The Nations in 1980 (1980)

by Steve Holroyd (laxmavn@aol.com)

Field lacrosse continues to grow into a game enjoyed by nations around the globe.  In the summer of 2018, 46 teams converged on Netanya, Israel to play in the Federation of International Lacrosse (“FIL”) World Lacrosse Championships, representing forty-five counties and the Iroquois Nation.  The inclusion of the Creator’s Game as an Olympic sport seems an inevitability.

As fall turns to winter, however, thoughts turn to box lacrosse.  Traditionally, the indoor game has been the exclusive province of Canada, where the game was invented in 1931 and proceeded to render field lacrosse largely irrelevant in the Great White North.  In recent years, however, the box game has begun to take root in other countries, and is experiencing a boom in the United States.

Like field lacrosse, box lacrosse also has an international tournament: the World Indoor Lacrosse Championships, last held in 2015.  But the first attempt at an indoor lacrosse world championship occurred 35 years earlier: the “Nations in 1980” tournament.

The “Nations in 1980,” also known as the Nations Cup, was not the first attempt at international lacrosse—in 1930, the Lally Cup began as an open competition between teams from Canada, the United States, England, and Australia.[1]  Indeed, it arguably was not even the first international indoor tournament, as there had been an attempt at such a competition as early as 1891.  It was, however, the first-ever international box lacrosse tournament.[2]

The idea for the Cup first originated in 1974, courtesy of Tom Davies, President of the British Columbia Lacrosse Association (“BCLA”).  Davies had noted that the indoor game was beginning to take hold in Australia (where it had been “invented,” in a myth concocted by the men who formed the first professional box lacrosse league in 1931) and in the United States (due to the success, albeit short-lived, of the original National Lacrosse League), and believed an international competition would further interest in the sport.  Box lacrosse was accepted as a demonstration sport by the Commonwealth Games Committee in 1976, and the sport was featured in the 1978 Games in Edmonton.  Representatives from Australia attended those games, and proved receptive to the idea of a world box lacrosse tournament.

On September 11, 1979, the BCLA announced that the Nations Cup tournament would take place in July 1980.  Having received sanctioning from the International Lacrosse Federation,[3] the tournament was set to host national teams from Australia and the United States, as well an all-North American team made up of Native Americans—purportedly the first time indigenous peoples from the continent were permitted to compete under their own “flag” in an international event.[4]

Canada would be represented by two teams: Canada East and Canada West.  Unlike the other competing sides, these teams would be club teams, and not select sides.  While this may appear arrogant on the part of the hosts, it was actually a very practical approach to the inherent problem in any box lacrosse tournament—Canada had a 50-year head start on two-thirds of the field.  A true Canadian national team would doubtless obliterate the competition.  As it is, Canada had a precedent for such situations, having sent club teams to represent the nation in Olympic hockey and other international competitions (most famously by the Trail Smoke Eaters at the Ice Hockey World Championships in 1939 and 1961), so having the best club teams from the east and west compete seemed a sensible way to keep the competition interesting.  Canada West would be the Western Lacrosse Association team at the top of the table as of June 21; Canada East would be the Ontario Lacrosse Association leader as of that same date.  British Columbia would host the tournament.

The hosts made efforts to be as gracious as possible as far as doing what they could to insure that all teams were reasonably competitive.  In March, Vancouver Burrards goaltender Dave Evans went to Australia to spend two months coaching their box lacrosse side.  He returned with glowing reports:  “They are eager to prove they can play this game.  In Adelaide they built their own arena from an old warehouse.  When they get here, they’ll be ready to play.”[5]  Upon arrival, the laxers from Down Under engaged in a series of exhibitions against several WLA and Senior B Division teams.  “Fast and clean” were terms describing the Aussie’s style of play—although it appeared the art of defense was lacking.

