Thinking inside the box Part II: Exodus

Last week I wrote about a number of significant MLL players who may be playing in the NLL this coming season. This is significant not just because NLL fans who don’t watch the MLL will be introduced to some great lacrosse players, but because this seems to reverse the trend over the last few years. But where did this trend come from, and why is it changing?

Aside: Jake Elliott and Brad Challoner talked about this a bit on the Oct 21 edition of the Stealth Classified radio show / podcast, a show that you really should be listening to if you’re a lacrosse fan – even if you’re not a Stealth fan.

Another aside: The list of MLL players signed this season has grown since that last article: New England signed both Myles Jones and Josh Hawkins to contracts. Again, it doesn’t mean they’re definitely playing but it does mean they’re interested.

The Wings and the Championships

Back in 2013, the Philadelphia Wings had a whole bunch of guys who also played in the MLL: Crowley, Westervelt, Crotty, Rabil, … actually it would be faster to list the guys who didn’t. Of the 27 non-goalies who wore a Wings jersey in a game that season, 18 of them (67%) also played in the MLL that year. In 2014, they had 25 no-goalies but only 13 of them, or 52%, were MLL players. Why the sudden drop?

In the summer of 2014, Colorado hosted the World Lacrosse Championship, the pinnacle of field lacrosse supremacy. The USA had taken home the gold medal at the event in Manchester in 2010. The World Championships hadn’t been held in the US since 1998, and Team USA wanted nothing more than to repeat their gold medal performance in front of their own fans. As a result, a number of players decided to take the winter off from the NLL to prepare for the Worlds. The Wings lost Paul Rabil, Ned Crotty, Kyle Hartzell, Pat Heim, Brendan Mundorf, and Jeff Reynolds – six players totaling 79 games, 86 points, about a third of their transition, and 71% of their face-offs.

I imagine the Wings brass were less than impressed with this exodus. The intentions of the players were honourable, I suppose – they wanted to represent their country to the best of their ability. But it didn’t help the Wings any, and they dropped from 7-9 in 2013 to 6-12. I can’t be sure about this but I remember hearing at the time that the players who left were not welcomed back by the Wings, meaning that they were not invited to camp for the 2015 season – and other than Heim, they were not released either. Right after training camp at the end of 2014, the Wings added Rabil to their protected player list, Mundorf to the PUP list, and buried Hartzell, Crotty, Reynolds, and Max Seibald (who played for them from 2010-12 and also played for Team USA) on the restricted free agent list. As far as I can tell, they’re all still there, and none of them has played in the NLL since (though it’s possible that none of them have been interested in returning). To add insult to injury, Team USA lost the gold medal match to Canada.

Kyle Hartzell with the WingsAlso interesting to note is the fact that both Kevin Buchanan and Garrett Thul found the time to play for both the Wings and Team USA in 2014. I don’t remember hearing of a single player on the Canadian or Iroquois teams who took the season off to prepare.

The number of MLL players in the NLL has continued to drop. In 2015, the Wings became the Black Wolves and only had six players who played in the MLL that same year. In 2016 it was only four. Of course it’s not just the Black Wolves that are involved; there were MLL players who played in the NLL for other teams, guys like Joe Walters and Mark Matthews, but the overlap seemed to keep declining. And overlap is one of the reasons why.

Us and them

As I said before, we know the NLL and MLL seasons overlap and players who want to play in both will miss games in one league or the other. It’s also true that just as the NLL is a “mostly-Canadians” league, the MLL is a “mostly-Americans” league. These guys grew up playing field lacrosse, not box, so the MLL is more important to them. Some of them think of the MLL as the “real” league and the NLL is a fun league to play in during the winter to keep in shape. I assume there are NLL players who think of the MLL the same way.

It’s also been said that some MLL players have publicly expressed interest in playing in the NLL purely as a bargaining strategy with their MLL team, i.e. “I’ll play with them and skip the beginning of the season if you don’t sign me to a long term contract / pay me more / whatever.” The person who stated this said he knows for a fact that this is happening, though he didn’t say who this was referring to nor was there any evidence given, so take that claim with a grain of salt.

NLL teams won’t be happy if players play the whole season and then leave when the playoffs arrive, while MLL teams won’t be happy if players don’t start playing for a month after the season starts. To my knowledge, the former has never happened while the latter definitely has. From that perspective, it certainly seems that the MLL is getting the worse of this situation. But are there MLL players who don’t play in the NLL at all because they don’t want to leave the team when the MLL starts? It’s likely that both leagues are losing out.

So there are a lot of reasons why a whole slew of MLL players suddenly signing with NLL teams is surprising. Maybe these guys want to stir up some controversy to get the leagues to talk and eventually co-operate. Based on the history of these two leagues, I will say with all the sarcasm I can muster: Good luck with that.

Then again, the NLL has a new commissioner who may not care about the history. If it makes sense for the league to have a partnership with the MLL, he may be more willing than previous commissioners to go to them and say “Hey, let’s forget all of that old animosity. If we start over and work together, we both benefit.” If that’s the case, I will say without a trace of sarcasm: Good luck with that.

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