Lacrosse sits at crossroads

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 2:11 PM ET

The sport of lacrosse faces a pivotal moment in London this summer.

Oh, sure, there have been other make-or-break situations for an age-old pastime.

Global championships contested for a gold medal or shiny trophy have replaced original first-place prizes such as beaver ponds in First Nations tribal land disputes.

Baseball steroid scandal? That's small stuff. More than a century ago, lacrosse was banned after players put leaded weights in their sticks with the intent of cracking skulls.

But with much of the savagery gone in the modern game -- and mandatory helmets in place, the sport finds itself at a Canadian crossroads as the world field lacrosse championships get set to roll into London July 13-22 at Western's TD Waterhouse Stadium and the North London athletic fields.

"This will be the biggest lacrosse event ever with 21 international teams and the festival (tournament) attracting entries from all over the world," event organizer Tim Hobbs said.

"It's an important time for the sport and the (International Lacrosse Federation) knows it. Participation is up in excess of 200 per cent. With a successful event here, it will be a springboard for so many opportunities for the game."

The jewel in the sport's promotional machine is live weekend coverage on CBC, with a televised game July 15 between host Canada and Team Iroquois -- a Canadian- and United States-dominated native squad that competes internationally only in lacrosse -- and the gold medal match July 22 from the Western campus. If the tournament follows its usual path, it will be Canada and the defending world champion U.S. in the final.

"That would be a dream final," Hobbs said. "These guys on Canada and the U.S. are rivals and don't like each other. But there's so many different factors. Japan's goal is to improve by one spot at every worlds and they've already had a representative into London looking at what we're doing and how they want to approach their time here."

Executives, sponsors, the National Lacrosse League and more fledgling lacrosse-playing countries will be watching, too.

Gary Gait, who will play for Canada and is as big a superstar as you'll find in the sport, will be studying the viability of translating the bubbling popularity of box lacrosse to a field league of similar scope to the NLL. Many of his conclusions could come from his London experience.

David Bolland, the 57-goal scorer who just graduated from the London Knights, is said by some to be a more fearsome figure in lacrosse than hockey. He was a first-round pick of the Ontario Lacrosse Association junior league's Mississauga Warriors after finishing up his rookie year in the OHL.

Having grown up in lacrosse-loving Mimico and making frequent trips downtown to watch the Toronto Rock reel off NLL championships, he would have loved to play the game at a higher level. However, the lure of big bucks from the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks was stronger.

"Box lacrosse is big in Canada with the NLL and the field game is more popular in the United States, where the college game is huge and a lot of guys go there for scholarships," Bolland said. "I'm interested to see how the worlds go. I know London's interest in lacrosse has gone up in my time there. At first, it was like Mimico, when Brian Shanahan was the only one really involved, but now you see it a lot more."

The Canadian team -- expected to be one of the best since their lone gold medal triumph over the U.S. in 1978 -- will face a lot of pressure in this tournament. From organizers to sponsors to TV to the rise or decline of the sport, there's a lot riding on those who represent the Maple Leaf.

WARRIOR WORLD LACROSS 2006 CHAMPSIONSHIPS

When/where: July 13-22 at TD Waterhouse Stadium and North London athletic fields

More info: Call (519) 679-2006 or visit www.2006world lacrosse.com


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