaughlin, the mental game has become just as, if not more, important than the physical. “I’m more mentally sound this year and not beating myself up about mistakes,” he says.

Which helped lead to the game-winning goals.

“When the game is on the line, I personally feel comfortable in that situation and am not afraid to shoot the ball late in the game,” says McLaughlin, who grew up in Surrey, British Columbia and played his junior lacrosse in Delta, New Westminster and Coquitlam.

McLaughlin’s confidence has come from playing with and learning from Mammoth players, now lacrosse legends, who were vets when he was a young player. Among them: John Grant Jr., Adam Jones, Callum Crawford, Zack Greer, Stephen Keogh and Ryan Benesch.

“Those guys all played a part in helping me mature as a pro lacrosse player,” McLaughlin says. “They all gave me the opportunity to learn by watching them, and during practice teaching me the nuances of the game. Just having teammates and a coaching staff that believed in me since I got here. Without those guys I wouldn’t have had quite the success.”

That success has suddenly piled up for McLaughlin, who passed the 400 career-point mark this season and now sits at 182 goals and 227 assists for 409 points in 116 games played. He also passed lacrosse legend Gary Gait in games played for Colorado, and Jones in points.

McLaughlin trails only Brian Langtry (503), Grant Jr. (552), Gavin Prout (664) and Gait (722) in career points for the Mammoth. Those four all have their numbers retired and in the rafters at Ball Arena in Denver.

“I mean, anytime your name is mentioned with guys of that calibre it’s kind of an honour and shock,” says McLaughlin, who has scored most of his goals with Gait Lacrosse Torq stick heads and custom Gait gloves. “When you start, you never put yourself up with those guys.”

But Liger says team success is more important than personal milestones and accolades. “We’ve got to win that big one,” he says.

Colorado is chasing its first NLL championship since 2006, a team that included Prout and Langtry as well as current Mammoth coach Pat Coyle and Vancouver coach Chris Gill all coached by Gary Gait. They are now one game away from making their first NLL Finals appearance since that 2006 championship season.

“It’s something we’ve being trying to do since I got here,” says McLaughlin. “We’ve had a few close ones, made it to the division finals, but can’t seem to get over that hump. The fans deserve it for sure. They’ve been waiting long enough. It would be an unbelievable feeling to being back a championship to Denver.”

McLaughlin has done his part in the playoffs, recording 12 goals and 10 assists for 22 points in eight career postseason games between 2015-19. So far this postseason, he has led the Mammoth with 14 points on six goals and eight assists in two games. He ignited the Mammoth offence in Game 1 of the West Conference Final, scoring three goals and the insurance goal in the second half.

“I think I kind of enjoy the pressure and when things are on the line,” he says. “It brings out the best in me, and hopefully I bring out the best in the rest of the guys, and we keep it rolling. We’re not ready to go home yet.”

Left-hander Liger’s linemates on the Colorado offence include right-hander Ryan “Leezer” Lee, who was second in league scoring this season and broke Grant Jr.’s Mammoth single-season points record with 119, and fellow lefty Connor Robinson, who was sixth in the league in goals with 42, as well as crafty Chris Wardle, steady Zed Williams and midseason acquisition Tyson Gibson.

“Anytime Leezer has the ball in his stick good things are going to happen,” McLaughlin says. “If the ball’s moving [from side to side] the goalie can’t set his feet quick and we get good looks.

“Overall, we’re not a selfish offence. If I’m not having a good night, I’m getting Connor the ball and doing all the dirty work. We’re all willing to do what needs to be done. If one guy scores, we all score.”

NLL insider Jenner agrees that McLaughlin’s improved mental game has been key for Colorado.

“Battling through injuries the last few seasons, Eli has taken his game to a new level with a refocused mindset,” says Jenner, who watched McLaughlin closely as the Mammoth’s play-by-play announcer for four seasons leading up to the pandemic.

“He’s realized the importance of his off-ball game and that he can be just as impactful without the ball in his stick.”

Crouching Liger, Hidden Dragon indeed.

NLL