Despite a majority of pro lacrosse teams, Alberta has few pro players

For a province that has two of the National Lacrosse League’s (NLL) three Canadian teams, you’d think that Alberta would be home to many of the top players in the world of professional box lacrosse. But an exclusive analysis conducted by the Calgary Journal has revealed only 13 of the leagues 182 active Canadian players from last year’s rosters came from wild rose country — a miniscule 7.1 percent.

The same analysis shows the bulk of Canadian talent coming from Ontario at 126 players, while British Columbia comes in a distant second with 41 and Quebec brings up the rear with two.

According to Linda Grant, executive director of the Alberta Lacrosse Association, the reason for these numbers is because the sport has “a lot more history, and it’s more ingrained in places like B.C. and Ontario. Their coaches have played, whereas a lot of our coaches are hockey coaches, they haven’t actually played the game.”

It may be a while before Alberta sees more representation in the NLL, but thanks to pro lacrosse in the province, today’s youth will be tomorrow’s stars.

Photo by Geoff CraneCalgary Roughnecks all-star player Geoff Snider agreed, adding “There’s tons of guys from Vancouver who have played at the senior level that are giving back and coaching in the community. That doesn’t exist in Calgary where you’ve got second, third, fourth, fifth generations of lacrosse families like in Ontario and B.C..”

In the case of Alberta, lacrosse has very young roots. Before the arrival of professional lacrosse to the province in 2001, the game was generally played by a small, but passionate base said Grant.

Any players who excelled at the game usually chased scholarships out of province in the American college ranks or elsewhere like Snider, who played for the University of Denver before being drafted into the NLL by the Philadelphia Wings — eventually being traded to Calgary. Rarely did these players return, leaving Alberta without coaches who could pass on their knowledge about how to play the game at a high level. 

Local causes

Alberta has two of Canada’s three National Lacrosse League teams, yet it’s represented by only 13 players, compared to Ontario which only has one team and B.C. which doesn’t currently have a franchise.

Illustration by Geoff CraneAn example, according to Calgary District Lacrosse president Tracey Haining, can be found in a lack of space and facilities in the city that can accommodate the two forms of lacrosse – box (arena) and field.

That’s partially because some of the arenas have to be shared with hockey players, limiting the length of the box lacrosse season to six weeks.

In addition, Haining explained it’s “very expensive to take the ice out of those arenas, and put it back in once lacrosse season is done.”

As a result, not all rinks will do that.

Plans have been in the works for a private group to build a large lacrosse facility in the city’s southeast. But, according to a report in the Calgary Sun, it may be two years or more before that becomes a reality.

In the meantime, representatives from the city’s lacrosse organizations said they will have to make do with what they have — and try to manage the growth of the sport so demand doesn’t exceed the number of available facilities.

NLL in Alberta

  • The Calgary Roughnecks were the first team to come to Alberta in 2001.
  • The Edmonton Rush joined the league in 2005, playing their first game in 2006.
  • Calgary and Edmonton each has 3 players from Alberta according to last year’s roster.
  • During this year’s NLL entry draft four players out of the 56 were from Alberta, and all drafted to Alberta teams.

The arrival of the Calgary Roughnecks lacrosse team, brought to the province by passionate owner Brad Banister and now owned by the Calgary Flames, is a big reason for that demand. A few years later in 2006 the Edmonton Rush played their first game in the league.

“That’s was when we had our boom.” said Grant. “At that time we started a rural expansion program” — giving residents a chance to play without having to commute to an urban centre.

Coaching is key

The Alberta Lacrosse Association also runs coach-mentoring clinics, in conjunction with the professional teams, to help meet the demand for qualified coaches — many of whom have never played before.

In addition, professional players such as Geoff Snider have been crucial in helping train the next generation of players through elite programs like his ELEV8 Lacrosse camps.

“We’ve really seen a difference,” says Snider. “Since we started running this elite lacrosse program in 2009, we had 19 players. This year we have 68 — and that’s just our fall travel teams. We keep hearing more and more about kids quitting hockey to dedicate themselves to lacrosse as their primary sport.”

NLL All-Star Geoff Snider takes pride in creating a foundation for high level lacrosse training in Calgary’s grassroots lacrosse scene.

Photo by Geoff CraneSnider runs ELEV8 Lacrosse with his brother Bob, and friends Rhys Duch and Dan MacRae — all NLL players.

His hope is that the players they are training now will come back and give back to the community one day through coaching, establishing a lacrosse tradition in the province.

“We’re starting to hit that point now; that give back phase.” says Haining, where senior level players are returning to the community and coaching their kid’s teams.

Nevertheless, the sentiment amongst all those involved in Alberta lacrosse is that we are going to be looking 10 years down the road before you see all this work begin to pay off.

Until then, Alberta’s players will continue to comprise a minority in the NLL, despite having the majority of the leagues Canadian franchises.

gcrane@cjournal.ca