by Jack Falla….
It’s the metal frame glasses and solid color, straight – bottom knit ties that throw you off. The glasses and ties and subdued sport jackets make Chuck Li look like some kind of grad student. Like one of those Harvard B school types you see hurrying along the banks of the Charles, briefcase in hand, on weekday mornings.
You know the sort, all very purposeful and businesslike. That’s Chuck Li. Except for the briefcase. Chuck Li doesn’t carry a briefcase. He doesn’t even own a briefcase. What Chuck Li carries through airports and hotel lobbies and restaurants, and about every place he goes, is a nice Indian hand – made pro lacrosse stick. This is what Chuck Li does his business with. A hickory stick. And it is very serious business he does. Very purposeful, just like the guys at the B school.
Chuck Li has this job where every once in a while he hits somebody a couple of whacks with a stick he carries. Sometimes the people hit back and when this happens Chuck Li misses a day or so of work with nagging little injuries like . . well, like the sliced eyeball he got in a May 3 meeting against Montreal and the four stitches between the eyes he picked up two weeks later in Maryland. But this is the nature of the business. The MBAs and accounting majors could never figure it out but, in the corners of the National Lacrosse League, business is best when you’re handing out more than you’re receiving. At least this is how Chuck Li figures it. And Chuck Li should know because he has been preparing for his business since he was nine years old, which is a lot earlier than most guys get their careers rolling.
“I was in grade school in Cornwall (Ont.) and the teachers were getting the kids together for a lacrosse game. Somebody asked me if I wanted to play. I said no. Then somebody said I was chicken so I played and they put me in goal. After a few games in goal it turned out that I could handle the stick better than most of the kids so I came out of the goal onto the forward line. Been there ever since,” he says. But, like most boys growing up in Canada, Chuck Li also played a little hockey and was considered a pretty fair prospect for the pros. “I was sent an application to try out for Junior A hockey when I was only 14 years old but I couldn’t go. Tryouts were held at the end of the lacrosse season and I was too banged up from lacrosse to play hockey.”
Li figures he wouldn’t have been good enough for the NHL — there isn’t much call for 5′ 7″ defensemen — but that he could have made a living in one of the minor pro leagues. But Chuckie Li gave up one tough business for another and decided to concentrate on lacrosse where the bucks were fewer and the hurts more frequent. He learned his trade in the excellent Ontario Lacrosse Association junior leagues. But the biggest part of his education was playing for the Minto Cup champion Green Gaels under coach Jim Bishop (now of the Montreal Quebecois). It was a grad school for the pros — a tough team to be on but a good one to be from. Like all good schools, tuition was high and Chuck Li had to pay the price, namely a lot of hours and no money. “So I got a trade,” he says, “I earned my papers in sheet metal work and I got a job at a plant right down the street from my house.” It wasn’t until last year that lacrosse gave Chuck Li any kind of return on his investment. The National Lacrosse League was formed. Jim Bishop was one of the founders and it didn’t take Jim (that’s “Mr. Bishop, ‘9 if you play for him) long to sign Chuck Li to a pro contract. So, in May of 1974 Chuck Li picked up his hickory stick and went to work as a lacrosse pro with the Toronto Tomahawks. The money wasn’t super but Chuck Li was. He was one of four Tomahawk players to break 100 points. Playing 36 games of the 40 game schedule, Li scored 38 goals and assisted on 70 others. He also spent about an hour — 53 minutes exactly — in the penalty box because of his penchant for running into people while proceeding about his business.
Chuck Li is aggressive. But, like a good businessman, Chuck Li is, more than anything, efficient. The .amazing thing about Chuck Li’s 1974 stats is that he scored on 42.2 percent of his shots. That, in pro lacrosse is efficiency. And it is one of the main reasons that Chuckie Li was signed to a Bolts contract. But Chuck Li is efficient in all facets of his job, a fact he chose to demonstrate in a May 1 game at the Capital Centre in Maryland. Li was out on his third or fourth shift of the game and was being checked by Arrow rookie Blair Campbell. At 11: 14 of the period Li took exception to a Campbell check and the two players squared off near the faceoff circle to the right of the Maryland goal. Blair Campbell threw down his gloves. Chuck Li threw down his gloves. Blair Campbell took off his helmet. Chuck Li did not take off his helmet. Chuck Li hit Blair Campbell on his unhelmeted head five times before the referees broke it up. “He’s a rookie and he has a lot to learn,” Li said later on a bus ride to the airport. One of the things, obviously, is to keep your hat on when doing business with Chuck Li. But while’s Li’s fists and stick got him off to a flying start in penalty minutes, business was not as good in the more important goals and assists department. After ten games this season Li ranked third in penalties with 17 minutes but was only twelfth in scoring with three goals and nine assists.
Business was bad. Injuries didn’t help. He lost two games with the cut eye and another with a twisted back. “Even after I came back I had trouble passing because I couldn’t see too well out of my left eye.” Li said he also had trouble finding the open man, “and that’s important to me because I’m a playmaker. I set up a lot more goals than I score but I couldn’t pass to someone I couldn’t find. Now, with the eye healed and the back okay, Chuck Li expects a productive second quarter and the Bolts look forward to the dividends. Chuck Li isn’t worrying much about the Bolts slow start because, as in business, what counts is the bottom line at the end of the year — and Chuck Li figures he can do a lot of business between now and October. It would not be a good idea to get in his way.