March 8, 2009

NLL All-Star Game Lives up to Hype

by Theresa Smith | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Photo Gallery: NLL All-Star Game

Mark Steenhuis celebrates one of his six goals -- a so-called "sock trick" -- with Buffalo Bandits and East teammate Roger Vyse. East defeated West, 27-21, in the NLL All-Star Game. Steenhuis earned an unprecedented third All-Star MVP award.

© Michael Martin

DENVER -- As advertised, the National Lacrosse League All-Star game was high effort and high intensity.

As a bonus, the Pepsi Center crowd of 13,380 was treated to amazing stick tricks, Mark Steenhuis' seemingly effortless dominance, Dan Dawson's dunk in the hot tub and the return of Gary Gait.

With Steenhuis dominating and Pat Maddalena scoring three of his five goals in a two-minute, seven-second span, the East prevailed 27-21 on Saturday night. Steenhuis, the Buffalo Bandits' two-way star, won the game's Most Valuable Player Award for an unprecedented third time, including 2004 in Denver and in 2007 in Portland.

In Colorado lacrosse tradition, Steenhuis was honored spontaneously after his sixth goal -- it began raining socks.

As fans pulled off their socks and threw them down on the Pepsi Center floor, Steenhuis was perplexed, figuring they were upset with his efforts. After all, they were cheering for a West triumph almost as vociferously as they cheer for the Mammoth.

But as he smelled a sock that landed on his shoulder, Steenhuis realized it was a sign of appreciation.

In return, he took off one of his socks and played the rest of the game -- most of the fourth quarter -- sockless.

"It was a little tribute back to the fans," Steenhuis said. "I was having fun. It was nice for us to be a little bit more relaxed.  It was a nice weekend, and I want to thank Colorado for putting it on and to all the fans for coming out."

On his most impressive goal, Steenhuis ran around San Jose's Jeff Zywicki, jumped, flipped the stick behind his back and released the shot from between his legs.

Fellow all-stars tried to pinpoint his attributes, including the observation by Colorado's Gavin Prout of his omnipresence.

"It seems like he's out there on every shift," Prout said. "He's a tireless worker."

Steenhuis, the NLL scoring leader, humbly praised his East teammates.

"I was just fortunate that guys got me in the right spot and the goalie was out of position a little bit," Steenhuis said. "It was great to be a part of."

Dawson worked particularly well with Steenhuis, logging seven assists and two goals, before quitting early to surprise the crowd with a dip in the hot tub with a pair of bikini-clad babes.

"Our job is not only to play the game, we want to sell it," Dawson said. "It is such a player-friendly game. The fans have been great all weekend, so we wanted to give them something extra."

Dawson's cannon ball, coming soon to YouTube and possibly ESPN, was replayed on the Jumbotron.

Counting the win streak of his Boston Blazers, it was Dawson's sixth consecutive victory.

"I've been in the West my whole career and I've been 0-3 in All-Star games, so now I'm an East Coaster and we showed we are the stronger division" he said. "It was a very special first win for me."

Hall of Famer Gait received a rousing welcome from the crowd as he played under his retired Mammoth jersey, which hung from the rafters.

After starring for Colorado from 2003-05, Gait took over as coach for two seasons, including the only Mammoth championship in 2006. In August 2007, he left to take over the Syracuse women's program, and then came out of retirement last fall to play for the injury-depleted Rochester Knighthawks.

Gait left early when his hamstring tightened, but not before firing a shot to the left side against West starting goaltender Matt Disher.

"It is always great to be back in Colorado," Gait said. "It is such a great lacrosse town."

After being inducted into the NLL Hall of Fame at an afternoon luncheon, Jim Veltman and Dallas Eliuk coached the teams. Mammoth assistant coach Dan Pratt assisted Veltman with the East and Mammoth staffer Ward Sanderson helped Eliuk with the West.

The West lacked a face-off specialist and suffered greatly for it as East expert Stephen Peyser, a rookie injury replacement from New York, dominated Prout and San Jose's Jeff Zywicki -- they both took more than one for the team.

Prout, ever competitive, said the right things, but was clearly bemoaning the loss.

"Everybody is so competitive and we have pride," he said. "It is one of those things where you want to do your best and not get embarrassed. But I don't think the fans were disappointed. There was a lot of energy, a lot of goals."

San Jose's Colin Doyle led the West with four goals and three assists, including a goal with his back to the cage shot through his legs.

He also had a close encounter with East goaltender Ken Montour. Realizing he was going to lose a race for a loose ball, Montour tried to body check Doyle, who brushed off Montour, jumped, and fired a 50-foot shot into the unguarded net.

Edmonton's Ian Hawksbee added three goals and two assists, followed by Prout (2g, 4a) and Colorado's Brian Langtry (2g, 3a).

It was the first all-star game for Langtry, who was pleased to be part of a real effort.

"I thought everybody played hard," he said. "There was flashy stuff, but people wanted to win. It was more fun than I thought. I don't go half-ass, so I was glad everybody else wanted to play hard too. I didn't want it to be like an NBA All-Star Game, and it wasn't like that at all."

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