The Americans—made up primarily of collegiate field lacrosse stars—began their preparations in the suburbs of Philadelphia, facing the storied Oshawa Green Gaels on June 21 in Audubon, PA.  Amusingly, the Philadelphia Daily News report stated that “box lacrosse players interested in trying out for the U.S. National Team should report at the Washington rink at 10 a.m.”—it appears the American collegians were not as confident in their box abilities, and were happy to get help wherever they could find it.  The Yanks also arrived to British Columbia early to play a series of exhibitions.

Of course, June 21 also produced “Canada West” and “Canada East”—out of the WLA, the Coquitlam Adanacs (“Canada” spelled backwards) emerged as league leaders, while the Brooklin Redmen would represent the east as OLA leaders.

The North American Native Warriors were selected by a Native committee from players in the eastern Can-Am League and on the North Shore Indians team from B.C., and were described by General Manager Frank Baker as a small, but young and fast, squad.  Unlike the U.S. and Australia, the Warriors had little preparation for the tournament, only managing their first full team practice the Monday before the tournament opened on Thursday, July 10.

The tournament was set up in a round-robin format, with each team facing the other once.  The second and third place finishers would then face one another for the right to meet to group winner for the championship.

The tournament opened with two games.  The match in Vancouver almost saw the tournament’s first major upset, as Canada East needed to get to overtime to beat the United States, 15-10; Brooklyn was trailing, 10-9, until Ken Cooley’s third goal of the night allowed the Canadians to tie the game; the Redmen ripped off five unanswered goals in the 10-minute overtime period for the win.  U.S. netminder John Yeager was named first star of the match, having made 63 saves.  Meanwhile, in Victoria, Canada West outshot the Warriors, 61-39, en route to an easy 16-9 victory.

Group play continued the following day, with Australia debuting against Canada West in Coquitlam, and the U.S. facing the Warriors in Nanaimo.  The Indians rebounded from the previous evening’s defeat, cruising to an easy 15-6 win before 700 fans.  Star American defenseman Ed Bollenbacher—a West Point cadet who distinguished himself during the match with one goal and several crunching hits—described the differences between the box and field games: “The biggest adjustment is getting rid of the ball in a hurry.  It’s a much faster game.”[6]  U.S. netminder Yeager was again superb, making 47 saves.  For the Warriors, a famous name was prominent: the Powless family dominated proceedings, with Barry getting two goals, and Harry adding another.

Warriors star Vern Baker offered this take on the Americans: “They are pretty fast, but they miss a lot of checks and make a lot of unnecessary passes on breakaways.”[7]  Press reports noted the Yanks “liked to hit more than they do shoot.”

In the other game of the day, Canada West crushed the debutantes from Australia, 21-7.

July 12 found the eagerly-anticipated matchup between Canada East and Canada West in Victoria.  Interest in this match was such that it was scheduled to be televised on the CBC’s “Sportsweekend” program (the northern version of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports”).  Unfortunately, the game was delayed for over two hours, because the Adanacs’ plane had mechanical issues.  The 1,000 or so people who waited out the delay were not disappointed, with Canada West prevailing, 9-7, in a see-saw match that saw the winners trailing after the first two periods before rallying.  In Vancouver, the Native Warriors overwhelmed Australia, 26-4, before 1,000 fans.  Barry and Harry Powless scored three goals between them, while a third Powless—Gary—made 32 saves for the win.

After taking Sunday off, the tournament resumed on Monday, July 14.  In Victoria, the United States relied on the continued goaltending brilliance of John Yeager to earn its first win, 16-13 in overtime, over Australia.  In Vancouver, Canada East survived an offensive barrage from the Warriors to win, 19-18, before 2,000 delighted fans.  Barry Powless had five goals for the losers, while yet another member of the clan—Daryl—scored two; Gary Powless played the field and added another goal.

The round robin stage of the tournament ended the next evening, with Canada West—having already clinched first place—walloping the U.S., 18-7, in New Westminster before 2,100.  Canada East put Australia out of its misery with a 20-7 thumping, with Ron McCoy’s 7 goals leading the way.

As group winners, Canada West advanced to the final, leaving Canada East and the Native Warriors to face one another on July 16.  Canada East was heavily favored to win the match, but the Indians pulled off the tourney’s first upset at just the right time, winning 13-9 in Coquitlam.  Daryl, Barry, and Harry Powless scored one goal apiece, and Gary Powless made 45 saves in the win.

