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Indigenous Players Cherish Opportunity to Play in Front of Indigenous Communities

This season, the National Lacrosse League is hosting preseason games at a variety of venues. Each year, the league takes the opportunity to showcase the sport in smaller arenas in cities where fans don’t always have regular access to an NLL team.

Some of these arenas have been used before: the Toronto Rock Athletic Centre in Oakville, for example, is where the Toronto Rock run their day-to-day business. It’s conveniently located in southern Ontario, where a large number of NLL players make their home. The TRAC is set to host seven preseason games.

Brampton’s Memorial Arena, just half an hour away from Oakville, will host three.

And this season, the NLL is bringing the game to two Indigenous communities: Onondaga, New York and Akwesasne, a Mohawk community that straddles the border of Canada and the United States along the St. Lawrence River.

It is fitting that the game returns to the communities where it was born. Lacrosse is an Indigenous game, traditionally played for the enjoyment of the Creator and as a medicine game to promote healing.

Onondaga Nation will host the Philadelphia Wings and Georgia Swarm on November 26th at Tsha’ Thoñ’nhes (Where They Play Ball) Arena. It is the home of Swarm players Lyle and Miles Thompson.

“NLL games being played on Native territory is amazing as a whole. It was a great thing to see how much energy it brought to the Akwesasne community (a community I grew up in). In Onondaga I expect the same… there are people that travel hours just to watch minor, Jr., Sr. competitions, so the love for the game in this community is unmatched. I’m excited to be a part of bringing the NLL to Onondaga and I’m in excited to come home” said Lyle Thompson.

Last weekend, Las Vegas, San Diego and Halifax played a mini tournament in Akwesasne at the A’nowara’ko:wa Arena (colloquially called the Turtle Dome) and got to meet with the local fans. Over three games, those fans were treated to some incredible lacrosse, including two sock tricks over two games from the Seals’ Austin Staats.

Staats hails from Six Nations, a Haudenosaunee community about an hour away from Oakville, as does Halifax goaltender Warren Hill. Six Nations is a lacrosse hotbed and is frequently the site of NLL practices and training camps.

Though there is a five-hour drive between Six Nations and Akwesasne, Hill called the more northern community a home away from home.

“I have friends and family up there,” he said. “It’s one of those communities that we’re close to, as is Onondaga. I’ve played in the A’nowara’ko:wa Arena before but it was a lot of fun to be back.”

Geographically, Akwesasne’s closest NLL team is Rochester, just a “quick” four-and-a-half-hour car ride away. Albany and Toronto are drivable as well, but it’s a long journey, so taking in an NLL game is a rare event.

“Where their community is, aside from back in the day when they had the Ottawa Rebels or the Montreal Express, they haven’t had any NLL action close by in a long time… It’s hard for people up there to see live professional games and it’s a big sacrifice to go, so for us to play up there and put on a show for them was really cool and I think they really appreciated it,” Hill expressed. “For a preseason game, the arena was packed and I’ve only seen that with Ontario championships and things like that.”

Staats was blown away by the crowds that appeared, calling it special, inspiring and unreal.

“It meant so much that the fans really showed up to the Turtle Dome to support,” he said. “I was inspired by all the kids that we were there to perform for, and show them the game and it’s something I’ll remember for sure.”

Over the weekend, the Seals emerged victorious, putting up 18 goals in each of their wins, beating Las Vegas 18-9 and Halifax 18-14. Halifax downed Las Vegas 15-12.

Hill said the Thunderbirds were able to meet many of the fans and take photos and sign autographs.

“We take pride in doing things like that. It’s a cliché but all of us were little kids like that and we couldn’t wait to meet stars like John Grant Jr. and John Tavares,” he said.

Staats had a special interaction with a young fan named Tayt, who gave him a beautifully beaded Seals logo medallion.

“After the game on Friday night Tayt asked his mom, Apryl, to help make a Seals medallion for me for the game on Saturday,” Staats recalled. “She started at like midnight and it took six hours or something to make. Before the game on Saturday I got to meet Tayt and he gave me the medallion. It was incredible; one of the coolest gifts I’ve ever received. It means so much to me, to kinda be a role model for these kids. I was glad I was able to go out there and score some goals on Saturday for him.”

Hill also recognizes the importance of children from Indigenous communities getting to watch him play and interact with him.

“It definitely goes a long way to see Indigenous people represented on this stage,” he said. “For Haudenosaunee communities, a lot of us grew up wanting to be in the NLL and be the best at lacrosse that we can be. In other communities the dream might be the NHL or NBA, but for us, we always wanted to play in the NLL. To see other Native players in the league, those are superstars, our role models. It’s nice to give back that way and be that guy now.

Staats wants to remind fans that lacrosse is so much more than just a game: “It’s the Creator’s game and it finds a way to heal people. We were able to bring the medicine game to Akwesasne and really show what the game can do. Playing the game, watching the game, even just being around the game is healing and brings positivity to the community. The game of lacrosse means so much.”

Not all preseason games are at neutral sites: three teams are hosting games in their home rinks. The Buffalo Bandits fell 14-10 to Rochester on November 6 at KeyBank Center. The Las Vegas Desert Dogs will hit the turf at Michelob ULTRA Arena for the first time on the 20th as they host the Colorado Mammoth. The Calgary Roughnecks will also host their rival Saskatchewan at Scotiabank Saddledome on the 26th.

Action also continues this weekend at the TRAC and Memorial Arena. See the full schedule here: https://www.nll.com/news/2022-23-exhibition-game-schedule/. The NLL regular season opens on December 2nd for Face Off Weekend.