Guest Column by Josh Traux
This week, while Canadian box lacrosse is crowning its 2013 Senior A champions in the Mann Cup Finals, on the U.S. side of the border the sport is seemingly in big trouble. The last twelve months have seen the once-promising North American Lacrosse League go under with barely a whimper, and one of the NLL’s six Stateside franchises move north of the 49th parallel into British Columbia. For U.S. indoor lacrosse, these are hardly the best of times.
Even so, the sport is far from dead in the U.S. Its beating heart can be found, fittingly enough, in the American heartland.
The Continental Indoor Lacrosse League is deep into its third season of play, albeit only the first under the CILL name. You may remember it from 2011-12 as the Midwest Indoor Lacrosse Association, a name that made sense when its four charter members played in the Chicago, Columbus, Grand Rapids and Milwaukee metro areas. As the MILA began to expand ever further afield, into outposts as far apart as Pittsburgh and Denver, as well as Detroit, it soon became clear that a new, bigger-thinking moniker was warranted, and so the MILA became the CILL.
I’ve followed the MILA/CILL, mainly through its Milwaukee Marauders and Chicago Outlaws teams, since the league’s inception. Make no mistake – simply following this league is a minor challenge in itself, as its first three seasons have made the NLL look like a paragon of stability in comparison. The first fact that makes this clear is that the man identified on the CILL Web site as its commissioner, Russ King, is also an active player in the league, with the Grand Rapids Dragonfish.
The league and its teams operate on shoestring budgets and, due to work and travel issues with players, coaches and officials, conduct much of their operations, including game scheduling, on an ad hoc basis (read: lots of games rescheduled and even canceled at the 11th hour). Teams from Buffalo, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Lincoln, Madison, Minneapolis and St. Louis have come and gone – in some cases without ever having played a single league game. Most teams play in community ice rinks or indoor soccer facilities instead of proper sports arenas, before crowds that seldom crack triple-digits. Players must supply their own equipment, even helmets; and some goalies don’t have jerseys that match those of their teammates; these factors make uniform standardization all but impossible. (I’ve even seen a goalie using a traditional wooden stick.) Chicago’s nickname and logo are both derived from a long-extinct USFL team, while the Dragonfish logo is based – I kid you not – on something out of The Simpsons!
CILL rules, for the most part, mimic those of the NLL, with allowances made for the limitations of the game site. For example, the Marauders’ home building has no shot clocks and no penalty boxes. Penalized players must serve their time on their own benches, while the referee keeps the 30-second shot clock on his watch, verbally announces when the clock reaches ten seconds, and counts down the last five seconds. Also, most CILL rinks have only the center-turf faceoff dot; the one time I’ve seen an offensive-zone faceoff (which, in the NLL, is what the “corner” dots are for) happen in this league, it was done on the restraining line.
There is one significant departure from NLL rules in the CILL: During man-advantage situations, the shot clock is turned off while the shorthanded team has possession, forcing the power-play team to be aggressive on defense. I really like this wrinkle in the rulebook, and it’s something the NLL should seriously consider adopting.
As for the quality of play, well, when watching a game live, it doesn’t take long to see why these guys are here and not in the NLL. Most runners are noticeably slower than their NLL counterparts, and their passes and shots go off-target much more frequently. Meanwhile, CILL goaltenders, who otherwise make plenty of saves as spectacular as you’ll see in the NLL, have a maddening tendency to not take care of the ball after making the initial stop. In virtually every MILA/CILL game I’ve attended, I’ve seen at least one goal resulting from the ‘tender losing track of a ball he had blocked, which then trickled in behind him.
Yet, in spite of all its flaws, shortcomings and growing pains, the CILL has aspirations as big as its new name implies. That the fledgling league already has an alumnus playing in the NLL – Cam Holding of the Colorado Mammoth – is a big feather in its cap, but Holding isn’t the CILL’s only connection to the sport’s highest level. Mammoth GM Steve Govett and head coach Robert Hamley are acting as advisors for the Sabertooths club in the CILL, and the club has tapped two of Holding’s Colorado teammates, John Gallant and the incomparable John Grant Jr., as its coaches. Meanwhile in Chicagoland, the Outlaws have two strong links to the late Shamrox franchise: General Manager Ray Kincaid (who also doubles as CILL treasurer), and part-time home arena Sears Centre in far-flung Hoffman Estates, once the Shamrox’ home turf, and one of few full-fledged sports arena in the CILL. (The Outlaws split their home games between Sears Centre and an indoor soccer facility in Naperville.)
I attended a Saturday doubleheader at Sears Center in late August. Going in, I’d not expected it to be much different from the bare-bones experience of Marauders home games – no PA announcer, no player intros, no in-game music, maybe not even a national anthem. Certainly none of the bells and whistles you’d see at any kind of major sporting event.
How wrong I turned out to be. There may have been only around fifty spectators in the building for the first game (Colorado vs. Grand Rapids – a rematch of the 2012 MILA final), and around 200 to see the Outlaws themselves in the nightcap vs. Milwaukee, but you’d never know that from the hosts’ game presentation. The Outlaws organization took full advantage of the arena’s capabilities to present the contests remarkably close to NLL standards. The arena’s “ribbon” scoreboard displayed the team names and logos in all their glory – as well as Old Glory herself, in all her star-spangled splendor, during the national anthem (whose singer was also quite good). Goals were replayed on the Sears Centre video board. They even had halftime entertainment in both games. The Outlaws have set a great example for what the league as a whole can someday grow into. (No doubt, they’re also keen to make a strong case for another shot at a Chicagoland NLL franchise, but that’s a topic for another article.)
Even though, as described above, the quality of CILL lacrosse is well below the NLL or Canadian Senior A level, the two games themselves were as intense and physical as any you’ll see in those leagues. And yes, Virginia, there are fights in the CILL. Several of them broke out during the Milwaukee-Chicago tilt, which is shaping up to be quite a backyard rivalry. Though the Marauders still lag behind most of the rest of the CILL in class, they are no longer the pushovers of 2011, and they hung with the Outlaws for most of their game, trailing only 8-5 after three quarters before Chicago put the hammer down, doubling their score in the final stanza en route to a 16-9 win. Earlier, in the first half of the doubleheader, the defending champion Colorado Sabertooths took an early lead and never looked back, cruising to a 13-8 victory over the Dragonfish.
Two weeks later (this past Saturday), I was back in the Marauders’ barn to see them face the Dragonfish. Around fifty other spectators were on hand, the largest crowd I’ve ever seen for a Marauders game in that building. Slowly but surely, it seems, the word is starting to get out about the team in metro Milwaukee. Once more, the Marauders put on a gallant effort – one of their forwards even pulled off an Air Gait goal – but alas, in the end the Dragonfish proved once more to be too strong for them, and won handily by a final score of 11-5.
The CILL crowns its 2013 champions on the third weekend of October in Holland, Michigan. Its future beyond that is anyone’s guess. Mine is that it will endure, and try to relaunch in some of the cities where MILA has been and gone before. Perhaps it will even stake out some new territory. The late NALL’s last team standing, the Kentucky Stickhorses, would be a great addition to the CILL if they are interested in a comeback. Their home base of Louisville fits into the league’s geographical footprint very nicely, and would make for a terrific I-65 rivalry with Chicago. The CILL may be among the smallest of small-time sports leagues right now, but as the standard-bearers for U.S. indoor lacrosse below the NLL, it only makes sense to think big.