On July 17, over 8,000 fans—the largest B.C. lacrosse crowd in 10 years—entered the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver to watch Canada West overcome the pesky Warriors in a 16-11 victory.  The Natives held a 4-3 lead after the first period, but trailed 8-6 after two.  In the end, the sheer strength of the Coquitlam side allowed them to prevail.  The Adanacs’ Dan Wilson had two goals in the final, and was named tournament MVP.  Warriors’ coach Ross Powless summed the final up: “We were outmuscled by the Adanacs…Dan Wilson took over and he showed us how to play lacrosse.”  Jeff Gill of the Warriors was named MVP of the final, and was one of five Warriors with 2-goal games.

Highlights from the match were featured the following two days on the “Sportsweekend” program.

(For what it is worth, Coquitlam did not hold on to win the WLA title—New Westminster Salmonbellies took the honors.  In another interesting note, the Adanacs were so impressed by the Australian’s zeal for the game that they went to the continent the following year for a series of training camps and field and box scrimmages.)

While the tournament was a success, it also only served to confirm that non-Canadian countries were not quite ready for prime time.  Another attempt at an international box lacrosse tournament would not take place until 2003, with the WILC, although there was a travelling “Super Series” between Canada and the U.S. in 1985 in what served as a precursor for the current National Lacrosse League.

While the Nations Cup was not repeated, it nevertheless represents a significant step in the growth of box lacrosse internationally.  Like much of lacrosse history, however, it remains criminally underreported.


[1] In 1930, Canadian Lacrosse Association President Joe Lally inaugurated a field lacrosse “world championship,” in conjunction with CLA and U.S. Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association.  It was contested for three years, then suspended, as box lacrosse’s arrival in 1931 had resulted in declining interest from Canadian sides.  It was revived in 1935 as a box lacrosse “world championship,” although only teams from the U.S. and Canada participated.  In 1967, the trophy was hauled out of mothballs and presented to the winner of the Canada Centennial Field Lacrosse Championships.

[2] It could be argued that the 1935 and 1936 Lally Cup championships represent the first international box lacrosse tournaments.  However, as that tournament was not truly “international” in scope (as only Canada and the United States participated), it is respectfully submitted that the Nations Cup was the first true international box lacrosse tournament.

[3] This organization was founded in 1974, and governed men’s international lacrosse.  In 2008, it merged with the International Federation of Women’s Lacrosse Associations to form the Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL).

Whether this sanctioning was actually received remains an open question.  A Canadian Press wire service article stated that such sanctioning was granted at a meeting in Baltimore on the week of September 9.  See Nanaimo Daily News, September 12, 1980.  It appears, however, the source of the report was Ed Linsteadt, President of the British Columbia Lacrosse Association.

To make matters even more interesting, the current FIL does not recognize the Nations in 80 tournament as an “official” international event; Linsteadt himself has led recent efforts to get FIL to do so.  The Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame takes no position on the matter (correspondence between Stewart-Candy and the author, September 3, 2018).

[4] In 1904, a team of Mohawk Nation players was awarded the bronze medal at the first Olympic lacrosse tournament.  However, they played as “Canada.”  While awarded a medal, there remains a real question as to whether this team (the second Canadian entry) was even in the Olympics.  For more on the chaos that was the 1904 Olympic Lacrosse tournament, see Holroyd, Steve, “Lacrosse at the 1904 Summer Olympics: Correcting The Record,” RetroLax.com http://retrolax.com/2019/03/16/lacrosse-at-the-1904-summer-olympics-correcting-the-record/ (retrieved September 19, 2019)

[5] Richmond (British Columbia) Review, May 9, 1980.

According to Australian player Paul Mollison, the warehouse was actually in Melbourne; Adelaide was home to an existing basketball arena (Facebook Messenger correspondence with author, September 7, 2018).

[6] Nanaimo Daily News, July 12, 1980

[7] Id.

One Comment

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