For Queen and Lax – The Story of England Box Lacrosse, from Grassroots to Legitimacy
As the “written by” moniker indicates, my name is Michael Gillan – I’m an English dual citizen (the other being Canadian), and a member of the England box lacrosse national team since 2011. Over the coming months, I will be bringing you the story of our journey towards a shot at gold at the upcoming European box championships in Turku, Finland this July.
Through written articles, player updates, or video content, we will attempt to give you an inside look at what it takes for us to field a team at the international level. As we slowly start to finalize our roster and set things into place, our first two posts will provide the reader with a brief history of our national box program, and a very abridged background on where we came from, and how we got to here. Although the program began ten years ago, and the popularity of lacrosse has grown exponentially throughout Europe, the growth of box lacrosse in the UK is still in it’s infancy.
I was not there for the start and I apologize to the men who worked tirelessly to even get to a point in which I can write about them. I apologize for anything I may have left out, if I told the reader everything I would be writing an epic novel. Someday, perhaps. I truly hope my first two submissions give the story the respect it deserves, because none of what we’re trying to accomplish today would be at all possible if not for the hard work of two men almost a decade ago.
How It All Began
Sitting down to pints at the Steam Passage Tavern, one of the UK’s excessive number of homey and dimly lit pubs and drinking establishments, two Canadian expats, Jamie Tasko and Peter Dunits, met to discuss an idea that would see the birth of a movement. A movement that would give home to a long list of past and present professionals, hall of fame coaches, and skilled and enthusiastic nationals eager to expand their skills, grow the game, and represent their country. It was this pub where a Canadian from Purley and one from rival Hampstead came together in 2006 to create the groundwork for England’s National Box Lacrosse program.
Setting The Stage
After a year of paperwork, scouting, recruiting, and more pints at the pub we fast forward to 2007 and the annual Ales Hrebesky International Box Lacrosse Tournament just outside of Prague. Tasko reaches out to his old friend and former coach, the late and newly inducted Hall of Famer, Chris Hall. England couldn’t ask for a better coach and ambassador suited to help build a successful program. With the help of a couple Czech players to fill out the roster, the program’s tournament team, the London Knights, took to the floor for the first time and played to a respectable 5th place finish.
When asked to comment about their first experience at this tournament it was followed with a series of inside jokes, nostalgia, hilarious pictures and stories not appropriate for this online publication. Suffice it to say, the first appearance of an English box lacrosse team was a success on and off the floor. The next stop for the program was Halifax, Canada and the site of the 2007 World Championships – England box lacrosse was going international.
The Red-Headed Step Child
With the team’s relative success at their first tournament, people took notice but it was, and still is, an uphill battle for notoriety in the UK. Competing alongside the established presence and growing numbers of the successful field program in England proved a daunting task. Although the English Lacrosse Association (ELA) has become the program’s governing body in recent years and legitimacy is growing, this team was originally started as an independent and self-sustaining entity.
Lack of facilities suitable for box lacrosse play, as well as goalie equipment, presented the biggest challenges. The team was forced to improvise on both fronts, using anything with a court and walls for some type of facility while dressing the goalie in field and hockey equipment. Despite these set backs, Tasko and Dunits remained steadfast in their vision of seeing England become a successful box lacrosse program. It was with this dedication that the team was able to procure some major sponsorships leading up to the 2007 WILC in Halifax.
Both Man Group (world’s largest publicly listed hedge fund) and BBC Worldwide, as well as the financial support of several other sponsors, enabled the team to focus on preparing for its first ever world championships. In a few short months, the world would be introduced to England’s first National Box Lacrosse Team.
Welcome To The Maritimes
To better create competitive parity and help grow the game, international rules allow for 4 non-passport players to participate on the team they have heritage with. It was with this rule that the team worked on attracting Canadian talent, either dual citizens or imports. The strategy was intended to help homegrown talent learn the box game faster and benefit from the experience their North American counterparts had to offer while remaining competitive on the world stage.
