Canadian lacrosse team sticks by hockey heritage

Skills help team steal tournament spotlight

June 20, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

When a platoon of Canadians spills into the United States carrying helmets, gloves and long sticks, one word traditionally comes to mind: hockey.

But yesterday, the Oshawa Blue Knights from outside Toronto cut a swath through the fields of Cockeysville as testament to the fastest-growing sport of the northern neighbors: lacrosse.

The 9- and 10-year-olds became the 1999 STX-Cockeysville Invitational Tournament's star attraction not just for winning three games in as many hours. The team traveled the farthest among 102 teams participating.

The 600-mile bus ride into the heartland of U.S. lacrosse gained notice from many of the 6,000 fans and players attending the event in Baltimore County.

"One guy asked if we had any Eskimos on the team," said chuckling Oshawa manager Gary Cudmore.

The tiny Canadian crusaders with the powder blue jerseys and white shoulder trim stood out for their stick handling, too. Unlike in mid-Atlantic states, where field lacrosse seems part of the school curriculum, indoor box lacrosse is the rage in Canada.

Only recently have teams such as the Blue Knights rolled out of the gymnasiums onto the grass. Their crisp passing in tighter quarters paid off yesterday as they beat three U.S. teams 8-2, 7-2 and 8-0.

"If you watch them, they play fundamentally sound," coach Joe Russo of the Vienna Youth Lacrosse team from Fairfax County, Va., said of the Canadians. "They have a left-handed kid the other team hasn't stopped yet."

Hockey influence

The reason for the surge in Canadian field lacrosse is, of all things, hockey. Because youths in Canadian lacrosse leagues are permitted to check at a younger age, fathers are handing their sons and daughters lacrosse sticks to help them learn how to throw the body before they step onto the ice.

The Blue Knights' crunches yesterday sent several opposing players to the sidelines to shake off the throbbing under their helmets.

"Our guys really like to hit," said Billy Eyre, an Oshawa coach who played box lacrosse for years. "There are six players in the National Hockey League who attribute being there to lacrosse. It teaches you how to take a hit."

In existence for two years, the Blue Knights tested their skills in the annual Cockeysville tournament because they consider it the best assembly of youth lacrosse talent in the world. John Boyce, a Cockeysville Recreation Council coach, started the event nine years ago as more of a festival built around the common love of the game.

U.S. teams travel from as far north as Connecticut and south as the Tidewater area in Virginia. The popularity has grown so much -- this weekend's event is the largest -- that the influx of teams forced Joyce to spread the games out from the fields of St. Paul's School to County Home Park a few miles east.

"The bad news is that you don't have as much activity [here]," Joyce said, standing on the St. Paul's field. "The good news is that you don't have as much activity."

Many of the Oshawa kids are visiting the United States for the first time, looking forward to an Inner Harbor tour and visit to the National Aquarium.

The players will face their toughest test at 10: 30 a.m. today when they face Cockeysville, considered a tournament favorite.

"We've heard so much about this tournament," Oshawa coach Dave Holding said. "We want our kids to know that scholarships are possibly available in the States."

Growing number of players

Despite being a North American Indian game started in Canada more than a century ago, organized field lacrosse in Canada fell to its lowest participation at about 3,500 players a decade ago. Today, the leagues are reaching 25,000 with Oshawa serving as a feeder. The region produces about one in 10 of the nation's field lacrosse players, coaches said.

Several lacrosse legends rose in the region, including Gary Gait of the Baltimore Thunder. He and his brother, Paul, played lacrosse for Syracuse University. On the sidelines helping Oshawa yesterday was Stan Cockerton, a Canadian field lacrosse legend who played on the 1978 Canadian team that upset the United States 17-16 in England.

On the bus ride, the Blue Knights watched a replay of the game for inspiration. It worked. Area lacrosse fans couldn't help but walk up to the Oshawa coaches to compliment the team for its stick handling.

"Thanks," Cudmore said. "We'd have a hell of a hockey team but they all play on different teams."

Pub Date: 6/20/99

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