I have returned from an incredible 11 days outside of Budapest, Hungary filled with new friends, lots of laughs, and of course an endless amount of lacrosse. We spent almost everyday, all day, watching games while at EC16 because there were just too many good teams and matchups, we couldn’t miss it! In fact the one day and night I went into the city to meet a friend and see the sights, I actually missed our humble dormitory abode only steps away from the fields.
I had arrived in Budapest and made the trek to Gödollö, where the tournament was being held only 12 day before. I quickly had to fight off jet lag, and only then realized that the following ten days would be nonstop lacrosse, and a lot of work. The long hours are due to a need to work quickly and swiftly to produce the best content we could, and keep things up to date across time zones, while taking in the-what seemed like never ending-stream of games being played on 6 different fields. So opposite to what most Pokemon Go players at the tourney (and there were a lot of them!) say, there’s just no way we could catch ’em all. We tried our best though!
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We did see a ton of games, and spoke with nearly every team, whether it was players, coaches, managers, parents, or fans, and we heard some really awesome stories about how lacrosse has been built up in Europe. Each country is unique in their growth of the game, and their goals going forward. To hear it all at once was astonishing.
I had the opportunity to do formal(ish) interviews with 15 representatives from 9 different countries to understand how lacrosse got started in each place, and what they need to make it grow. We will be producing and editing these interviews in partnership with the Casey Powell World Lacrosse Foundation, and we can’t wait to share them with you. Until then, I’ve pulled out a few fast facts and stories below:
- Lacrosse got started in Finland because a couple guys watched the notorious 1999 film American Pie and saw Oz and Stiffler playing lacrosse in one of the scenes, and decided it looked like a pretty fun sport so they started a team. Finland took home the bronze medal this year, and I interviewed their long-dreaded goalie Lauri Uusitalo, who is also an awesome box lacrosse and ice hockey goalie. Like many of the Scandanavian countries, they rely much on current and former ice hockey players to pick up lacrosse in the few months of the year that the ground isn’t frozen.
- Most countries have box lacrosse and the ones that don’t would like to get it going ASAP. Teams are seeing the value of the box game and what it adds to their field game, and it also provides another opportunity to draw players to the sport and easily convert them to field lacrosse.
- Latvia is a country of only a couple million people and less than a hundred lacrosse players, but even from that small talent pool, they finished 9th at EC16, which I think it pretty impressive. Their goal, like most teams was to get a medal, but top 10 is highly respectable in our book. Establishing more leagues, and getting more energy behind youth programs would help them build up the talent even more, there is no doubt their sights are set on 2018!
- England has had lacrosse for a long while, probably the longest in Europe. England head Coach Tom Wenham’s guess was that it arrived in the 1880’s, but still many of the players pick up the sport by chance, like Tom, who happened to have a math teacher that played and encouraged him to give it a try. It’s not a mainsteam option, and the women’s game is actually more established in the university setting than men’s who rely on regional leagues. That said, England maintained their number one position, and the matchup vs. Israel was highly competitive, exactly what you’d want out of a championship game.
- Head coach of Netherlands was Neal Powless, the Iroquois lacrosse legend from Onondaga Nation. Of course, my first question was why are you coaching the Dutch? There were many reasons, but one main thread that stood out was the fact that the Dutch were friendly to the Native Americans when they settled in North America—hundreds of years ago. Because of those good relations from the beginning of their ancestral interaction, Neal feels compelled to teach the aspects of lacrosse rooted in the medicine game to a culture and people that have had a long standing respect for his people. In other words, the Dutch and the Native Americans were tighter from the start, unlike some other nations that were not so kind to indigenous tribes, and Neal is trying to keep that gap bridged. Very cool.
- Referees can be cool too! Shocking, right? When I interviewed Barbara Zelenay a.k.a. Babs, one of the only female refs for men’s blue division lacrosse, all that changed She’s highly-respected, and has worked her butt off to be one of the best of the best. Like every other official there, Babs takes her own personal vacation time to go to these tournaments, runs miles a day officiating games, is unpaid (food and accommodation typically are provided), and takes extreme passion and pride in keeping the game in check and the players safe–not to mention learning and remembering all the rules changes. The games literally could not happen without these referees, and lacrosse is lucky to have such dedicated individuals who care enough about the game, show up, do their best, and allow these competitions to happen. I learned that we should probably all be more genuinely grateful for the zebras.
- EC16 hosted 24 men’s team, that’s 7 more compared to 2012’s 17 teams, the countries that competed for the first time: Hungary, Slovenia, Poland, and Russia. These teams improved over the course of the tournament and brought a lot of team spirit to the fields, we hope to see them back again in 2018.
- The American influence is real, but for mostly the right reasons.The fact there are so many Americans involved in European lacrosse came up very often in conversation, and I appreciated hearing arguments from both sides. From my experience, being an outsider to the ELF and these types of international tournaments in general, there are a lot of passionate people involved from all angles and many of them have backgrounds, roots, or experience with lacrosse in the US-many, not all. They are also spending their time (their vacation time, time away from their jobs, time away from family, etc) to put effort into a foreign team and nation that they may or may not be affiliated to by blood or relatives.
The common thread is a love for the game, and doing what they can to be a part of it, whether that’s playing, coaching, organizing, or officiating. I don’t know all the rules and I don’t want to get into the politics of structure and eligibility, I just know that even a kid from the US or Canada who is playing for a team across the pond isn’t doing it for fame, or notoriety, or to get rich like so many US athletes do when they travel overseas to play sports like basketball. I choose to think that they are doing it because they care about this sport, they are globally minded, down to travel, and most likely want to see lacrosse in the Olympics someday.
Above all else, they want to play and compete and be a part of the stories that make this sport so organically grown and unique. Don’t get me wrong, I met plenty of guys either born in or with experience in the US, but I actually admired the humility some of the exhibited when asked why they are playing for a certain team when they are American. Also, haven’t you ever heard that if you’re as good as the best guy there then you’re never going to get any better?[fvplayer src=”https://youtube.com/watch?v=jjOGWkUWuTo” splash=”https://i.ytimg.com/vi/jjOGWkUWuTo/hqdefault.jpg” caption=”#EC16 – Final Cut Video”]
Well, the US and Canada are decades ahead of most of these countries especially when it comes to youth development, and produce some of the best players and programs in the sport, so if we never lend them a player or coach or many players how is anyone going to build up to compete? Should it be a continual discussion? Yes. Is there more than one right way to govern it? Absolutely, and the criteria will likely need to be fluid as many countries get there (lax) legs under them. It will be interesting to see how the influences shift and change over the next few years.
Ok that was more of a rant than a story, but this was a common conversation among all of us there, and I felt the need to share my two cents or forints or euros or whatever those Hungarian coins are called. Forints, I finally got that. They’re called Forints!
Finally! When I asked the interviewees what they hope for lacrosse in the next decade, it was a unanimous answer: “We want to see lacrosse in the Olympics”, seriously, every coach, player, manager, and referee responded the same way. With the rapid growth of the competition in Europe and an army of passionate people involved, I think lacrosse will gain the momentum to go for the gold.
It was inspiring to learn stories of so many countries and their growth of the game. I wish I had the time to speak to everyone, but mainly, I can’t wait to see how these programs and team are built up in the next few years. Everyone’s sights are set for Manchester in 2018 (note to editor: I am available and will gladly attend), and now that I’m back in the states – and sad it’s over – I’m really wishing there was some lacrosse going on in Rio right now. That said, thanks LAS and CPWLF for taking a chance on me, and until next time, cheers to growing the game all around the world.