by Mike Kern, Daily News Sports Writer

When Mike French, then 34, joined the Philadelphia Wings for the Major Indoor Lacrosse League’s inaugural season in 1987, he had no idea what would transpire.

Eleven years earlier, he had been the top draft pick of the old Wings of the old National Lacrosse League. That league folded before French ever got a chance to play.

Now, after one year as a player with the Wings and the last six as their general manager, French is part of a league that appears to be more stable than ever.

True, there now are only six franchises, with the Pittsburgh Bulls having been folded. Each team will play eight games, two fewer than 1993. And rosters have been reduced by one, to 17.

But, for the first time, a real television deal is in place, a six-year agreement with ESPN2.

The Wings open Sunday at the Spectrum against the New York Saints, a 7 p.m. game that can be seen on a tape-delayed basis on ESPN2 Monday at 7. The team’s Feb. 5 game at Buffalo will be shown live, as will all MILL playoff games.

“It’s a huge step,” said French, whose team has sold in the vicinity of 9,000 season tickets. “I think the league’s become significantly more legitimate in the last few years. There was a lot of creativity at the beginning, as we tried to appeal to a certain market, and sometimes we were our own worst enemy. It was almost too much emphasis on the flim-flam stuff. But over time, we’ve recognized what it takes.

“There aren’t that many of us who have stuck around through all of it – the few, the crazy, the out-of-their mind. I can tell you, I never thought we’d reach the point where we could get 16,000 at the Spectrum on a regular basis. The other league folded after 2 1/2 years. And I think you saw the same thing in World Team Tennis, the USFL, indoor soccer. But we’ve managed to survive – and improve the prodcut as we went along. That has to count for something.”

The Wings, who won the title in 1989 and ’90, have lost in the final in each of the past two seasons, both times by one goal to Buffalo. But they always will be considered the team to beat as long as they have Paul and Gary Gait, the Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig of the sport. Paul is the first player in MILL history to score 100 goals, and he did it in three seasons (the first two were spent with Detroit).

To complement the Gaits, the Wings have added Tom Marecheck, a rookie who was acquired in a trade with Buffalo. At Syracuse, he finished fourth on the school’s all-time scoring list (258 points) and wound up ahead of both Gaits.

Gone, though, is Dave Evans, who had coached the team for the past five years. French is taking his place, at least in name. In reality, former Wings forward Tony Resch and George Corrigan will handle most of the actual coaching, especially during games, when French will remain stationed up in the press box instead of behind the bench.

“My goal is to make this the best team it can be,” French said. “That’s never changed. Ultimately, it is entertainment. Some people will always think of us as a circus act. But I think we’re taking the right approach to get to the next level.

“Quite frankly, the sport is more appealing to people who’ve never seen it before. The added (TV) exposure should allow us to develop new markets and new sponsors. Right now, I’m sure there are people who still liken it to hurling or something. The league has always taken the less-risk route.

It’s always served us well and I’m sure it’ll continue to do so in the future.”

(Philadelphia Daily News, January 20, 1994)

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