Dawson's field of dreams

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:25 AM ET

Dan Dawson's lacrosse resume reads like a road map of North America.

The past eight years have included stops in British Columbia and Brampton, where he won a Mann Cup. He has debuted with professional teams in Columbus, for two seasons, in Portland and then for three seasons in Arizona. Last year, he won the National Lacrosse League MVP award with Boston.

"It sounds bad," says Dawson, laughing, "but I've never been traded or released. Every team I've moved from it's because they've folded. The teams just didn't work out."

Not sure what that says about the future of his latest club, the Toronto Nationals, which will make its Major League Lacrosse home debut tonight (7:30 p.m.) at BMO Field against the Chicago Machine. The Nationals are trying to squeeze into a crowded panorama of pro sports in Toronto and Dawson isn't sure what to expect.

"I don't know how many people we'll get out. Field lacrosse is new here. The facility is great. but it's going to be trial and error. Once people see the product we put on the field I think they'll become fans."

But, getting fans to the park first might be the league's biggest challenge. Lacrosse remains a fringe professional sport. Dawson is a three-time NLL all-star, he scored 45 goals in 2005 with Arizona in the MLL, and set a league record for assists last season. That's close to Crosby country in hockey or Halladayesque dominance - but even that hasn't been enough to sell fans on the sport in the markets in which he has played.

"Lacrosse is still trying to find its way into the professional sports ranks. It's trying to find its niche and markets that work," said Dawson. "With the Toronto Rock, it has worked well with the indoor game and we're looking for the same thing with the Nationals and the outdoor game."

If it will work anywhere, it should be Toronto. The game has roots here.

"It's the traditional way lacrosse was played. dating back to the native North Americans," Dawson said. "Nine guys, and there's a bit more athleticism (than in box lacrosse) running up and down the field. The equipment is different; the defencemen have six-foot long (sticks), the nets are bigger (six-feet square)."

Field lacrosse is derived from the native North American game of baggataway, which was Canada's most popular sport before hockey came along.

A century ago, crowds often gathered in Toronto to watch the best teams of the era. While it has been overshadowed in recent history it has also proved resilient -- still regarded by many as this country's national sport, if no longer its national passion.

To Dawson, it is both. At age 27, he begins a new career Monday as a firefighter in Brampton. Like most pro lacrosse players, he plays mostly for love, not money.

"Some guys make a living. They play in both pro leagues and run lacrosse camps, and I do that, as well. There are ways to make this a full-time gig," said Dawson, "but at the end of the day there's no pension, so ... well, it's all right for now."

Salaries in the MLL run between $6,500 to $20,000. Nice pocket change, but not something on which to feed a family.

"I'm doing something I love. That's most important. It's not whether I get paid," said Dawson, of his infatuation.

"It's a culture. It's not just playing a game: Lacrosse is a very tight knit community. And it's very special to say you've done something at the highest level."

The Nationals roster is full of Canadians, including Colin Doyle, Jeff Zywicki, Brodie Merrill, Gavin Prout, Shawn Williams, Geoff Snider and Merrick Thomson. But for many, tonight will be their first chance to play for a Canadian pro team, on home soil.

"I'm a hometown guy from Oakville," said Dawson, "So it's always been a dream to play in front of family and friends."

That, alone, should make this moment special.


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