The Los Angeles Riptide, the latest addition to Major League Lacrosse
(MLL), will begin their inaugural campaign at The Home Depot Center
this summer. And if the National Hockey League were to field a lacrosse squad, the possible line-up could feature a star-studded cast.
Past and present NHL stars such as Wayne Gretzky, Doug Gilmour, Mike Gartner, Dave Andreychuk, Brian Bellows, Cliff Ronning, Paul Coffey, Adam Oates, Paul Kariya, Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts, Jeremy Roenick, Brendan Shanahan and Joe Sakic all have something in common other than scoring goals in the NHL. Each played lacrosse when they were younger.
"Everyone on this list has gifted hands," said Kings center Jeremy Roenick
, a native of Boston, where lacrosse is very prevalent. "These guys have soft hands and they are crafty with the way their hands work and the way their hands and eyes work together. That hand-eye coordination for a lacrosse player is just greater than most people.
"Outside of baseball players, the hand-eye coordination of lacrosse players is nearly unfathomable," the Kings center continued. "To not only catch the ball but also to run with it and to aim for that little net is so similar to hockey. It is also a physically demanding sport. Lacrosse combines the hand-eye skills of baseball and the physicality of hockey, and that is fun."
The oldest sport in North America, lacrosse blends a unique combination of speed, power and finesse. Those familiar with "fastest game on foot" believe that the crossover possibilities for hockey fans are very appealing.
"I think the hockey fan here in Los Angeles and the American sports fans on the whole love hitting, scoring and speed, and Major League Lacrosse has it all," said Jake Steinfeld, MLL Founder and CEO of Body by Jake Global.
Steinfeld first approached AEG, the parent club of the Kings, several years ago about the possibilities of joining a professional lacrosse league that he was beginning. With The Home Depot Center in Carson the perfect facility, an expansion team was granted to Los Angeles and announced on March 9, 2005.
A long-time Los Angeles resident who attends several Kings games a year, Steinfeld said MLL recently adopted new rules and made changes to the markings on the field that are similar to hockey, including the addition of a crease in the goaltender area.
In addition, the equipment used in lacrosse is very similar to that of hockey – a helmet with facemask, mouth guard, shoulder pads, gloves and elbow pads.
Gretzky, the hockey legend and Kings forward for eight-plus seasons, has fond memories of the sport.
"If sport has a high point of the year, it must be the first week of spring," Gretzky was quoted as saying on www.gloucester-ottawalacrosse.com. "When I was growing up, I used to love this time of year. It was when I put my hockey equipment away and I was absolutely ecstatic to see the end of the hockey season."
"One of the worst things to happen to the game, in my opinion, has been year-round hockey and, in particular, summer hockey. All it does for kids, as far as I can tell, is keep them out of sports they should be doing in warmer weather. I could hardly wait to get my lacrosse stick out and start throwing the ball around. It didn't matter how cold or rainy it would be, we'd be out firing the ball against walls and working on our moves as we played the lacrosse equivalent to road hockey.
"All the good hockey players seemed to play lacrosse in those days and every one of them learned something from the game to carry over to the other - things athletes can only learn by mixing up games they play when they are young."
Like Gretzky, Adam Oates was known on the ice for his deft play making abilities as a centerman. Now retired, he said in a 1995 interview with long-time hockey writer Stan Fischler that the ability to make a good pass on the ice had a lot to do with his lacrosse background.
Another veteran NHL centerman, Craig Conroy
of the Kings, grew up in upstate New York, about two hours away from perennial lacrosse college powerhouse Syracuse University. It was at Syracuse that football great Jim Brown made his mark as, what some describe as, the greatest lacrosse player the game has ever seen.
While Conroy didn't quite reach the same All-American status Brown once did, the Kings center loved playing the sport recreationally.
"Lacrosse started at my high school my junior year," said Conroy. "I was really good right handed but when I switched to my left hand, I just could not shoot as hard or ball-handle as well. Everything else translated well from hockey and I like the rules. For our team, I thought I was pretty good.
"For this new team here to play at The Home Depot Center, I think it is going to be a great venue for lacrosse. I have never seen an entire set-up up like the one that is in Carson, and the first time I went there, I said out loud, 'You have got to be kidding me. Everything is here and everything is first-class.'"
Conroy first visited The Home Depot Center earlier this year for two Kings events, Tip a King '06 and the Meet the Players season ticket holder party, and was impressed with the facility. In March of 2005, The Home Depot Center also played host to the "First 4," a four-team tournament featuring four of the premier men's Division I college lacrosse teams, including then-defending national champion Syracuse, Georgetown and Notre Dame.
According to U.S. Lacrosse, the 7,182 fans to attend the event comprised the largest crowd to ever see a regular season collegiate lacrosse game west of the Mississippi River.
Now, Major League Lacrosse is here in the form of the upstart Riptideâ€¦though don't expect too many old hockey players – Conroy included -- to suit-up any time soon.
"Maybe Oates or Nieuwendyk, but don't expect me to come out of lacrosse retirement anytime soon," said Conroy with a laugh.