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© Bill Brine/Flickr
© Bill Brine/Flickr

Lacrosse: Canada’s National Summer Sport

Picture of Ruaidhrí Carroll
London Travel Writer
Updated: 29 March 2017
While ice hockey is Canada’s national winter sport, Canadians swap their sticks for crosses and take to the fields to play the culture-rich sport of lacrosse in the summer months.

History

Lacrosse is a sport that preceded European colonization in North America. It is based on a game played by Native Americans, where sticks were used to drive a ball through the gap between two trees. Games could last up to three days and it was not unusual for thousands of players to partake. With the goals anywhere between 500 yards and several miles apart, play had no boundaries and few rules except that players could not touch the ball with their hands.

In 1636, a French Jesuit missionary, who witnessed a match involving Huron natives in the St. Lawrence Valley, became the first European to make a record of the sport. He called it ‘lacrosse’ – the French word for a Bishop’s stick – because he believed that the game’s curved implements resembled the religious prop. It was not until the 1840s that the game caught on among European settlers, but by 1856 the Montreal Lacrosse Club had been established, just three years before Parliament (in Britain) declared lacrosse the national game of Canada.

‘Ball-play of the Choctaw–Ball Up’ (1846-50) by George Catlin
‘Ball-play of the Choctaw–Ball Up’ (1846-50) by George Catlin | Courtesy of Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr./Smithsonian American Art Museum

William George Beers, a member of the Montreal club, went on to codify a set of rules in 1867 that limited the number of players to twelve on each team, replaced the hair-stuffed native ball with one made of hard rubber and modified the stick to make throwing and catching the ball easier. After a display by the Montreal Club against the Caughnawaga Native Americans at Windsor Castle in 1876, Queen Victoria remarked, “The game is very pretty to watch.”

Lacrosse enjoyed event status at the 1904 and 1908 summer Olympics, where teams from Canada, the USA and Great Britain competed. The game, however, did not rouse enough international interest to remain an Olympic event, although it did feature again at the Games as an exhibition sport in 1928, 1932 and 1948. In 1930, lacrosse mutated and box lacrosse, played on a covered ice hockey rink, was born. Ever since, both the original field lacrosse game and its indoor counterpart have enjoyed widespread popularity across North America. Then, in 1994, the Canadian government recognised the sport’s cultural and historical significance when it declared lacrosse to be the country’s national summer sport.

Culture and traditions

Native Americans did not just play lacrosse for entertainment. The sport served as a religious ritual, a method for settling tribal disputes and as battle training. The last of these is reflected in the sport’s various native names, known to the Cherokee as tewaraathon, or ‘little brother of war’, while the Iroquois referred to it as baggataway, meaning ‘to hit something’. Traditionally, on field fights functioned as a way of toughening young men up and as a rite of passage into manhood.

‘Sioux Playing Ball’ (1843) by Charles Deas
‘Sioux Playing Ball’ (1843) by Charles Deas | Courtesy of The Athenaeum/Gilcrease Museum

Devoted competitors trained exhaustively in the summer and consumed a special diet which excluded animals with nonathletic traits. Animals that fell under this category included rabbits for timidity, frogs for brittle bones and particularly sluggish types of fish – snails were probably a no-go too. For many tribes, lacrosse was as much a mystic ceremony as it was a sport. Players would decorate their faces and bodies with paint and charcoal, and the game was preceded by complex rituals and a solemn dance, while the ball flying through the air is said to have represented the movement of the sun across the sky.

In contrast with the violence of the native game, in which bones were often broken, modern lacrosse matches open with a stereotypically Canadian ceremony of politeness. Each player introduces themselves to their particular opponent, shakes hands and wishes them luck. Many ice hockey players swap their sticks for crosses in the summer months because lacrosse is great for conditioning and improves hand-eye coordination, while box lacrosse might be reasonably described as an airborne form of hockey.

How to play

Lacrosse fields are 110 yards (100m) long and 60 yards (54m) wide, with the goals set 80 yards (73m) apart. The square goal posts are six feet high and wide, while there are specific stipulations on the length and width of the crosses (sticks) that may be used.

Due to the very physical nature of the sport, all lacrosse players wear helmets, gloves and pads for protection, while the goalkeepers wear additional chest and throat shields. Only the goalkeepers may use their hands and although all players may kick or bat the ball, goals may only be scored when it is thrown from a crosse.

The sport is incredibly fast-paced and players with the ball must ‘cradle’ it by rapidly rotating the stick in half-turns to generate a centrifugal force which holds the ball in the pocket of the crosse. Defensive players may pressure the ballcarrier into making a poor pass, knock the ball from their crosse or intercept the ball when it is in the air. Lacrosse retains remnants of its violent history as a player may also jab, poke or slap the ballcarrier with their crosse to force an error. Barging a player in an attempt to throw them off balance or knock him down, however, is illegal.

Each team fields ten players but there is no limit to the number of substitutions that may be made. Matches last for four periods of fifteen minutes each, with a ten-minute halftime break and one-minute intervals between quarters. If both teams are tied after sixty minutes, a five-minute intermission follows before play resumes for two four-minute periods.