Hockey and lacrosse: Two sports that go stick in handUpdated Friday October 20, 2017 by Whitby Minor Lacrosse Association.
by Steve Milton
On a significant day in 1994, Canada's Parliament indicated that they fit hand in glove, declaring one our national summer sport, the other our national winter one.
Lacrosse, the Creator's Game, and hockey, the game Canada created.
It would seem natural for young players, of both sexes, to play both national games, but in this era of specialization at an increasingly young age, what's natural isn't always what's happening. More and more hockey players, all of whom think they have a future, are playing hockey all summer too, with early burnout the obvious pitfall.
With the area's biggest lacrosse game of the year — The Heritage Cup between the men's national teams of Canada and the U.S. at FirstOntario Centre Saturday night — Wayne Gretzky reminded Hamiltonians at "An Evening With the Great One" this week that it's important for young hockey players not to totally immerse themselves in competitive hockey during the summer.
Playing other sports is equally important, he feels, for cross-training purposes, for developing hockey-related skills in a non-hockey setting, for a mental break from the ice, for the mere all-roundness of it.
A few years ago, Gretzky — who loved to put away his skates in the spring and pick up his lacrosse stick — had urged this corner to write that kids should play lacrosse, soccer, baseball, something that doesn't involve skates, in hockey's limited off-season.
"I still feel that way," he said Monday night at Carmen's. "Write that column every day."
One of the new movements in Canadian lacrosse is to formally reconnect with young hockey players, reminding them of the benefits of lacrosse on its own, and as they relate to hockey.
"I couldn't agree more with that," says Justin Lemcke, captain of the Hamilton Bulldogs and a very good lacrosse player. "I started playing lacrosse at seven because my hockey coach was also a lacrosse coach, and I had never even picked up a stick at the time."
But by the time he was 12, he was leading the Canadian peewee lacrosse tournament in scoring and at 14, he was the national bantam tourney leader with 52 points, when the runner-up had only 24.
He also played the better part of two seasons of Jr. A lacrosse for the tradition-drenched Whitby Warriors before, after consultation with Bulldogs coach John Gruden, taking last summer off to concentrate on his final year of junior hockey.
Lemcke was raised in Whitby, a lacrosse hotbed that was the breeding ground of renowned hockey players Gary Roberts and Hall of Famer Joe Nieuwendyk, both of whom were stars in minor and junior lacrosse.
"Some of the dads from the hockey teams told me that Joe Nieuwendyk was the best lacrosse player of the era," said Lemcke, who is well aware of Whitby's cross-pollination of our national games.
Hockey Hall of Famers Mike Gartner, Doug Gilmour and Paul Kariya are among many other hockey players who've used lacrosse in the summer for enjoyment, social contact and complementary-skill development.
"It's not a hard sport to pick up," Lemcke says of the Iroquois game. "When you're younger it's excellent to develop hand-eye coordination and as you get older, lacrosse is good for conditioning. It's similar to the needs of hockey.
"It's athleticism, hand-eye coordination and putting it all together. Lacrosse and hockey players have to think, and play, the game at speed."
While also keeping your head up. Lacrosse will teach you that in, oh, about 10 seconds.
Lemcke, in his over-age junior hockey year, says that although he didn't play lacrosse last summer, should he not be offered a pro hockey contract somewhere for the 2018-19 season, he'll try to pursue a lacrosse scholarship at a tier-one NCAA college, some of whom have already expressed interest.
And, fortuitously, the Bulldogs play Friday and Sunday this weekend, so he can attend The Heritage Cup.
"I'll be there with a couple of the (Bulldog) guys," he says. " (T.J.) Fergus, (Matt) Strome, and Jake Murray played lacrosse growing up."