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Lacrosse: The first sport here, and here to stay

In the 1982 published work "Home-Grown Heroes", author Frank Pagnucco suggested that lacrosse (that of the field variety, as the box lacrosse version arrived much later) was likely the first sport in northern Ontario that embraced regional competition.

"This venerable game was probably the first sport played on an intertown basis by the inhabitants of Sudbury," he wrote. In fact, the earliest accounts show teams being put on the field in the late 1880s, with games scheduled along various outposts of the CPR railway line in the north before the turn of the century.

Opponents ranged from groups representing Chapleau, Mattawa and North Bay, with a particularly fierce inter-town rivalry developing between 1900 and 1905, as strapping lads adorned in outfits emblazoned with either "Sudbury" or "Copper Cliff" on their chests, battled it out in a sporting environment that was about as fierce as they would come.

Mind you, even in the more sportsmanlike of encounters, neither the game itself, nor the accounts reported through the media of the time, bore much resemblance to anything that we might see today.

Consider the following report of a match between the North Bay Maple Leafs and the Sudbury gents: "The game throughout was a good exhibition of lacrosse, there being no slugging or rough play on either side. Good order was also kept on the field thus making it pleasant for the large member of ladies and children who were present."

Expansion would create the birth of the New Ontario Lacrosse Association in 1901, with an entry from Sault Ste Marie added to the fold. But even as junior editions of the sport emerged in the area, with a handful of established players being lured north by the prospects of work, lacrosse was falling victim to the rapid rise in the popularity of baseball.

The national summer sport of Canada, as passed in federal parliament in 1994, whose origins date back to the natives of North America, lacrosse would find itself enjoying very intermittent interest, in Sudbury, in the years leading up to World War I. Revivals in both the 1930s and 1950s apparently were unable to take hold, with the next true era, locally, coming in the 1970s, by which time the game had moved indoors.

While many in the nickel basin recalled playing or coaching the game in this latter decade, possibly through to the eighties, records of the specifics are scant. Recollections from various folks suggested that while Sudbury was blessed with a number of very impressive athletes, typically hockey players looking for an outlet to maintain some level of conditioning over the summer, the transfer of game knowledge from winter to summer was not quite that simple.

Where box lacrosse, offensively speaking, bears a great deal of conceptual similarity to the sport of basketball, local teens struggled with differentiating whether they were assigned to duties as "defencemen" or "forwards", positions that are not part of the discussion, whatsoever, when it comes to lacrosse.

Once again, a strong foothold within those fiercely loyal to the summer pastime simply could not be perpetuated. This time around, the sport lay dormant until just after the new millennium, when an intriguing duo restored a model of lacrosse that is now nearing two decades of consistent competition.

Russ Farnel was already well-established as the general manager of the highly successful Sudbury Nickel Capitals midget AAA entry in the Great North Midget League when he returned home one weekend, having witnessed his nephews, in Ottawa, partaking in box lacrosse.

Intent on seeing the sport offered once more in Sudbury, Farnel enlisted the help of John Grant Sr, which is somewhat akin to partnering with the "First Family of Lacrosse" in Canada. A Peterborough native who had moved north, with work, in the mid-1990s, Grant Sr is a member of the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame, having represented the country internationally.

His son, John Jr, went on to become the all-time leading scorer in the National Lacrosse League, suiting up in the NLL from 2001 to 2019, and occasionally making the trek to Sudbury, in summers, to assist with clinics and camps.

In 2002, the genesis of what would become the Greater Sudbury Lacrosse Association emerged.

"We thought we might get a hundred kids registered that first year," said Grant Sr, now living back home in Peterborough. "We got five hundred. It was quite a process, really something else at the start, trying to put pockets in 500 sticks and cut handles down. We didn't have storage then, so Russ had this old grey van with all of the goaltending equipment."

"At that point, we didn't really have an organization or mission statement or anything like that."

Sadly, early in 2004, Farnel passed suddenly, quite unexpectedly. For the first few years, the local group did not even bother to affiliate with the Ontario Lacrosse Association. Truth be told, the game was in such a stage of infancy that it resembled only vaguely what was being played elsewhere in the province.

"We couldn't play a real game at the start, because everybody was in development," said Grant Sr. "It wasn't like we had any kids that had played three, four, five years. We painted a three-foot line all the way around the rink, on the inside of the boards. We had to eliminate the boards, to keep the game away from that area."

"It worked like a charm, until we reached the stage where we could venture to other parts of the province."

By the summer of 2004, the rep version of lacrosse, the Sudbury Rockhounds, had taken root, with a bantam entry in provincials that August including the likes of hockey pros Marcus Foligno and Tyler Beskorowany, and Sudbury Spartans veteran linebacker Erik Conrad.

While not yet home, these days, to a pipeline of perpetual lacrosse talent, the GSLA has spawned the likes of siblings Tristan and Julian Simeoni, both of whom played with the four-time Baggataway Cup champion Western Mustangs last fall - and many others.

A handful of local graduates have accepted scholarships south of the border. A much larger number have suited up as part of Laurentian Voyageurs teams that have competed in CUFLA (Canadian University Field Lacrosse Association) since 2007.

And while Covid-19 has forced the cancellation of the 2020 GSLA house league season, and might still put a kibosh on any Sudbury Rockhounds' teams taking to the floor this summer, it certainly appears as though lacrosse is here to stay - hopefully for good, this time around.

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