You might have seen the sport briefly on your television screen; players dressed almost like hockey players with a full face mask and gloves charging down the middle of the rink towards a goalie wearing full attire… but he’s using a bag attached to a piece of wood as his stick and the goal itself is a loose net in a triangular shape. As the player fires the small ball out of the small stick and net he’s carrying over his shoulder and into the net you wonder at what exactly this is. It’s lacrosse, one of the world’s oldest sports.
The original game was created hundreds of years ago in North America among the Native Americans who had many versions of the game; some using two sticks (one in each hand) and some that were co-ed – as well as women having their own teams and variations of the sport. One tribe, the Cherokees, called lacrosse “the little brother of war” because of it’s military training value.
Often teams were made up of hundreds of players encompassing an entire village or tribe at times; with the result that the goals themselves were miles apart and games could last days. Since the average player had little chance of getting close to the ball, they would concentrate on hitting their opponent with their stick, injuring them and taking them out of play. This would evolve later into the cross-checking and sparring that we see not only in lacrosse but hockey as well.
The Six Tribes of the Iroquois, located in what is now southern Ontario and upstate New York, called their version of the game “baggataway” or “tewaraathon”. It was much more organized than in most areas of the country. There were 12 to 15 players per team, and the goals were about 120 feet apart. Still, games would go hours at a time and major injuries were common. It was seen as a good forum for young men to prove themselves and for skill to be developed without permanent injuries on each side nor a major confrontation resulting.
There are various stories about how the sport came to be renamed lacrosse. One is that the first Europeans who saw the game being played were French explorers who immediately looked at the hooked stick being used and thought of the crozier used by the Catholic bishops – la crosse, in French. Another much more likely name origin is that the French played a form of field hockey that was called jeu de la crosse (literally, game of the cross) and recognized the Native American version as a variation of their own familiar game.
Early in the 19th century, Europeans in Canada began playing the game in earnest with Montreal’s Olympic Club organizing a team in 1844 specifically to play a match against a Native American team. Similar games were played in 1848 and 1851.
However, the first step toward turning lacrosse into a genuinely organized, modern sport came when the Montreal Lacrosse Club, founded in 1856, developed the first written rules. Previously the rules had been passed on by word of mouth and tradition, leading to many disagreements as time went on. Standardization of the rules and equipment made the game more accessible for all the players and mildly safer.
George Beers (also fondly named ‘the father of lacrosse’) of the MLC rewrote the rules thoroughly in 1867. His rules called for 12 players per team, and named the positions: Goal, point, cover point, first defense, second defense, third defense, center, third attack, second attack, first attack, out home, and in home; positions familiar to most hockey fans. The hair-stuffed deerskin ball was replaced with a hard rubber ball and the stick redesigned to make catching and throwing the ball more effective.
Canada’s National Lacrosse Association, which was also established in 1867, quickly adopted the new rules and equipment. The same year, a team made up of Caughnawaga Indians went to England and played a match for Queen Victoria, entertaining her with the “new” game of the Colonies. The sport quickly became popular in England, resulting in a new league being formed in 1892- the English Lacrosse Union.
Over the next century lacrosse thrived not only in the Native American culture, but also in the United States and Canada. Many colleges developed their own teams, with New York University and Manhattan College playing the first U.S. intercollegiate game in 1877.
The U. S. Amateur Lacrosse Association, founded in 1879, adopted the Canadian rules. Seven colleges formed the first Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association three years later. That was succeeded in 1905 by the Intercollegiate Lacrosse League, which changed its name to the U. S. Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association (USILA) in 1929.
Over the years ice hockey and lacrosse have always been intertwined; with the original rules of ice hockey being patterned after those of lacrosse. Most hockey players in Canada also have been lacrosse players at one time or another; developing their passing and checking skills far away from the ice rink.
As the popularity of the sport increased the demand for an independent league grew, finally resulting in the National Lacrosse League. Organized in 1997 as a group of independently owned teams, the NLL includes such teams as the Toronto Rock and the Pittsburgh Crossfire. While only a handful of teams compete in the NLL, it has become a showcase for up and coming players both in hockey and lacrosse who can display their skills on national television as the sport becomes more popular.
Although these players are not paid anywhere near as much as professional hockey players, their pay is increasing as more and more fans are drawn to the sport and to the low ticket prices for a game. The average lacrosse game ticket is less than ten dollars US, far lower than a hockey game ticket would cost.
Lacrosse has become an international sport as well, with teams in Germany, Japan and the continuing support in England. This has resulted in lacrosse being an Olympic sport both in 1904 and 1908 where Canada won both gold medals. It was dropped thereafter but reinstated as a demonstration sport in 1928, 1932 and 1948 with another exhibition tournament held in Los Angeles in 1980. As more and more counties take up the sport and teams develop lacrosse will eventually be considered for full entry into the Olympics.
This ancient sport has survived centuries of change and development with very little changes to either the equipment or the rules; the only main skill needed being speed and strength. The spread of hockey around the world has also helped spread the sport of lacrosse as teams spring up and a new generation discovers this entertaining and physically challenging sport.