That Was Then, This Is Now

by Edward J. Reiner

Most of the fans in Philadelphia and the rest of the MILL cities have grown up with this league the past six years.  But, how many of them remember the first time there was a professional indoor lacrosse league?

The first league was called the National Lacrosse League and it lasted for two seasons: 1974 and 1975.  There were six teams in the league in ’74: Philadelphia, Toronto, Syracuse, Rochester, Montreal and Maryland.  In ’75 there was some moving around as Toronto went to Boston, Syracuse moved to Quebec and the Rochester Griffins became the Long Island Tomahawks.

Out of those six teams in the NLL only a few people are involved in today’s MILL.  Current Wings coach, Dave Evans, was the goalie for Montreal, and Medo Martinello, currently the coach of the Detroit Turbos, was the coach of the Quebec team.

Only one man played in both leagues.  John Grant played for the NLL Philadelphia Wings in ’74 and ’75 and he played for the Wings of the MILL in its first year, 1987.  (RetroLax editor note—Dave Tasker also played in both leagues: with Montreal in 1974-75, and the Wings in 1987-88)

The first game ever played for the Wings was May 20, 1974 and for the city of Philadelphia it was a really emotional day, because, that afternoon the Flyers of the NHL won the Stanley Cup by beating the Boston Bruins in six games.  The Wings played that evening at the Spectrum before a crowd of 15,800 still delirious fans.

“When we opened up that night, after the festivities from the Flyers were still fresh,” recalled Grant,” every time our goalie (Wayne Platt) made a save, the crowd would chant ‘Bernie’ (Flyers goalie, Bernie Parent).  And our captain, Carm Collins got into a fight, and the crowd called him ‘Schultzie’ (after Flyers fighter, Dave Schultz).  It was unbelievable.”

Grant is from Peterborough, Ontario, Canada and was drafted No. 3 by the Wings in the first draft.  Some of the stars for the Wings were brothers Terry and Larry Lloyd, Jimmy Wasson, and a Philly favorite, Doug Favell.  Favell also played hockey for the Flyers and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“Favell phoned our head coach Bobby Allen and told him that he was going to be throwing his name in the draft,” explained Grant.  “Dougie wanted to come back to Philly to be with his friends, but he really got into it.”

The first year the Wings made it to the finals (a best of seven series) and lost to the Rochester Griffins in six games.

“In the first year the league was very physical and we played eleven games in fifteen nights during the playoffs,” said Grant.  “In the end we were physically drained.”

That first season the Wings averaged 11,000 fans and the second they averaged only 9,000.  One of the reasons for the drop in attendance was that in the first year they played on a wooden floor, the second year they played on astroturf.

“The first year, on the wooded floor, you could hear the sound of the ball hitting the floor, the sticks and the players hitting the floor.  The second year when we went to turf, the sound was muffled out,” explained Grant.  “It was like watching television without the sound.”

The second year, the Wings had a late season slump and it cost them the playoffs.  “We lost 230 goals because players like Larry Ferguson, Terry Rollar and Brian Robinson didn’t return.  Coach Allen didn’t return.  And we drafted badly the second season,” said Grant.  The Wings were in second place most of the season, then had a late season slump.

In those days, the league received much more local media attention than today’s MILL teams do.

“We had John Dell covering us for the Philadelphia Inquirer and some smaller papers over in New Jersey ran some stories about us,” said Grant.

The first league was made up of 99% Canadian players, while today’s MILL rosters are mostly American players.

“The old league was a box lacrosse league because we were brought up on box lacrosse,” explained Grant.  “But the new league is primarily a ‘field’ lacrosse version of the game.”

The way to see the difference is to look at the power play.  “In Canada, we use two lefties and two righties on the power play and are taught to keep our sticks in the middle of the floor.  If you are a right handed shot, you play on the left side of the goal and in America you could have five right handed shooters on the field at any one time,” said Grant.

“This league (MILL) is promoted great, but I wonder when it will stand on its own feet,” said Grant.  “I feel that lacrosse can make it and I wonder when people are going to come in and start buying franchises.”

The old league had each team individually owned, while the MILL teams are all owned by the league.  The Wings were owned by Fitz Eugene Dixon.  The Maryland Arrows were owned by Trish Colket.

The NLL folded in 1976 when the Montreal franchise was forced out of the Forum by the 1976, and there was a division between the owners about the coaching of the team.

“Philly and Baltimore had two of the greatest owners in Mr. Dixon and Mr. Colket.  They bailed out the Boston team,” recalled Grant.  “Bruce Norris owned the Long Island Tomahawks and the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings, and he just wanted to get out of sports.”

During the finals in 1975, it was an all Canadian series between the Montreal Quebecois and the Quebec Condors [sic].  They played seven games and each game was a sellout with Quebec winning the championship.

“The league was mismanaged,” assessed Grant.  “If it went the third year, it would be a professional sport today.  In Canada, their [sic] was a great wealth of talent coming up through the juniors and in America there was great wealth of talent coming through the colleges.”

In the MILL’s first year Grant played three games for the Wings and had a total of 13 points.  The next season he wasn’t invited back to play.

“The fans remembered me and in the U.S.-Canada series, Wasson and I played for Canada and there was a banner up for Jimmy and me from some of the Philly fans,” said Grant.  “It was a great experience playing in Philadelphia for the three years.  The fans are great.”

WINGS NOTES:

The next game for the New Philadelphia Wings is against the Pittsburgh Bulls at the Civic Arena on January 24.  The Wings have never lost to the Bulls and their last regular season meeting was a 15-7 verdict.

After their disappointing loss to the Boston Blazers to open up the season, the Wings are looking to bounce back.  To beat the Bulls the Wings have to play better defense and run them more like they did in the Coors Light Challenge in Hershey (December’s 16-13 exhibition win).

“The Bulls have good outside shooting with John Wilson, Brendan Kelly and Butch Marino.  We have to put the pressure on them when they get the ball,” said Wings coach Evans.

The Wings will also try to contain their fast break and that means watching Wilson, who likes to sneak out of the defensive zone early.  The starting lineup for the Wings will be John Nostrant, Rob Hoynes, Bill Dirrigl, Tony Resch, John McEvoy and Dallas Eliuk.

The update on rookie Brian Voelker is he’ll be going in for arthroscopic knee surgery on Monday or Tuesday and will be out for about two weeks.

(The Indoor Lacrosse Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 4, January 24, 1992)

(Special thanks to Bob Heyes for providing a copy of the paper)

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