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The NLL Unstrung: The Start of an All-American League

Welcome back to The NLL Unstrung and thanks for joining me for the first edition of the new year! As you read in my first article titled, The Start of a New Series, The NLL Unstrung will continue to uncover the history of box lacrosse and the evolution of the National Lacrosse League in each article.

 

Today’s topic, the league’s influence of American and Canadian players. Something I always hear people talk about around the National Lacrosse League is its constant progress to include more American born players. Even after the NLL became “Canadianized” years ago there were still some pretty good Americans (Jake Bergey, Kevin Finneran, Mark Millon and too many defensive players to name).

 

The full irony… the NLL started as an all American league in the 80’s back when it was the Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse League. I had the chance to catch up with Toronto Rock broadcaster, Brian Shanahan about the early years, since he has been around the league as a fan and analyst from the league’s start.

 

As most people know, in the last 10 years of the NLL, American born players have almost become non-existent. Captain America, Tom Schreiber, took the lacrosse world by storm in his “Rookie of the Year” season with the Toronto Rock after playing field lacrosse at Princeton University. What makes this great, besides the small unnecessary fact that yours truly was born in Princeton, NJ, was the fact that he paved the way for the new wave of American field lacrosse players to make the transition into box lacrosse without significant prior box experience.

 

No, we did not forget Joe Resetarits. Brian Shanahan reminded me that Hamburg, New York’s Joe Resetarits has had a great career too, but he grew up close to the Canadian border and played box in Canada as a youngster.

 

When Schreiber went down with a knee injury in his second season in the NLL he was without a doubt in the NLL MVP conversation. The last and only American to win the MVP award was Casey Powell in 2010 and even Casey needed a few seasons of NLL lacrosse before he found his groove. Although he was a member of Team USA in field lacrosse, Schreiber came into the 2017 season with zero box lacrosse experience.  He was the ‘American Experiment’ that worked. He is the first American born, field lacrosse player that transitioned and excelled in the NLL from his first year in the league.

 

Brian Shanahan was kind enough to share stories and family pictures with me. He and his three brothers Danny, Shaun, and Brendan, grew up during a time where the lacrosse worlds were split. In the 80’s, Canadian kids, like the Shanahans, grew up playing box lacrosse whereas the field game was the major form of lacrosse played in the U.S.

Brian, Danny, Shaun, and Brendan Shanahan pose in their lacrosse uniforms. Credit: Brian Shanahangrew up playing box lacrosse whereas the field game was the major form of lacrosse played in the U.S.

 

When the original NLL was created in 1974, it featured some of the best players on its six teams, including talent from Canada. Unfortunately the league ran into problems and folded in 1975.

 

Now let me first say, the league name is just a coincidence. The original National Lacrosse League is not affiliated with the current NLL. Secondly, I should give you some background on the original league to help you understand how it influenced the early years of the Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse League.

 

With players from the United States and Canada, the original NLL struggled with finances. It was too expensive to pay players enough to afford to relocate to any of the teams home locations. (Montreal, Toronto, Syracuse, Philadelphia, Rochester, and Maryland) And for players that did not live in the home market, it was too expensive to pay for them to fly to every single game.

 

An action shot from the original NLL league of the Long Island Tomahawks. Credit: www.RetroLax.com

I am NOT saying this is the reason the original National Lacrosse League did not last more than two seasons. There were other issues such as the hot arenas where fans had to sit to watch the games since they were played in the summer at that time.

 

Fun fact, the original NLL games were broken into three 20-minute periods and players wore the classic 70’s short shorts you see in the image to the right, courtesy of Retro Lax. No offense to those of you that rocked the high socks and shorts in the 70s. My parents proudly did too!

 

After the original NLL in 1975, there would not be another professional box lacrosse league until Chris Fritz and Russ Cline created the Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse League in 1986. They were or maybe they weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, but what they ended up creating was a professional box lacrosse league that played in the winter, that was less expensive and more practical. It was not an official rule, but it was the “norm” in the early seasons that teams only had local players.

 

Brendan Shanahan playing for the New Jersey Devils Credit: Brian Shanahan

As I said earlier, American lacrosse was big on the field game NOT box lacrosse. Box lacrosse was and is the national sport in Canada so for anyone that grew up playing box lacrosse, like the Shanahans, this league was eye opening and not in a good way.

 

Let me backtrack for those of you who didn’t know about Brendan Shanahan’s lacrosse career in Ontario. Before Brendan Shanahan was the 2nd overall pick in the 1987 NHL Draft that led to an illustrious 21 year career as one of the best to ever play the game, he was a very good lacrosse player. The current president of the Toronto Maple Leafs and his brothers played alongside some of the biggest names to come through the NLL such as Hall of Famer and current Buffalo Bandits Co-Head Coach, John Tavares.

 

In fact, they are still friends to this day, as you see in the recent image of Brendan and John. If you still haven’t connected the dots, the name John Tavares is still actively playing in sports. John’s nephew, also John Tavares, plays in the NHL for Brendan and the Maple Leafs.

Brendan Shanahan and John Tavares in 2018 Credit: Brian Shanahan

 

I hope you are all caught up now! Back to what I was saying… During Brendan’s rookie season with the New Jersey Devils, he and Brian went to watch the New Jersey Saints play at the Meadowlands.

 

Brian remembers that weekend he went to visit his brother. “To be honest, I was underwhelmed by the quality. These were guys who had never played box lacrosse, just field lacrosse. They had no box experience, but the fans didn’t know any different.”

 

I’m not telling you this to shame any of the players on the original Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse teams, but just showing you how far the league has come since its start. From day one, the league did something that the Canadian leagues struggled with doing. The Canadian leagues may have had better talent, but they didn’t create an atmosphere as entertaining and focused on the fan experience.

 

“I was slightly jealous of the 6,000-7,000 fans,” said Shanahan, “These guys had never even played box lacrosse. I thought, the fans aren’t even seeing the best lacrosse and they love it. It was still entertaining and that was the first or second year of the league.”

 

For as popular as box lacrosse has always been in Canada, it did not draw the same crowd in arenas. The fans have always been the backbone of the NLL even when the league was full of only American field players competing across the four teams.

 

Brian Shanahan noted that while the EPBLL was still developing, the dominant talent was still playing in Canada. At that time, none of the top players from Canada were even playing in the league, until a set of famous twins we all know, changed EVERYTHING.

 

The superstar Canadian brothers, Paul and Gary Gait, changed the entire league in more ways than just scoring goals and setting records, but we will take a look at their story in a later article. Stay with me here, we can’t uncover all of the great history of the league and box lacrosse in one article.

 

Next time we will dive deeper into the league’s evolution from being full of American field lacrosse players to including Canadian players like the scoring machines John Tavares and the Gait brothers. That is enough unstringing for today!

 

Don’t forget to use the hashtag #NLLUnstrung or mention/message me on Twitter @ReneePWash with your stories or ones you want to hear about. I thank those of you who have already reached out. I am enjoying your stories and sharing them, so keep it coming, as we continue to uncover NLL history one string at a time!