For the first time since 2019 there will be lacrosse action inside the arenas in Virgil this summer.
Registration opened on Feb. 17 for Niagara Thunderhawks Minor Lacrosse. registrar Christa Rawsthorne sees this year as an important step to getting the sport back on track in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
And with the December, 2021 announcement of the Junior B Thunderhawks folding, building up the numbers playing lacrosse in NOTL beginning this summer is crucial.
Following a 2020 summer with no lacrosse, about 80 kids registered to play last year. But it was a season that was far from business as usual. With indoor gatherings for amateur sports out of the question across the province, the game switched from box to field lacrosse in an effort to get sticks back into hands.
A temporary new loop called the Niagara Lacrosse League was formed in partnership with Fort Erie, Lincoln, Pelham and St. Catharines for summer 2021. NOTL players were matched with those from the other clubs to form teams of similar skills at each age group. Rather than competing against teams from those centres they found themselves playing alongside their usual opponents as teammates.
The Local took in some of those early sessions that were held at Virgil’s Centennial Sports Park. From this vantage point it seemed that the kids from all five clubs were having a great time working with the coaches and were deeply appreciative to be playing the game whether inside or outside. To that end the redesigned season kept the interest up for a return to normal play this summer.
Rawsthorne says in a typical year as many as 140 kids play in NOTL, and a sizeable number of those players cross the U.S border to come here. Last year, with the bridges from the U.S. closed to non-essential travel, those American kids were not able to register in town.
As registration continues, there is still uncertainty facing those American players hoping to play lacrosse in NOTL this summer. That has resulted in registrations coming in a little more slowly than usual.
“We’re unsure of what the borders will be like in April or May,” laments Rawsthorne. “The concern, of course, is are they going to have to show a negative rapid test every time they come over? They could be here two or three times a week, depending on divisions, leagues and times. We don’t have firm answers to that yet.”
Over the years the NOTL club has continued to be a viable option to many out-of-towners, largely due to the reputation the club has earned amongst the sport’s cognoscenti. Many of the club’s coaches carry with them years of professional experience in the game.
As well, in recent years a number of former NOTL players have found their way into the NCAA college and National Lacrosse League (NLL) ranks. Ryan Wagner (Philadelphia Wings), his brother Johnny (Rochester Nighthawks), Jay Thorimbert (New York Riptide) and Chris Weier (Toronto Rock) are all in the thick of this year’s NLL season.
Weier remembers his minor lacrosse days in NOTL fondly.
“I was four or five when I started playing,” Weier says. “We had dedicated coaches who used to play the game. We had great commitment from the players. I still keep in touch with guys I played with back then. It’s not all about lacrosse, but also about the relationships you build with your teammates away from the arena.”
Weier mentions coaches such as Darris Kilgour, a Tuscarora from the Lewiston area and former professional lacrosse player, as an important mentor, as well as Andre Lemiuex, Kevin Buis, Marty Werner and Andy Boldt.
“I still use some of the basics I learned in those early days,” Weier says. “Passing, catching, throwing over the shoulder, I may not think of it much today, but I use all those skills in every game.”
Johnny Wagner says he was born with a stick in his hands and eagerly awaited his turn to play in NOTL while watching his older brother Ryan play the game first. With their father Mike helping out as a Thunderhawks coach, lacrosse has been a family affair for the Wagners.
When Johnny is in town he often visits the arena with some friends for a game of pick-up hockey, and is reminded about his early minor lacrosse success.
“One year we won the provincials in a 6-5 game,” remembers Wagner. “My best friend Zach Luis got a penalty with four minutes left in the game and we still ended up winning. That was probably one of my best memories. And we won the Intermediate championship in 2014. Those teams are hung up in the arena. It’s always a great memory to see that and relive the experience.”
Wagner would love to one day follow the example set by his former NOTL coaches and come back to coach in town. He feels it’s important to spread his love and knowledge of the game to the next generation, and as a former Junior B Thunderhawk would like to see that team return in the near future.
Thorimbert is probably the pro player in the best position currently to make that happen. The father of two still lives in Niagara, and is the club’s vice-president.
Unlike Wagner and Weier, Thorimbert didn’t pick up a stick until his Grade 10 year at Niagara District Secondary School. But he fell in love with the game, and credits his NOTL coaches for his fast learning curve.
“Small town, small team, so I got lots of touches,” he says about his minor box lacrosse experience in NOTL. “And my group of friends were very talented, too. It benefitted me and helped me grow a lot faster than I would have in other centres.” Thorimbert has continued to be associated with the local club, coming back to host skills sessions for the Junior B squad. This summer he will be coaching his son Owen in the tyke age group. His daughter Nora has her eyes on playing the game in the future, too.
Rawsthorne says registrations are open for all ages between three and 21 years old. To make up for the folding of the Junior B team, the club is offering an intermediate team composed of those who are of junior age. Though they wouldn’t be playing in the Junior B loop, she feels the team could still be competitive enough at the provincial level.
“They’re at that age where other things become a priority – cars, jobs, things like that,” she says. “And they haven’t had box lacrosse for two years now. Some played on the field last year, but for the others, we hope they haven’t gone on to something else.”
The club offers a free soft lacrosse division for kids born in 2018 and 2019 this year. It’s a no-risk, no-cost opportunity for the youngest ages to try the game. Other registration prices range from $225 for the paperweight age group (born in 2016 and 2017) to $375 for intermediate players (born in 2001 to 2005).
Box lacrosse practice sessions will begin in mid-April, with games starting about a month later. It runs until the first two weeks of August when the provincial championships are usually held.
For information and to register, please visit niagaralacrosse.com.