Former NLL talent, Matt Roik, Shawn Cable, brothers Jeff and Shawn Summerfield and of course Lewis Ratcliff, joined the team in Halifax providing a wealth of experience to draw from for the British born athletes. As expected, the power of the big three in Canada, Iroquois Nation, and U.S.A took the top 3 spots respectively but in their first appearance on the international stage, Tasko, Dunits, and the idea from that small pub in Angel, North London, grew and succeeded into a fourth-place finish, with team England member Lewis Ratcliffe receiving all world honors.
Highlights from that bronze medal game against the USA shows just how tough these proverbial “bad news bears” made it on their competition. Feeding off the energy and wisdom of head coach Chris Hall’s insistence on always being there for his players, the team battled together to a 17-10 score in favor of the United States.
With the tournament in the rear view, the English program returned home. There was no fan fare for these men, having just represented their country. It was back to work and back to their respective club field teams. The London Knights would continue to return to Prague for the Hrebesky year after year and attempts were made at creating competitive leagues at home but nothing appeared sustainable.
Yet again, the lack of infrastructure to create such an endeavor caused hurdles too high to overcome in their current situation as an independently run organisation. It was with this unfortunate situation that they decided it best to not press the issue harder. Players would still be able to play the game in the north and south field leagues and looking forward to 2011 at the sight of the next WILC in Prague, Czech Republic should be of top priority. It was with that in mind that Tasko and Dunits worked towards building off the immediate success that had been achieved in Halifax and developed the program to try and repeat that same success in Prague.
Czech us Out
2011 took the team to Prague, Czech Republic. (It was also my first experience on the international scene, I’m the absolute beauty with the barely visible duster, wearing #75). Players like Lewis Ratcliff and the Summerfield brothers were replaced with Rochester Knighthawk, Andrew Suitor and former Stealth player, Tyler Johnson. Matt Roik returned between the pipes while Cable returned to help new team Captain and Brit, Alan Keeley, provide leadership with the only coach England box has ever known, Chris Hall, returning to the helm.
With returning homegrown talent like Joe Darkins and Dave Cluney, the team came into this tournament stronger and more experienced than the last. Having lost the corporate support provided at the last tournament from BBC, the financial obligations fell a little more to the player. Fortunately, as anyone passionate about the game can attest, there’s always money to be spent for opportunities like these. Of course, as the box game grew in popularity around the world so did the talent. The host Czechs, boasting the largest box lacrosse program outside of Canada, were stronger than they have ever been and wanted to impress their boisterous and excited home crowd.
After making easy work of rival Australia and Slovakia respectfully, “the team Tasko built” lost a nail biter to Canada 28-5 to secure second place in their division after round robin play. After losing to the host Czechs in front of an electric crowd of Czech supporters in the quarter finals, the England box program made quick work of Australia, finishing 5th in the world; unfortunately dropping one rank in the world standings.
Although the team may have dropped in rankings, the difference this time around was the friendships made when it was all over. As tacky as that sentiment sounds, it was those friendships and the chemistry it developed that helped England box lacrosse make a push for the respect they so rightfully deserved at home. While maybe not every idea they had was a great one, the duo of Tasko and Dunits grew into a team of men wanting to work for a bigger seat at the table but it wouldn’t come without tragedy… (end of post 1)
Editor’s Note: Awesome stuff from Mike, providing a real inside view into the challenges and rewards of starting an international box lacrosse program. And he ended with such a cliff hanger. I’m almost nervous to find out what happens next. Check back again soon for more from Mike and England Box Lacrosse, and support these guys on their Generosity Page, as the raise funds for Turku!
*To follow along and watch as these guys prepare for the European Box Lacrosse Tournament this July in Turku, Finland or if you would like to get involved with their sponsorship, find them on twitter and Instagram @englandboxlax*