January 11, 2013

From NELJ: Building blocks

By Ian B. Murphy

The Boston Rockhoppers will play their home games at New England Sports Center in Marlboro, Mass. (Donna Johnson Photography)

New England welcomes two new indoor lacrosse teams this month, with the Boston Rockhoppers and the Rhode Island Kingfish starting their inaugural season in the four-team North American Lacrosse League.

The excitement of fans over the new franchises is tempered by the fact that the box lacrosse landscape is littered with pockets of disillusioned fans who lent their enthusiasm and interest to a new team only to see it fold or move a few seasons later.

The National Lacrosse League — the game’s highest level — starts this month with the same roster of teams it had a year ago, marking the first time since the early 1990s that the roster of teams wasn’t changed by expansion, contraction or team movement from one season to the next. Locally, the NLL’s Boston Blazers have come to town — and left — twice, most recently from 2009 to 2011.

The challenge for the Rockhoppers and the Kingfish — both owned by Natick, Mass.-based PrimeTime Lacrosse — is to build an excited community for the team, and produce a professional lacrosse product, while keeping costs down, all in an environment where upstart teams and leagues have been folding almost as fast as they open.

With that in mind, the two New England clubs have tried hard to be prudent. Anthony Fitti, Rockhoppers general manager, and PrimeTime Lacrosse owners Tyler Low and Jason Wellemeyer (both Babson College grads and four-year varsity lacrosse lettermen) started the process by securing the right arena deals. The latest incarnation of the Boston Blazers faltered in part because the team failed to negotiate a more attractive deal with TD Garden after three years playing in the city’s largest — and most expensive — indoor venue.

The Rockhoppers will play their 2013 season at the New England Sports Center in Marlboro, Mass., which seats roughly 2,000 people; the Kingfish, meanwhile, expected to play in Kingston at the University of Rhode Island’s Boss Ice Arena, but that deal had fallen through at press time, leaving the team potentially to play all of its games on the road if a new deal can’t get done.

“We wanted to find our home, a place that wanted us there,” Fitti said. “(New England Sports Center) did everything they could in terms of scheduling to put us in a place to succeed.”

The Marlboro arena offers several advantages: It’s close to Interstate 495, making it easy to reach and near several communities with blossoming youth lacrosse programs. The six-rink arena already has its own sports community, which the team hopes to tap into. And the smaller size means the team could sell out its six home games, providing a raucous environment for the Rockhoppers.

“Obviously, our goal in picking a smaller venue was filling it,” Fitti said.

The Rockhopppers play the Kentucky Stickhorses on Jan. 5; their home opener is Jan. 12. The Kingfish, meanwhile, were scheduled to host Baltimore on Jan. 6; barring a new arena deal, it will instead be the team’s first of 12 road games this season.

Another key strategy for teams in the NALL is to fill rosters with local talent as much as possible. This helps the teams in two areas, limiting transportation costs by eliminating almost all of the costly fly-in talent, and then ensuring a local following of fans who already know some of the players from high school and collegiate careers.

“For us, it’s huge,” Fitti said. “We’re trying to create a brand, and we’re trying to put local names on the floor that kids can get excited about. We’re very fortunate to be in an area where you can find top-notch talent in the back yard.”

The NALL requires 80 percent of all team rosters to be American; reducing the Canadian influence — where the box game is more popular — evens the playing field among the league’s teams, while also helping to grow the box game in America, said league commissioner Anthony Caruso.

Because the field game is much more popular in the United States than box lacrosse, the four NALL teams are grabbing players with indoor experience but also converting field lacrosse players eager to play in their offseason.

The Rockhoppers played two exhibition road games in Kentucky in 2012, with a roster that featured mostly players from local indoor club teams such as the Boston Crabs, or from the Boston Box Lacrosse League, an elite-level adult men’s league. The Rockhoppers and Kingfish dove deeply into that local player pool as they built rosters for training camp and the 2013 season.

Rockhopppers coach Jack Piatelli — who played for the first incarnation of the Blazers in the 1990s — said experience wasn’t the only factor in putting together the team. He drafted local players with character, because they would also be crucial to the team’s success in reaching out to the community.

That mix, Piatelli said, is “going to help build interest and maintain a good foundation for the league. We’re putting a good product on the field, and there is a lot of talent.”

Some of that talent has a long way to go to produce in the box. Piatelli said his biggest takeaway from the Rockhoppers early December training camp was “you can really tell the difference between (experienced box players) and the field players who want to learn the indoor game. The first-year players, I think they were very surprised at that kind of conditioning and how physical it is. The stick skills really have to be on; it’s harder to find the time and space to get a good shot off. “

Piatelli, who was inducted to the New England Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1999, had never coached an indoor team before the two exhibition games last year. He said he has plenty to learn, just like his players, about the box game.

“Nobody is bigger than the game,” Piatelli said. “We’re all going to make mistakes, but we’re all going to be on the same page.”

The Kingfish also have a former Blazer at the helm in Charlie Blanchard, who was inducted to the Ohio Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2012 from his time as an early-1980s All-American at Ohio Wesleyan. Blanchard is an assistant coach at Bryant University.

