January 16, 2012

North American Lacrosse League Splits in Two

Three teams to begin season this month; four to play in fall

by Laurel Pfahler | LaxMagazine.com

The new indoor North American Lacrosse League has split into two separate leagues, but it likely will be up to the courts to decide which side keeps the name.

Four of the league's six teams voted Dec. 31 to fire commissioner Tony Caruso and announced they were moving to a fall season. On Friday, a federal judge signed a temporary restraining order to prevent those parties from saying the winter season – which was set to begin Jan. 19 – has been canceled.

Caruso and attorney Joel Kreizman filed the order in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey as the plaintiff North American Lacrosse League, LLC, but the order does not resolve dispute of the actual makeup of the NALL and its authority.

"We have every intention of fulfilling our obligation to our fans," said Caruso, whose original lawsuit was dismissed in New Jersey State Superior Court, Chancery Division. "We will play our season as planned, which was previously agreed upon by our teams. We're going ahead as planned."

The winter league will now begin Jan. 21, according to Caruso, and consists of three teams, including only the Kentucky Stickhorses of the original teams. The Lehigh Valley Flying Dutchmen, out of Allentown, Pa., were created by former part-owner of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Shamrocks and Hershey Haymakers Aaron Musselman, and the newly named Boston Rockhoppers will play this season instead of as initially planned in 2013. The NALL website currently lists only the logos for the Boston, Lehigh Valley and Kentucky teams.

The four teams moving to the fall – considered to be the defendants in the court case – include the Jacksonville Bullies, Hershey Haymakers, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Shamrocks and Charlotte Copperheads.

According to the restraining order, the defendants are prohibited from "making any communication to any person, including the media, players, coaches, vendors, or arenas, that the lacrosse season planned or scheduled to commence in January 2012, involving the Kentucky Stickhorses, Team Boston, and the Pennsylvania-based Flying Dutchmen, has been or is canceled."

Court documents reveal the defendants indicated no objection to following temporary restraint, but they did dispute the authority of the NALL.

Caruso said the signed restraining order "shows who is in charge."

Jim Jennings, owner of the Shamrocks and Haymakers, said he believed that "majority rules," thus when four teams voted Caruso out, he no longer had authority. The decision to move to the fall was unrelated, he said.

"We're going to be announcing a national television contract soon, and that was the big reason we decided to move to the fall because our TV partner wanted us to play during that time period," Jennings said. "Four teams wanted to move to the fall and two teams didn't. In our league, it's majority rules, so we decided to move to the fall."

Caruso and his counsel point out in their court documents that the NALL had no operating agreement until Jan. 1, 2012, which only the three teams "in good standing with the league" signed. Caruso had no authority prior to that.

Jennings said he and other owners voted Caruso out because of "a multitude of issues" that he didn't want to elaborate on, and the four fall teams are trying to gain back control of the website and league name.

"I think it's a personal thing," Jennings said. "We let him go on a 4-2 vote, and he just doesn't want to leave, so we have to get a court order to uphold his firing. It's just a matter of time before that's settled."

Bullies owner Brett Vickers called the situation "disappointing."

"What it boils down to is a lack of communication on one side, and it's unfortunate," Vickers said.

Vickers and Jennings both said they are in the process of confirming fall dates to play in their respective arenas, but don't foresee any problems. Jennings said the four teams moving to the fall hope to have a schedule put together by the end of the month. They will begin play in late August and each team will play a 12-game schedule ending in late December.

"For many of the arenas, it works out better for them because many of them have hockey and basketball (in the winter) so during the fall there isn't as much going on," Jennings said.

The Shamrocks have lost only six of the team's 1,400 season-ticket holders since the decision to move to the fall, according to Jennings, and Vickers said none of the Bullies' fans or sponsors expressed any concerns with it.

Vickers said playing in the fall actually is more ideal because the league won't have to compete with the National Lacrosse League, which the NALL never wanted to do anyway. The NALL is focused on developing the American game and rosters must be 80 percent made up of American players.

"It seemed to be more ideal in that timeframe because it will give professional lacrosse players a chance to play all year round and earn a living from the sport," Vickers said. "We think that part of it's important as well."

The Bullies recently held their training camp, and Vickers said "all the players were on board" with moving to the fall.

"The move was looked at positively," Vickers said. "It's a win for us as an organization, it's a win for our players, it's a win for our fans."

While four teams are planning for a fall season, the three winter league teams are scrambling to prepare for competition to begin in less than a week. Only the Stickhorses have a roster, and the loss of four teams means a much smaller schedule.

Caruso said the three teams will play a total of seven to 10 games, plus exhibition against visiting professional and national teams. The Stickhorses will open the season Jan. 21 against the Jersey Jesters, a visiting guest team, who they also will play in Game 2 on Feb. 4.

"We're going to have a modified schedule that is drastically reduced from the 50 games we were going to play ... but that's where we're at because they've said they aren't playing," Caruso said. "We're looking forward to getting started, and we will build from there."

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