January 2, 2013

Quicker, Faster, Stronger NLL Opens 27th Season on Saturday

Players turned first-year coaches reflect on league's development

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com

The prevailing opinion around the NLL is that Rochester is the team to beat in 2013. "Picking up Casey Powell and Dan Dawson, that doesn't hurt them at all," Philadelphia Wings assistant coach Tom Hajek said.
© Kevin Colton

Bruce Codd has vivid memories of his first National Lacrosse League game.

The year was 2000. There was a team in Albany, N.Y., at that time and Codd was an Albany Attack defenseman. It was a home game. The defending champion Toronto Rock provided the opposition.

''We won 8-7,'' Codd recalls. ''It was a defensive struggle. What I remember most was Pat Coyle punching me in the mouth. Being both Orangeville [Ontario] guys, I thought that was kind of cool.''

Codd played for the Rock last winter and is hanging up the gear to help coach the defense for the Calgary Roughnecks, the team he helped win the Champion's Cup in 2009. He is one of four men who ended their playing careers after the 2012 season and who now are assistant coaches. The others are Tom Hajek, who leaves Philadelphia's defense corps to guide the Wings defense from behind the bench; Jason Bloom, who goes from Washington's captain to plotting player development; and Pat Campbell, who will mentor Toronto goalies after being the backup last season.

There is not a better group to talk to in assessing where the league was way back when and where it is today. The NLL opens its 27th season at 10 p.m. ET Saturday when the Washington Stealth host the defending champion Rochester Knighthawks in Everett, Wash. The game will air live on YouTube.

''The pace of play is so much faster now,'' Codd said. ''Guys, top to bottom, are in better shape. Those are the two biggest things that stand out for me. It was quick back then but now its lightning fast. The size of the guys, too, and the fitness levels. If you're not working out, you're not in this league anymore.''

We asked Codd to pick a rules change made during his playing days that he likes best.

''I really like the rules they brought in last year,'' he said. ''Dropping the ball instantaneously on change of possession, that's had a positive impact on our game.''

Parity is the name of the game and with only nine teams it is more and more difficult to land a roster spot.

''You're going to see some names on the outside looking in,'' Codd said. ''It's a very competitive league. As for 2013, I look for it to be a very fast-paced and exciting style of lacrosse. It's taken on that kind of NFL model where every team has a shot at it when the season begins. It's going to be a lot of fun.''

Lacrosse remains unmentioned when the top tier of major sports are listed and that might never change.

''We're not in the major tier but the product on the floor has got a lot better,'' Codd said. ''And lacrosse in the United States is growing by leaps and bounds. Hopefully, we're pushing the envelope. Getting into the top echelon is a long ways off but this is the best lacrosse league in the world.''

Bloom captained Ohio State's field lacrosse team before breaking into the NLL in 2007 with the Colorado Mammoth. He helped Washington win the pro title in 2010, gaining the distinction of being the youngest captain in league history to hoist the Champion's Cup.

He had a sensational pro debut in a home game in Denver's Pepsi Center against the Buffalo Bandits.

''It was the season opener with 18,000 fans in the building,'' Bloom said. ''It was absolutely nuts. Gary Gait was my coach. I scored on Mikey Thompson with about 15 seconds left in the game to send it into overtime. I don't remember the final score but I want to say we won it. It was awesome. I'll always remember that night.''

Players' equipment isn't much different today than it was six years ago.

''We were all wearing Reebok stuff,'' Bloom said. ''Like the league, Reebok equipment has evolved and got better. Overall, the equipment hasn't changed that much.''

The typical NLL player has evolved rapidly.

''Guys are bigger, stronger and faster at all positions,'' Bloom said. ''Everybody is athletic, including goalies.''

He'll miss the camaraderie of the on-floor action.

''Being out there with your teammates — there's no better feeling than suiting up and going to war with the guy next to you,'' Bloom said. ''There's a lot of good things to like about coaching but the hardest thing for me to replace will be going out there contributing and having the same goals as the guys next to me.''

On how 2013 will unfold, he sees other teams taking a close look at what Minnesota did in 2012 in going with a rookie-laden lineup.

"The big thing on everyone's mind is that there's no NHL hockey and there's a lot of sports fans looking to get a fix so it's a big opportunity for our league."

— Toronto Rock assistant coach Pat Campbell

''I think the league is going to be extremely competitive,'' he said. ''There are All-Americans from the field game who are cracking rosters now and who will make some impact.

''Minnesota was young and talented last year and was dominant at times. Because of that, it's been a learning experience for the rest of the teams who are saying, 'We can have five or six rookies in the lineup.' Because of what Minnesota did, you're going to see more turnover and a lot of parity within the league.''

