Playing a game for love, not money

Nets, sticks, but no ice: Canada's other national sport, lacrosse, gains popularity.

A few hundred fans are standing and shouting at a blur of heavily padded young men in helmets and shorts. Their sneakers squeal on the cracked concrete floor as a ball is flung with rocketlike force between long sticks topped with tiny nets. Bodies slam into the boards, bare knees grind into the ground.

This is lacrosse, a game of bruising athleticism. Canadians may be known the world over for their obsession with ice hockey, but increasingly, lacrosse, the country's other official national sport, is winning over an impressive share of fans.

For more than a half century, lacrosse languished, almost forgotten, in the back of the sports pages. Most Canadians cared little for the game's unique history, linked to the Indian tribes of the St. Lawrence Valley in eastern Canada.

Historians say a French missionary first saw a match in 1638 and called it la crosse because the sticks resembled a bishop's crosier. But except for a brief peak in popularity in the 1930s, lacrosse never attracted much public excitement - until now.

These days, young players and their parents are flocking to amateur community leagues, new professional franchises are springing up across the country, and at the end of April a sellout crowd of 19,409 fans crammed into the National Lacrosse League final.

This renaissance is easily explained, says 13-year-old Todd Duncan. "Let's face it. A lot of hockey players are in it just for the money, but lacrosse players are in it purely for the love of the game," Todd says at this Toronto Junior A amateur match, the last, fast-paced level before the pro league. Todd is hugging his own lacrosse stick, hoping to practice between periods on the arena's back wall.

Other jaded hockey fans say they're fed up with high ticket prices and temperamental players. A family of four can catch a professional lacrosse game for well under C$100 ($US65), including drinks and popcorn. And the stars are still regular folk with day jobs as teachers, police officers, or landscapers, who get paid between C$450 and $1,500 per game. They may even celebrate with fans after the match.

"This is fun and affordable," says Doug Densmore at the Toronto arena. "I like a lot of sports, but it's getting harder to be a fan." For C$55, he and his son can attend a full season of Junior A lacrosse.

There are two types of lacrosse: the box version played inside hockey arenas, and the field game held outdoors on a bigger grass surface with more players.

Many say extensive television coverage of the rough-and-tumble box game also explains lacrosse's resurgence. The game's notoriety increased dramatically just three years ago when the Toronto Rock, this city's first professional box lacrosse team, burst onto the scene. In its first two years, the team won the championship title in the New Jersey-based National Lacrosse League.

The NLL also has teams in Philadelphia, Washington, Albany, New York, Buffalo, Rochester, Columbus, and next year, New Jersey. In Canada, there's an Ottawa team, and in this coming December-to-May season, there will be franchises in Vancouver and Calgary. Montreal and Edmonton are also lining up for teams.

Doug Fritts, an NLL spokesman, says this dramatic Canadian expansion is due to Toronto's "overnight success. Other cities are sitting up and taking note."

The enthusiasm is spilling over into amateur leagues. Ron MacSpadyen, the Ontario Lacrosse Association's program director, says registration grew 18 percent in the province last year, and 10 percent across Canada.

This is a far cry from just seven years ago. Then, the sport's supporters were tired of always explaining that lacrosse, not hockey, was indeed the country's only "official national sport."

To settle the matter, it took a classic Canadian compromise and legislation in 1994 to finally approve two national sports - ice hockey in winter, and lacrosse in summer.

The Rock team captain, Jim Veltman, just shakes his head as he watches his nephew play in the Junior A game.

"I have to say that I never thought that I would see the day when lacrosse would, on its own, enjoy such popularity and recognition," says Mr. Veltman, who is also a high school teacher. "It's a dream for me."

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