Merrill: Field Game Carries Unique Identity in Canada
Below is an edited version of a column from the July 2014 issue of Lacrosse Magazine, a benefit of membership in US Lacrosse.
It has been an interesting evolution for lacrosse in Canada since we first won the gold medal in 1978. The game has grown, and the landscape of lacrosse has changed dramatically. More players are playing high-level field lacrosse, and the knowledge and understanding of the field game has increased.
It doesn't take very long to spot a Canadian playing in an NCAA game: high pocket, smooth skills, two-handed cradle, and unorthodox dodges that rarely involve switching hands.
As much as the game is changing in our country and resembling a more Americanized version of lacrosse, the roots of the Canadian game still exist. If you examine the 1978 team and the 2014 team, you likely will see more similarities than differences.
When I reflect on my early days in the game, I never would have imagined playing for the national team. It wasn't a goal of mine because it didn't seem realistic. The opportunity to play and win a gold medal for my country was surreal, and is a highlight of my lacrosse career.
In Montreal, like most parts of Canada, organized lacrosse didn't really exist, and if it did, it was hard to find. This all changed when my family moved to the small town of Orangeville, Ontario, which is about an hour north of Toronto.
Lacrosse is a big part of the culture and community there. You played hockey in the winter and lacrosse in the summer. That's how it goes for most Canadian lacrosse players. We joke that most National Lacrosse League players are just failed hockey players.
Hockey definitely has an underlying influence on Canadian lacrosse. The combination between physicality and skill translates well to lacrosse, and the two sports share a lot of the same unspoken rules or "code." Being unselfish, sticking up for your teammates, playing an honest, blue-collar game is the Canadian way for both hockey and lacrosse.
When American lacrosse players are playing summer club, Canadians are competing in intense box seasons. Field lacrosse was a foreign concept for my friends and me.
It wasn't until an older player in our town, Chris Sanderson, a Canadian lacrosse legend, ventured off to play at Virginia that I started understanding field lacrosse and the opportunities that existed in the NCAA. Chris encouraged my best friend, Kyle Miller, and me to tryout for the under-19 national team.
Because a background in box lacrosse translates well to the offensive side of the ball in field lacrosse, Kyle and I knew we would never make the team as an attackman or midfielder. Kyle decided to play goalie, and I decided to pick up a long pole. We both were fortunate to earn a spot on the team. It was an eye-opening experience, playing against young U.S. stars like Conor Gill and Kevin Cassese. It exposed us to the level we needed to reach to compete at the next level of field lacrosse.
It has been amazing to witness first hand how field lacrosse has changed in Canada. In my time growing up playing field lacrosse, it was not uncommon to see a goalie in full box equipment. We basically looked at field lacrosse as box lacrosse on a bigger surface. If you asked a Canadian lacrosse player which game they prefer, the majority would say box.
Box lacrosse is our game and remains our competitive advantage. It's the reason why we are able to compete with the U.S. on the international stage, while having a significantly smaller membership.
It is a special experience to be a part of the Canadian national team. I've been fortunate to experience it with my older brother as well as some of my closest friends. Lacrosse in Canada is a pretty tight-knit community, so when the national team is formed, there is a high comfort level and familiarity with your teammates and coaches.
Moving forward, we are carrying the legacy of two very influential Canadian lacrosse players: Sanderson and Miller. Both went to incredible lengths to fulfill their dream of representing our country. Sadly, both passed away in the last two years after extended battles with cancer.
In 2008, Sanderson was given nine to 12 months to live, but played in the 2010 FIL World Championship, and was named to the All-World Team. Miller was diagnosed with cancer during his junior year at Cornell, and fought off the disease to be one of our goalies in 2006, along with Chris.
Some of my best memories with the national team involve Kyle and Chris, so it will be emotional to go through this experience without them. I still remember sitting in the dorms in Ontario with them after we won the gold in 2006. The noise from the game and celebration had gone away and we were able to quietly digest what had just happened and really enjoy the moment together. The national program meant so much to Chris and Kyle, and what they accomplished for Canadian Lacrosse will be a big source of inspiration.
Brodie Merrill will make his third appearance in the FIL World Championships next week as a member of Team Canada. He plays for the Boston Cannons in Major League Lacrosse and the Philadelphia Wings in the National Lacrosse League. Buy FIL World Championship tickets here.