Minor lacrosse players across Niagara who usually compete against each other will be playing side-by-side this summer.
The Niagara-on-the-Lake Thunderhawks Minor Lacrosse Club has joined forces with organizations in Fort Erie, Lincoln, Pelham and St. Catharines to form the Niagara Lacrosse League (NLL).
Club president Chris Williams says the decision was made to unite the associations in an effort to get kids playing again, after a summer away from Canada’s national summer sport.
“The club presidents got together and we came up with this format,” Williams explains. “It allows us to have four teams at each age division, and we’re mixing the teams. For the next two weeks, we’re looking at the players and we’ll separate them by talent, so each team is balanced. That means each team will have kids from all five clubs.”
Williams says there was zero difficulty in getting the five associations to work together. The focus all along has been to get the youth back on the field after almost two years off.
It’s a huge change in the way local lacrosse is usually run. In addition, with COVID-19 still in the picture, for the first time the action will all take place outdoors this year.
Next week the players from all the clubs will move to the turf fields at A.N. Myer and Westlane Secondary Schools in Niagara Falls. But visitors to the fields at the Virgil sports park the past two weeks would have seen scores of kids aged three to 18 packing the fields there.
Williams says the DSBN wouldn’t allow more than 10 people on the turf until Stage 2 of the province’s current reopening plan. But he was able to make an agreement with NOTL’s Parks and Recreation department to get the kids onto the local fields.
Niagara Falls as the home base makes more sense to the other clubs, as it is a bit more central for parents travelling from Fort Erie, Lincoln and Pelham. According to Williams, the 80 NOTL players involved this year don’t care where they play, they’re just happy to have a stick in their hands again.
Because they are playing outdoors doesn’t mean they’ll be playing field lacrosse, though. The clubs have agreed to use a hybrid set of rules, while dividing the playing field into two, with the sidelines becoming the goal lines.
“It uses some box lacrosse rules, and some field lacrosse rules,” says Williams. “Box lacrosse is usually five players plus a goalie, field is usually nine and a goaltender. What we’re doing is seven-on-seven, with two attackmen, two middies, two defenders and a goaltender. Box lacrosse is the fastest game on two feet. This hybrid game continues to be very fast because we’re playing sideline to sideline, allowing for lots of ball movement.”
Williams is pleased with the turnout from the local kids. Thunderhawks Minor Lacrosse usually can rely on about 110 registrations per year. Williams speculates that the slightly lower number is due to the border closure, as the club can often count on a number of American kids registering each summer. Amongst the five clubs involved, though, only St. Catharines has more kids playing.
Members from each association are involved in running the new NLL. As well, an effort has been made to ensure at least one coach from each club is part of the coaching staff at each age level. It means coaches who are usually rivals are working together and learning from each other this summer.
“These are all lacrosse people who have played the game for years,” Williams says. “We came together quickly, with one goal in mind, and that was to provide the best lacrosse available in the Niagara region, from kids just starting out to kids who have been playing since they were three or four years old. It’s been a pleasure to work with all these associations.”
Pandemic-era rules are still in force, of course. Hand sanitizer is available at check-in tables upon entry and exit. The two-metre rule is still being enforced, and online screening before each practice is required. Each age group is capped at 50 participants, including coaches, and as of this week, following the move to Stage 2, scrimmages, not full-on games, are being allowed.
“I haven’t heard one negative comment,” Williams says. “Everyone was just dying to get out. There’s no other option, with the arenas closed. This is what’s available, this is what COVID is allowing us to do. It’s great to see them back on the fields, laughing, and playing again. It’s about their friendships, their communication skills, and their mental health.”
Williams has to hold back his excitement about an upcoming announcement of the names of the teams this summer.
“We’ve come up with some really good Niagara region names, some really, really nice uniforms and colours. It’s kind of like a secret right now. But once they come up, you’ll experience the Niagara region feel. Each team will be named after something in the Niagara region.”
Though registration is currently full, Williams says the club is still taking names for a waiting list of sorts. As well, they are considering starting a one-day-a-week session on the Virgil fields to introduce newcomers from NOTL to the game.
Despite his excitement for this summer, Williams does believe next summer will see a return to the arenas and business as usual.
“Next year should go back to normal,” he speculates, “where Niagara-on-the-Lake does their stuff, St. Catharines does their stuff, and so on. For now, though, we’re just happy we’ve gotten together to do this and actually make it happen. We’re not looking at the future of what lacrosse could be or should be.”
“I guess the biggest word this year is adapting,” Williams concludes. “We’ve had to adapt, we’ve had to bounce ideas around. It’s a new league, and you know, we had to wait for the government to make their decisions. It’s been challenging, but we’re happy with the way it has worked out.”