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A short but spirited stint of lacrosse
2021-05-08
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In the early 2000s, the late Russ Farnel gathered with the likes of John Grant Sr and many others, putting the wheels in motion to revive the sport of lacrosse in Sudbury. By all accounts, it had been roughly twenty years since the athletic pursuit that was first competed locally in the late 1800s (granted, it was the field version and not box lacrosse, in that era) had seen the light of day in these parts.

Ironically, the efforts of Farnel, Grant and company very much mirrored a similar groundswell in the year 1970, when lacrosse re-appeared in Sudbury after an absence of nearly four decades. Yet where the push of the new millennium could lean upon the knowledge of the future member of the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame (Grant Sr) and a host of volunteers who had some knowledge of the game from their own playing days, such was not the case at a time when the big news of the day involved the pending construction of the Super Stack in Copper Cliff.

“There were very few people that were coaching who had actually played the game,” noted Jim Christison, the now 62 year-old reflecting on a time that culminated with an OLA (Ontario Lacrosse Association) Juvenile/Intermediate “C” championship in 1976. “I remember coaches that had just picked up lacrosse, had never held a lacrosse stick in their life,” added Brian Pischlar, a goaltender with the ‘76 squad and a second Sudbury entry that emerged as provincial champions in 1978.

“They were coaching us and doing the best that they could.”

Turns out that best was pretty darn good.

In fact, where the Sudbury Rockhounds of the 2000s can point to three different OLA banners - Bantam “E” in 2008, Bantam “D” in 2012 and Intermediate “C” in 2013, the 1970s brigade can do one better - Intermediate “C” in 1976 & 1978, Peewee “D” in 1979 and Midget “D” in 1980.

While it may be true that the finer stick skills of lacrosse perhaps lagged behind other parts of Ontario where the game had enjoyed a more consistent presence, the great Sudbury equalizers often lie with natural athletic ability and general toughness.

“A lot of the better hockey players were also pretty good lacrosse players, just with the whole hand-eye coordination and cardio and such,” said Michael Delsault, a member of the final championship team of the 70’s-80’s era. “They were just good athletes. City hockey was physical, and in lacrosse, if you had the ball, you were pretty much getting crushed.”

Where the 2000 version of the sport, locally, carried some clear-cut amendments to the rules in order to allow a wider swath of young athletes access to lacrosse, the pocket of play that preceded it tended to rely far more on a survival of the fittest approach.

“We were young guys, many of us from tough backgrounds,” said Christison, a proud product of the Riverside crew that would regularly wage war with the Ridgecrest lads from New Subury in local houseleague action. “Someone gave us a weapon (lacrosse stick) and told us that we could beat on people the whole game and not get a penalty.”

“As long as you didn’t hit the guy below the waist or in the head, it was open season. You could keep cross-checking him, even after he fell, until you got the ball.”

Sure, it was a bit of a wild west mentality, but it definitely found a niche in Sudbury.

“I would sometimes deliberately run right into defenders, right over them,” confessed John Lappa, a key component of the 76/78 teams. “I used the skills I learned playing football. I could crossover certain skills, like spinning off a tackle - but both were rough sports. I can remember many times when other players would break their sticks over me.”

That said, there was still room for those deft young teenagers who could dart quickly in and out of traffic, and who possessed the kind of ball-handling ability that separates the elite scorers from the pack - even more so if they come in a package of two.

Phil and Paul Woods are twins, and two of only a small handful of lacrosse players from the seventies who would play at the next level, joining the Junior C team in Huntsville as they got older. “The chemistry that people have by virtue of being a twin is special,” suggested Pischlar.

“I saw those guys do things that you would need to be able to read your brother’s mind to do.”

Even some of those who were more than comfortable with excessive physicality could morph their game at times, when need be. “John Lappa was one of the fastest guys on the floor,” added Pischlar. “He was not a magician with the stick, but he could shoot the ball at 114 MPH - and that’s all that mattered.”

“When I wanted to, I could side step guys - I was pretty fast and quick at the same time,” chimed in the 61 year-old long-time photographer with the Sudbury Star.

Christison recalled the likes of Johnny “Butch” Baby, Brian Fram, the late Ron Mason, John Walker, Ray Irwin and so many more. “I was a small guy, but I have really good hand-eye coordination,” said Christison. “And I was a little bit cuckoo at the time. A lot of these guys were really good with their sticks and they knew how to play the game.”

“But with a guy like Butch Baby or Rob Franceschini, it was shere power. Butch would let his shot go and people would evaporate. You knew that he could rip it and you knew that he had no idea where it was going.”

As many have come to learn, the playing field in lacrosse can be quickly levelled by teams blessed with strong goaltending, even if those entrusted with this key position were forced to make things up on the fly, adapting from one sport to the next.

“Whether it’s soccer, lacrosse or hockey, there are angles that you are going to look at,” said Pischlar. “But in hockey, if I’m playing my angle and I come out six feet, the guy isn’t bouncing a ball six inches in front of me.”

“You look at goalies like Brian Pischlar and Mike Kitler who could hit you on the fly, almost at the far end of the rink,” said Christison. “They didn’t miss you. They could throw the ball as well as they could stop it.”

By the time the early eighties arrived, soccer was making huge in-roads, squeezing the ranks of the local lacrosse community. “Everyone wanted to be outside after spending all winter cooped up in an arena,” suggested Delsaut. “If there was a place to go with lacrosse, I would have taken it.”

“I was decent at hockey, but hockey wasn’t my passion - lacrosse was my passion. The kids that excelled at it loved the game, but the kids that were hohum were dropping.”

And only a full twenty years later would the lacrosse spring up, once more, just as it had for a wonderful decade or so, from 1970 through to 1982.

The 1976 All-Ontario winning Juvenile/Intermediate team (the only one for which we obtained a full team picture, included: Don Wilton, Brian McDavid, Mark Mills, Duncan Jacob, Ron Barr, Brian Pischlar, Kevin Gravelle, Dan Paquette, Norm Synnott, Gary Petrin, Ray Auger, Rob Cousins, Larry Gould, John Lappa, Les Wisniewski, Wayne Eadie, Terry Longlade, Jim Christison, coach Mike Jubinville and manager Leo Villeneuve.

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