NLL expansion is coming and the Arena Lacrosse League is preparing its players to move on up to the big leagues.
Now in their second season, the ALL has seven stable teams and competition is at an all-time high. The game is fast and exciting.
After three weeks of play, the defending champion Oshawa Outlaws lead the league with a 3-0 record. The much-improved Peterborough Timbermen, last-place finishers in 2017, sit fourth after a pair of losses to the Outlaws, but are tied with Paris and Toronto with four points.
“The first couple of weeks of the season showed us again that the talent outside the professional league is outstanding. The majority of the games have been close, providing some terrific lacrosse,” commissioner Paul St. John said.
Comparisons to the defunct Canadian Lacrosse League are inevitable, but St. John’s former project did not succeed as quickly as the ALL has. It took CLax five years to establish legitimacy, just in time for it to fold. It’s possible that the ALL inadvertently piggybacked on the success that CLax eventually found and has reaped the benefits.
“As lacrosse fans know, year one of the ALL surprised many with its high calibre of play, and year two is shaping up to exceed what was a fantastic first season. The talent level is improved and with the addition of the Whitby Steelhawks, the ALL continues to provide a development league for players with pro ambitions by giving more players an opportunity to showcase their talent to the professional ranks.”
With the talent pool increasing, NLL roster spots are at a premium. As such, NLL-calibre players are finding find homes in the ALL because there just aren’t any spots left in the NLL at the moment.
The Timbermen and the St. Catharines ShockWave both benefitted from the addition of former NLLers. Joel Matthews, formerly of the Rochester Knighthawks, signed with the Timbermen as a free agent, and Bill O’Brien, formerly of the New England Black Wolves, was drafted by Peterborough but traded to St. Catharines.
With nine goals, Matthews was the ALL’s leading goal-scorer after three games. O’Brien saw his first – and potentially only – action this past weekend as the ShockWave lost a close 15-14 game to the Steelhawks.
Having pro players in the ALL boosts the league’s image. Both players are also character men who can provide guidance to younger teammates.
“(NLL experience) allows us to bring a sense of professionalism to the ALL,” said Matthews, who was immediately named an assistant captain for the Timbermen. “You are a business man taking ‘business trips’ in the NLL. That helps with your time management, your leadership skills and your work ethic. The NLL has done a good job of grooming us to lead in this position.”
CLax was a definite stepping stone to the NLL for players such as Thomas Hoggarth, Vaughn Harris, Phil Caputo and Davide DiRuscio, who are now on NLL active rosters. Matthews and O’Brien hope to work their way back there, too, with some seasoning in the ALL. Although in O’Brien’s case, he’ll also be seeing some time on an NLL practice roster first.
After just one game in the ALL, the Buffalo Bandits added O’Brien to their practice roster. It remains to be seen how the rest of the season works out, but whether or not he plays for the ShockWave again, O’Brien sees the value in the minor league.
“The executive team of the ALL has put together a competitive league and it has a lot of upside,” he enthused. “As a stepping stone back to the pros, it’s a brick on the path back to the NLL but it’s also a league unto itself that could thrive and offer opportunities for more lacrosse players to play at a high level. With the influx of box lacrosse into the US and the sheer number of players in Canada looking to play highly competitive lacrosse the ALL could be the answer as the NLL expands.”
The ALL is not an official minor league to the NLL, but a budding partnership started in September with the introduction of the ALL Young Guns game at the NLL draft.
“The ALL is a great tool,” said Matthews. “[Personally, I am] very fortunate to have an opportunity to showcase what I bring to the table. It allows a player to stay in game shape while keeping a stick in their hand. It’s a great league that will only get better.”
The ALL still has challenges: most notably, securing floor time in Peterborough and St. Catharines. The Timbermen have been limited to two games at the Peterborough Memorial Centre in each season. Their five other “home” games are played at Children’s Arena in Oshawa, which they share with the Outlaws and Steelhawks. The ShockWave share the Iroquois Lacrosse Arena with the Six Nations Snipers.
St. John recognizes there are pros and cons to arena sharing.
“One of the benefits of being in a smaller venue is that it allows each of the three teams the opportunity to build their own identity as only a minimal number of loyal fans are required to be successful,” he explained. “Games are played in front of a full house almost every night no matter which team is the ‘home’ team and that is exciting for everyone involved with the ALL.”
Indeed, the stands for Saturday’s Outlaws/Timbermen game, a 15-9 Oshawa win, were packed. Filling an arena, no matter the size, is always more desirable than playing in a large arena with no cheering fans, like when the Outlaws called the Tribute Communities Centre home in 2017. A good atmosphere goes a long way to helping a player feel like a professional.
“Children’s Arena in Oshawa is beneficial to the ALL as it provides us attainable venue costs and ample dates,” St. John said. “Moving the Outlaws to smaller confines, along with adding the Steelhawks’ franchise is a good management decision for the ALL. It also gave us a chance to provide a home to the Peterborough Timbermen.”
The ALL plays a 14 game schedule through the end of March and then playoffs.
Check the Arena Lacrosse League’s website for more information.