ILWT Feature: Summer vs. winter lacrosse conflict reaching boiling point

WLA and MSL teams may be hit hard by the NLL’s decision to play throughout the summer of 2021. (Photo credit: Anna Taylor)

Last week the National Lacrosse League announced a targeted start date for their 35th season for the weekend of April 9-11, 2021. The official announcement comes after Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz suggested during the Entry Draft that it could be “early 2021” and Swarm GM John Arlotta who speculated in a local radio interview that “March is most likely.” Of course, there are still hurdles to clear before the league can safely return after what will be more than a calendar year away from the floor.

(Writer’s note: It’s exciting. I’m excited. Lacrosse fans, by all means, be excited. But, as much as I don’t want to be that writer, and you’re going to hate that writer, I’m about to be that writer…)

As comforting as that news is, the question needs to be asked: how will the NLL pushing all the way back into April (and likely through the summer) impact the summer leagues (MSL, WLA, MLL, PLL)? (Told you…)


The Background

The NLL features the best box lacrosse players on the planet. Roughly 30 of those also play in Major League Lacrosse, 50 cross over to the Premier Lacrosse League. But those numbers are nothing compared to the over 200 who played for a Canadian Senior A box team last season (either in the Western Lacrosse Association or Major Series Lacrosse – the winners from each league compete for the coveted Mann Cup). It’s worth noting that some of the Canadian box players also cross into those 80 or so in the field leagues.

As summer seasons are kicking off, the NLL is usually nearing the playoff finish line. Most of those players still in contention do not report to their summer teams until their NLL commitment is fulfilled. Those lucky enough to compete for a Mann Cup, Steinfeld Trophy or PLL Championship don’t need to make the impossible choice between rosters. The MSL and WLA typically play a Sunday-Thursday schedule while the majority of MLL and PLL games take place Friday-Sunday.

As for championships, the Mann Cup is scheduled for the week following Labour Day with the final game in 2019 on September 11th. By comparison, the PLL Championship was September 21st, and the MLL Finals on October 6th.

Understandably, players historically choose pro commitments above summer box, but because the passion for the summer box game is so great, athletes do their best to fit both into their schedules, including, in some cases, cross-continent red-eye flights—see Chris Cloutier and Zach Currier in 2018 playing in Denver with the Outlaws on a Saturday night, and the Kodiaks/Lakers game in Cobourg some 18 hours later). The pro leagues provide more financial stability but the pride and passion in summer box is hard to beat.

In 2019, the NLL crowned their champion on May 25th. Comparatively, the MSL started the next day, May 26th; the MLL kicked off May 31st; and the PLL’s first ever tour stop was June 1st. Each player is different, but when these situations arise it takes roughly a week, barring injury, rest, or travel for players to report to their summer teams.


Scheduling for 2021

The MSL and WLA consistently start at the same time every year. The NLL will overlap summer ball for the first time. The NLL will win out. Whether that makes you happy or not probably depends on if you’re from one of the 13 cities with an MSL or WLA team, or if you prefer field over box.

The sad realization is, these leagues have operated independently with little to no recognition the others even exist (‘winter box lacrosse,’ anyone?). It’s unfathomable they would all of a sudden begin making deals to allow players to appear in multiple leagues in multiple cities, possibly in separate countries.


What about bubbles?

The easy answer to all this, while the pandemic is still raging on, would be for every league to have a bubble tournament. It worked well for the PLL in Utah, but the MLL had to cancel both of their semi-finals due to positive COVID-19 tests. Rumours were that several members of one team broke the bubble.


Canadian summer box works because players have freer schedules in the summer months – they can take vacation time, their kids aren’t in school, etc. They’re able to commit to a league that plays in the evenings from Sunday-Thursday while still working during the day because there’s limited travel time involved. But a CLA bubble isn’t feasible. Lacrosse players hold other jobs and summer box doesn’t pay enough for players to take two weeks of vacation from work.

An NLL bubble also isn’t feasible because the league’s primary source of revenue is ticket sales. Without fans in the stands they couldn’t pay their players and that wouldn’t be enticing enough for players to take the time off of work.


The border issue

In addition to fans, the NLL also needs an open Canada-USA border to get their 2021 season underway. Currently, the Canadian government requires everyone entering the country to quarantine for 14 days. That’s not conducive to league operations.

Unless the border opens, that actually may stop some players from suiting up for their MLL/PLL teams next summer should they play regular seasons and not bubble tournaments.

And, does a player choose to stay close to home to work and play in, say, Six Nations or Peterborough, Coquitlam or Victoria as opposed to hopping on a plane and travelling, risking their health?

Pending a change in the border closure, those choosing to play MLL/PLL, or those playing for American NLL teams would be unable to play Canadian box without quarantine regardless of cross-league releases.


So what’s going to happen?

Should the NLL do as expected and forbid their players to play in other leagues during their season, there will be roster gaps in the MLL and PLL, but it’s a much more significant blow to the MSL and WLA. As of 2019, 83.3 per cent of NLL players came from hometowns in Canada (60.5 per cent from Ontario).

Given the pool of field lacrosse players in the United States, it’s safe to say, while the calibre of play may go down, the MLL and PLL could find replacements for their roughly 80 combined NLL players.

For the MSL and WLA to replace over 200 high-calibre players is a big ask. Similar to the NLL ratio, over 60 per cent of these 200 are from Ontario which would severely impact the MSL). Senior A teams normally supplement early season rosters with Senior B affiliated players or Junior A call-ups.

Each summer box roster can consist of 25 active players (max three goalies). For Major Series Lacrosse that’s 150 players and 175 for Western Lacrosse Association. Of those 325 roster spots, the MSL and WLA could be looking for 195 players. Pandemic aside, it’s a tall ask from Canadian box general managers – several of whom, along with coaches, also work in the NLL – heading into another unknown summer of lacrosse. The CLA already lost its 2020 season.

Thankfully for senior lacrosse, an amendment to increase the age limit for junior lacrosse in Ontario to 22U was defeated on the weekend. (It’s worth noting, under the current OJALL Constitution, 21U players can move up to Senior A at any point. It is entirely their choice). The amendment had been proposed, in part, to allow current junior graduates to have the last season they should have had in the summer of 2020.

MSL Commissioner Doug Luey told the Peterborough Examiner that the MSL did not support the proposed amendment to increase the junior age to 22U. The amendment did not reach 2/3 support which it needed to pass.

Luey also said that the MSL will play without their pro players if necessary. In turn, that could gut the rosters of the Arena Lacrosse League, an official affiliate of the NLL, which usually runs concurrently with the pro league. Players pay to participate in the ALL; while pay is varied between MSL teams, expenses are at least covered.

Of course, whether any of these leagues go ahead still depends on how the pandemic plays out over the next few months.

(Writer’s note: Sorry. Go back and read the first paragraph again. And this time, stop there.)