Bloom has a bold and biased prediction when asked who will win the Champion's Cup in 2013: ''At the end of the day, I think Washington is going to win it.''

Hajek, a former Wings captain, will never forget his NLL debut with the team in 2003.

''We played Rochester in Rochester right after Christmas,'' he said. ''I remember being in awe for part of it what with playing with Jake Bergey and Dallas Eliuk and Tommy Marechek. As the game wore on, I got a little more comfortable. Playing junior and senior against some of the guys who were out on the floor helped. I had watched NLL games on TV and followed the league so it was nice to be on the floor and be a part of it. We won. I think it was 14-12 or somewhere in there.''

One incident in the game had no impact on the outcome yet remains planted in his memory banks. He was trying to move the ball out of his team's end.

''I was being chased by Pat Cougevan,'' he recalls. ''I came across center and got trapped. Andy Turner jammed me and I threw the ball away. My first thought was, 'Wow, I'm not in junior anymore. This is another level. I've got to play a little smarter.'''

Hajek agrees with Codd, Bloom and Campbell that there is a greater degree of athleticism in the NLL today than there was when they first arrived on the scene. He sees three main reasons for that: fewer teams than there were five years ago; an influx of Americans learning the box game after being trained in the field variety; and the increase in Canadians playing field lacrosse at the NCAA level.

''More guys can run both ends of the floor,'' he says. ''The pace of play is a lot quicker.''

We asked Hajek what rules change he'd implement if he had the chance to do so.

''I hated it as a defender but I'd like to see them bring back a freeze on the 30-second timer on power plays so teams can try to run out the clock on a penalty," he said. "I remember watching guys ragging the ball, guys like Randy Mearns, for the whole two minutes. I thought that was a skill. It made you work harder on the defensive end and it made your power play more cognizant of maintaining possession.''

The prevailing opinion around the league is that the 2012 champion Knighthawks are going to be the team to beat.

''Rochester is strong coming off their championship win and picking up Casey Powell and Dan Dawson, that doesn't hurt them at all,'' Hajek said. "But there are so many good players out there. It's going to be really tight.''

Moving into coaching will present new challenges.

''I'm looking forward to help shape the systems we're going to use,'' Hajek said. ''We want to play sound, fundamental lacrosse, and I'll have a hand in that. I'm not going to miss getting that upset stomach and really nervous before games. Maybe I'll develop that as a coach but, right now, I don't miss that.''

Campbell broke into the NLL in 1998 as an undrafted backup goalie with the Ontario Raiders, who after one season in Hamilton moved to become the Toronto Rock. He was an NLL champion as a backup goalie in 1999, 2000 and 2011 with the Rock and in 2009 with Calgary.

''By leaps and bounds,'' Campbell said when asked how the NLL has changed during his time in the league. ''The style of the game, the speed, the transition, the fitness level of the athletes . . . A lot of the kids coming in from NCAA teams really raised the fitness level.

''In 1998, 1999, you could look around the locker room and see the occasional beer belly. Some guys could get through on talent alone. Not now. Everyone, even the most talented guys, is at his best in terms of fitness.''

That helps when trying to move the ball across the center line.

''My favorite rule is the eight-second rule which was formerly the 10-second rule,'' Campbell said. ''It forces guys to stay in play in a lot of instances and it forces transition. That two seconds is huge for having to push the ball up the floor.''

Another thing: ''From a goalie's standpoint, we used to be able to receive the ball in our crease. Guys could play it back to us. That really slowed the game down. Now there's now backing in with the ball.''

The NLL did not benefit a great deal in attracting new fans during the last NHL lockout but the players are hoping to see bigger crowds this time.

''The big thing on everyone's mind is that there's no NHL hockey and there's a lot of sports fans looking to get a fix so it's a big opportunity for our league,'' Campbell said. ''We're pretty excited coming into this season. We've got the games going onto YouTube that'll reach a wide audience. I think 2013 will be a great year for the NLL.

''I think we've finally started to catch some traction. It's been a tough fight for attendance for a lot of places but everything seems to be getting better all the time. People like our owner, Jamie Dawick, are doing a lot to promote the sport and the team. All the minor lacrosse systems are growing, too. All together, the sport has come a long way. A lot of great things are happening.''

Neil Stevens has covered pro and Canadian lacrosse since 1971. He and the late Tom Borrelli — a longtime Lacrosse Magazine contributor — are the only media members recognized by the NLL Hall of Fame. Follow Neil's NLL coverage all season long at LaxMagazine.com/NLL.

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