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From Friendly Boxla Buds to NLL Bench Boss Foes

Blowing Smoke and Talking Trash

The lifelong lacrosse journeys of NLL coaches Curt Malawsky and Chris Gill both started at the same asphalt-surfaced outdoor box and have similarly ended up behind big league benches.

“It’s pretty awesome that it’s evolved to this,” says Gill, the Vancouver Warriors bench boss.

Gill grew up steps away across the street from the legendary Smith box in the Vancouver suburb of Coquitlam BC. Malawsky, head coach and Assistant GM of the reigning NLL champion Calgary Roughnecks, also lived nearby.

Both Malawsky and Gill would be forged in one of the crucibles of Canadian box lacrosse and go on to be star teammates with their hometown Junior Adanacs and then top competitors in the NLL.

Fast forward to Friday, and Gill’s slightly favoured Warriors (-1.5; O/U 22) travel to Calgary to face Malawsky’s Roughnecks in the Sports Interaction Game of the Week on TSN2 at the Scotiabank Saddledome (10 p.m. ET/ESPN+/TSN2). It’s the first meeting of the season between the two fierce Western Conference foes, and both will be battling hard for potential playoff position.

Friday’s tilt is part of the all-Canadian Alterna Cup in-season competition. Calgary currently sits at 1-0 in those standings. Vancouver is 1-1 heading into the weekend. Halifax leads at 3-0, and hosts Vancouver in the next Alterna Cup matchup on March 5. Including the bout with Halifax for the Warriors, both Vancouver and Calgary have five games remaining to compete for the Alterna Cup. These two will face off in the final matchup of the season on April 16. Soon after, the first Alterna Cup champion will be crowned.

Both teams know the significance of this game to make ground in both the Alterna Cup and Western Conference standings.

Gill’s Warriors have won two straight after losing three in a row, while Malawsky’s Roughnecks got back into the win column last week after also losing three straight.

“I think when Calgary plays at home with Dickson, Pace and King, their offence is one of the toughest to defend against. They can all pass, shoot and drive. Del Bianco in net is one of the best, and Currier, and they got some speed and size.” Gill says of Malawsky’s 2-4 Roughnecks. “It’s going to be a game where we can’t have a lapse. With a team coached by Malawsky, if you take a few minutes off, they’ll bury you, especially with the crowd there.”

Malawsky is just as complimentary toward Gill. But of course they could also both just be blowing smoke.

“He’s a good player’s coach. Guys like him and work hard for him. His team plays a good game,” Malawsky says of Gill’s 4-3 Warriors. “Their offence is looking really good on both sides of the floor, and their defense is tight, physical. The goalie is good, and their transition is too. This is the best version of Vancouver in years. They’re ahead of us in standings. We haven’t seen each other yet. Divisional games are huge.”

Gill’s assessment of Malawsky: “Obviously he’s an intense individual. He has the pedigree of being a winner and demands excellence. He’s one of those guys who makes sure he’s leading by hard work, like he was as a player. As a coach he’s won in junior and won in the pros. He’s a good coach. He demands a lot out of his players. He’ll prep for a team. If he can find something in video, he’ll exploit it. He pre-scouts and preps hard.”

This is not surprising, according to Gill.

“In junior he was kind of ahead of his time,” says Gill. “He was the type of player who always had a scout on other teams. NLL teams today are doing what he was doing back then as a player at the time. That’s the kind of guy he was as a player.”

As players there would be NLL Championships for both Gill and Malawsky, but not together. For one brief season they were pro teammates in their home city. They would both be inducted into the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame in the same year, 2015.

Gill’s and Malawsky’s stats from their NLL playing days are impressive. And both had their best seasons, statistically speaking, in 2002.

Gill spent 14 seasons in the league between 1996 (at the time the NLL was called the Major Indoor Lacrosse League, or MILL) and 2011 with Baltimore, Ontario, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Colorado and Edmonton, recording 338 goals and 557 points in 173 career regular-season games. In 13 playoff games over 9 seasons, he had 16 goals and 32 points.

Gill won three NLL championships, two with Toronto (1999, 2000) and one with Colorado (2006). In 2002 with Vancouver’s original NLL franchise, the Ravens, he was named to the All-Pro Second Team after netting 53 goals and 90 points in 16 games.

“He was a real good off-ball guy, smart, got open, a real good finisher,” Malawsky says of Gill. “He didn’t miss. As an adversary you always had to know where he was out there.”

Malawsky, meanwhile, played 12 seasons in the league between 1998 and 2009 for Rochester, Vancouver, San Jose, Arizona and Calgary, notching 260 goals and 277 assists for 537 points in 159 career regular-season games. In 20 playoff games over 10 seasons, he had 30 goals and 49 points.

Malawsky won one NLL Championship as a player with Calgary (2009). His best statistical season was also 2002, the same as Gill’s, when he recorded 31 goals and 60 points with Rochester.

In the 2000 NLL championship final, Gill and Toronto got the better of Malawsky and Rochester with one second remaining in regulation in what has been dubbed the “Greatest Professional Indoor Lacrosse Game of All-Time.” More than 14,000 fans in attendance were there for the last sporting event in historic Maple Leaf Gardens. In 2021 the game was named one of the NLL’s top 35 moments.

“What I remember is that it was extremely hot, so hot, in Toronto that day,” says Gill. “The amount of fans made it hard to breathe. The atmosphere was electric. It was really loud. I feel pretty lucky to be involved with that.”

The two would be teammates in 2004 with the Vancouver Ravens, but would finish disappointedly out of the playoffs. (Gill’s stats that year: 22 goals, 47 points in 15 games. Malawsky’s: 23 goals, 44 points in 10 games.)

Malawsky jumped behind the bench as soon as his playing days were over to be an assistant with Calgary in 2010 before taking over head-coaching duties in 2013. Gill’s bench career would start as a co-coach with Colorado in 2014 before moving on to Vancouver for the 2018-19 season.

Both Malawsky’s and Gill’s career regular-season coaching records hover around .500 (Malawsky is currently 69-71; Gill 42-46). The playoffs is where Malawsky really shines, going 13-9 in 22 career games behind the bench and culminating in the 2019 NLL Cup. For the record, Gill is 0-3 coaching in the postseason but hoping to change that this season.

Gill, however, won’t ever let his old boxla bud Malawsky get the better of him, and as always there’s plenty of friendly gamesmanship and trash talk between the two in the lead-up to Friday, some of it publishable some of it not.

“As a player he was super talented and super skilled. But he annoyed people at the same time,” Gill, 50, says of Malawsky, 51. “He was the ultimate teammate. But he had the worst stick of all time.”

Back in those junior days, during the 1991 season, Malawsky recorded a league-high 97 assists and 152 points with that stick and Gill netted a league-high 62 goals.

Did either Malawsky or Gill ever think back in those Smith box or junior days that they would end up staring across the bench at each other in the NLL?

“Not a chance,” says Gill, typically selling himself, Malawsky and the whole situation short.

“It’s a really hard league to win in. It took me a long time as both a player and coach,” says Malawsky. “For sure it’s special, remembering where we came from, young guys at Smith box, to now standing behind an NLL bench.”