We, at Lacrosse All Stars, are very into the whole Grow The Game concept.
Those three words are not just a catchy marketing slogan to us. Nor are they convenient justification for us to use whenever we decide to do something to grow a corporate brand.
I am not “subbing” any specific person, or organization, when I say that, but to us, those three simple words are a way of life. We strive to make them central to everything we do, whether it is in our playing, coaching, sponsorship, writing, travel, or charity.
Many of us are on record with very strong thoughts about what “Grow The Game” really means. Others may try to lay out a roadmap to growing the sport of lacrosse. Or they talk about the one, two, or three key things that are central to growing the game.
To us, growing the game is not a list. It is also not a formula. There are countless ways to Grow The Game, and without all of them happening at once, none of them will work as effectively.
Ahead of the Pack
This past weekend saw the second annual Lacrosse All Stars North American Invitational (LASNAI) take place on the Onondaga Nation. As much as I love coaching high school lacrosse, going to professional games, and taking part in NCAA Championship weekend, this was the best weekend of the year for me.
And it wasn’t even close.
It wasn’t close because this event brought people from all over the world together as a celebration of the sport, hosted on the land where it has always belonged.
There are more stories from this past weekend than I could ever write about. What I am going to focus on here is how Grow The Game manifested itself over the weekend in many ways.
Growth Isn’t Contained to the Nation
The best place to start has to be with the games themselves. The eventual champions were (once again) the Thompson Brothers Elite team. The founding principle behind this team is that anyone can sign up to play against the best players in the world.
And they did.
Not a single team they faced conceded to them, or took the game off in awe. This team saw the best of everyone they faced. Whether it was the Cleveland Demons (BLL) in pool play, or the Frog Pond Maulers (Six Nations) in the finals, the Thompson’s team had to work.
Why does this Grow The Game?
That team from Cleveland will go back home as better players. Their forwards had to get around Steve Priolo to score, and their defense had to slow down Lyle Thompson.
Ohio box lacrosse was just made better.
Building Better People at LASNAI
Also in the games were several players that had never stepped inside of a box before.
Some had well over a decade of field experience, while others had only been playing for a handful of years. Each one of them grew as players over their six games more than they could have imagined.
In the first games, some were spinning around to keep track of players around them, getting knocked off their feet going for loose balls, not protecting themselves near the boards, and never venturing into the middle of a defense.
By the end of the tournament, these same players were breaking their sticks throwing cross checks, running into a loose ball scrum at full speed, and helping their teams navigate the transition game. Their teammates never gave up on them as a lost cause in pursuit of a trophy. Instead, they used each moment to educate the newcomers on what to do and how to be better. By the end of the weekend, they were better players, and better teammates.
Taking it Around the World
Another somewhat obvious Grow The Game moment was the stick donation drive. The LAS crew, of course, brought several sticks ourselves to seed the pile a bit, but it grew substantially through the weekend.
The first day saw many players asking questions about it. The second day saw some players drop off a spare head, shaft, complete stick, or several.
One player walked up with three shafts wrapped up and about six heads resting on them. He casually dropped them into the bucket on his way to his first game. The final day saw players who kept three sticks in the locker room leave one of their backups before they went home.
Each one of these donations will go to a program somewhere in the world to bring a new player into the sport. I remember my first stick was a white Brine Shotgun with all white traditional stringing. I probably used it for a solid 5 years before I eventually bought a new head.
If that same thing can happen with each of these sticks, there will be entire teams started from scratch.
A Great (Game Growing) Rule of Thumb
Brian Witmer actually had the best advice for when to donate a stick.
It’s something I heard him say many times the weekend and I don’t think there is a better rule of thumb to go by here.
To start: Make a list of every lacrosse stick you own. Every head, every shaft, every stringing kit.
Then, check where you live, your car, your friend’s car, your parent’s house, your locker room, or anywhere else you may have randomly stored your sticks of years past.
Now, with everything in one place, compare what you found to the list.
Find anything that wasn’t on the list?
That stick you used for two months until a new birthday present arrived which became your gamer for the next year? Donate it.
That mesh kit you bought before you realized you hate hard mesh? Donate that, too.
How about that aluminum shaft you immediately took off a complete stick so you could throw a new composite one on? Donate that.
These castaways can be the difference between an athlete somewhere in the world being exposed to our sport, or sadly leaving a clinic because they ran out of sticks.
Here’s another piece of wisdom from Brian: Name your sticks. All of them. The moment you forget its name, even for a half-second, donate it! If you can’t remember the name, it’s time to give it to someone that will.
An Unexpected Outcome
My favorite stick donation story was actually from none other than Alf Jacques, the legendary stick maker.
Outside (in the middle?) of the LASNAI games was the Wooden Stick Festival, which celebrated the rich history of our sport. Alf was of course a central figure to this and was a true celebrity all weekend. One of the fundraisers going on was auctioning off one of Alf’s sticks. This opportunity does not come around often. In an age where we can buy nearly anything in the world with a click of a button and have it on our doorstep in a few days, a wooden stick made by Alf seems unobtainable.
So of course, raffling one off is a great idea and I even bought a few tickets myself.
Later that day, I was walking with Alf outside of the arena when I heard someone yell over to him,
“Seriously, who wins their own stick raffle?”
I looked at him a little puzzled and asked him what happened. He told me, “Of course I bought a raffle ticket for my own stick! And when I won it, I walked right up to them and said ‘This stick is going to the first little kid I see.'”
He apparently walked out, saw a kid and handed the stick over.
It was maybe 200 feet later in our walk that he laughed and pointed over to a little boy. We were staring at a child, around 8 years old at most, with a wooden stick in his hand chasing ground balls in the field.
“There it is, right there!”
We then walked a little closer to the boy playing and Alf asked him, “Hey, where did you get that stick?”
He had a gigantic smile on his face as he shouted, “You gave it to me!”
That’s growing the game.