Both local squads have tapped New England’s other semi-pro box lacrosse team, the Vermont Voyageurs of the Quebec Senior Lacrosse League, for as much talent as possible. The Voyageurs play a summer schedule, compared to the winter schedule of the new teams, meaning players can participate in both leagues.

Rockhopper Malcolm Chase, from Yarmouth, Maine, has spent the past three seasons playing for the Voyageurs during their April-to-August season. He played field lacrosse collegiately at Whittier and has coached at the University of Southern Maine.

Chase said most newbies go through trial by fire, where opponents shrug off stick checks, deny traditional field-lacrosse scoring angles, run pick-and-roll plays and play a two-man offensive game that’s not used much on the big field.

“Where I really learned that style and the flow of the game — as well as some of the unwritten rules — was playing for the Voyageurs,” he said.

The Voyageurs joined the QSLL, a Senior B indoor league with eight teams, for the 2010 season after playing a 10-game exhibition season in 2009. It’s the only QSLL team based in the United States.

Voyageurs general manager Jeff Culkin said the team was established because there was a lot of former University of Vermont lacrosse talent settling in Burlington that was interested in the indoor game. Once the team struck a deal with the Essex Skating Facility to play home games, the team came together quickly.

While the local lacrosse players were the genesis of the team, there weren’t enough to field a full roster. For the Voyageurs, Culkin said, player travel is one of the biggest expenses. Young professionals on the team drive from Delaware and New Jersey; several players, such as Chase, car-pool from Boston and Portland, Maine to play for the team.

In 2012, the Voyageurs went to the QSLL finals, taking a 2-0 series lead on the Kahnawake Mohawks in the President’s Cup finals, before dropping the last three games to lose the championship. Culkin said that nothing less than winning the cup — the team’s fourth season — will satisfy the team in 2013.

For the Rockhoppers, the goal is putting a product on the field that will draw fans and families and get the fledgling league off the ground, Fitti said. The Voyageurs average between 100 and 200 fans during regular season games; the Rockhoppers — and Kingfish, if they can get a last-minute arena deal — want to fill their 2,000-seat venues and draw fans from the more-populous areas in southern New England.

Fitti said a successful season would be “creating a product that will really create a demand for people with families to come out and enjoy. It really is based on the product on the field. If we give people something that is family-oriented and fun to watch, that’s a success.”

Unlike the Voyageurs, the Rockhoppers and Kingfish are helping start an entirely new league, a process fraught with its own perils. The NALL already has had a shaky start. Four of the league’s initial six teams splintered off just before the league was supposed to hold its first draft in December 2012, voting to fire commissioner Caruso.

The original dispute reportedly was over moving the season to the fall to work out a television deal and to better fit with the arena schedules.

Caruso filed suit in federal court under the aegis of the NALL to prevent the exiting teams from saying the winter season was canceled. The suit was settled in the spring; Caruso said in a recent interview with New England Lacrosse Journal that the terms of the settlement included not discussing it.

The four franchises that left the NALL formed the Professional Lacrosse League and planned to play a full fall season. Two of the four franchises survived to play their first games this year, joined by just one other team after another new franchise bowed out before completing training camp — but only the teams in Charlotte (N.C.) and Reading (Pa.) completed their full slate of games.

The Rockhoppers — who always planned to start operations in 2013 — teamed with Caruso and Kentucky owner Anthony Chase to keep the NALL going, playing those first exhibition games.

Now, the league has potential ownership groups lined up to take over the Kingfish, a dormant team in Pennsylvania called the Lehigh Valley Flying Dutchman and “three or four good candidates for ownership groups” lined up for possible entry in 2014, Caruso said.

But Caruso stressed that the league needs to grow at the right pace, focus on a successful season in 2013 and build enthusiasm for the four current franchises. The last-minute arena issues for the Kingfish illustrate just how tenuous any franchise can be during the start-up phase.

“We have to be very careful about who comes in as an ownership group,” Caruso said. “We do take this very seriously, and we’re not going to grow very quickly unless the situation is absolutely perfect.”

Part of the plan is allowing franchises to start at smaller venues, Caruso said, but the league expects teams to have a plan to draw bigger crowds in the years ahead.

“We’re making sure the league grows, and we hope to keep the best possible synergy and momentum.”

Malcolm Chase said the players know about the volatility of the league’s beginnings; some of them played in the PLL in the fall, others were on rosters of teams that fell apart.

Mostly, however, the players just want to play.

“I just want to play lacrosse,” he said. “I think that’s where all the players are at, and the coaches are there, and hopefully the owners are there as well so we can move on and keep the game growing.”

For some of the younger local players, this is their first chance to call themselves pros. Chase said he’s been playing club and semi-professional lacrosse for 10 years, and you quickly learn to take advantage of any opportunity.

“I just tell the younger guys to be excited about it — because it’s a great opportunity — but to be cautiously optimistic,” he said. “Any opportunity that you have to play, make the absolute best of it. Anything can happen.”

This article originally appeared in the January-February 2013 edition of New England Lacrosse Journal.

Email: feedback@laxjournal.com