National team showcases field game

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 7:25 AM ET

The Canadian men's lacrosse team has arrived in London for the world championships with a lot on its pressure-filled plate.

The players know their Forest City stay could end up being the most rewarding -- or longest -- two weeks of their careers.

The Canadians have to sell the outdoor game to a largely indoor box lacrosse-loving audience, ensure they reach the finals and beat a heavily favoured American squad, play entertaining games especially while in front of a national television audience and help teammate Gary Gait -- the Wayne Gretzky of lacrosse -- finish up his career with one of the few jewels he hasn't won.

Waterloo native Colin Doyle, the lone member of the Toronto Rock pro box team on the national field squad, hopes Gait can provide the same veteran leadership soccer star Zinedine Zidane did for the French -- minus the World Cup final head butt.

"We don't need Gary to do anything like that," Doyle said with a laugh, "but we're hoping he can score five or six goals a game. This championship has eluded him in his career and we know this is kind of his swan song here. We're depending on him to help us have a great tournament."

Gait won't just be focused on playing in London. His own lacrosse company and the U.S.-based National Development Program has signed on to run a four-day clinic here.

There's a sport that needs selling over the next two weeks and the Canadian players know their best chance to grab the spotlight is an entertaining display on July 15 against Team Iroquois and a berth in the gold-medal game a week later -- both being broadcast on the CBC national network during its Sports Saturday time slot.

"We'll know on Thursday the way the semifinals are set up if Canada will be playing in the Saturday final," CBC Sports producer Chris Irwin said.

It goes without saying ratings and sponsor interest will be better with the host team in the main game. A Canada-U.S. final is expected -- the Stars and Stripes have dominated this tournament, failing to win gold only once, in 1978 to Canada -- but never a guarantee. The top-flight Blue Division includes the two favourites, Australia, the Iroquois (which includes Canadian players), England and Japan.

"We feel good about our team but I think everyone has taken a step up," Doyle said. "Traditionally, Canada and Australia play for the chance to meet the U.S., who are usually a step above everybody else. But there's a feeling around our team that this could be our year."

Of course, players like Doyle have to get used to playing the field game after spending most of the season in the frantic pace of box lacrosse. Making the transition -- for players and fans -- is difficult.

"It's definitely not easy -- you have to slow everything down on the bigger field and get used to more players being out there," Doyle said. "Last week was big (when many members of the Canadian team travelled to Vail, Colo., to play as Team Mammoth in one of North America's most important field lacrosse tournaments where the Canuck-laced team won the gold). These next four days of practice are going to be big for our team."

In an effort to attract fans, build momentum and justify the $147,500 recently donated by the Ontario government under the Trillium grant fund, the Canadians can't afford a misstep here. There has been much loud criticism in lacrosse circles of the team selected, which doesn't include legend John Tavares.

"There will always be naysayers but I think the team that was picked wasn't necessarily the best players but the players who could come together as a team and do the best," Doyle said. "We all know the only way to convince everyone is to go out and win."

Defeating the U.S. is a monumental task. The NCAA college program is a huge field lacrosse factory and the game has a hardy following south of the border -- so big that College Sports Television will come to London to cover the event.

Canada's defence has always been considered the lacking factor in head-to-head tilts with the U.S., but the improved back end is the biggest reason for the host team's confidence.

"In field lacrosse, U.S. college teams always look to Canada for gunners because we're known for being able to handle the smaller stick from playing so much box lacrosse," Calgary Roughnecks coach and CBC lacrosse colour man Chris Hall said. "Traditionally, Canada hasn't been known for its defenders but this time, (Team Canada) Brodie Merrill and Taylor Wray are world-class players with the long pole (the longer stick used by defenders) so that's why there's a lot of optimism this time."

When it's over, the proceeds of the tournament will be pipelined toward a lacrosse-specific field in London. It's a legacy the Canadian team would love to see here and just one more thing they're responsible for in this wild and crazy two weeks of action.

WORLD LACROSSE

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

More info: Call 519-679-2006 or visit www.2006worldlacrosse.com


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