Lacrosse, which the Native People of North America knew under many different names such as Baggataway or Tewaarathon, played a significant role in the community and religious life of tribes across the continent. Originally, Lacrosse, when played only by the Native people, had a spiritual significance in the Indian’s way of life. Lacrosse was a game to be played for their Creator, for the Native people to show their gratitude to the Great Spirit for living a full life, one that allowed them to live in harmony with nature and at peace with themselves. Lacrosse was also played for honored members within the Indian nation, and a game would be played to acknowledge to the Great Spirit that they were grateful that an elder or medicine person with great knowledge of many things existed in their midst.
In early days, contrary to popular belief, a Lacrosse game would be played to settle a dispute between two tribes. In times of differences between Indian nations, the leaders and elders would arrange a Lacrosse game and the winner of that game would be considered the one with the correct viewpoint, sanctioned by the Great Spirit. Lacrosse was very much a part of the culture of the Indian people, as well as a spiritual link with their Creator.
Although much of the details and context of the sport in original Native form is lost in the antiquity of myth, Lacrosse remains a notable contributor to the Native culture in modern North American society. Native Lacrosse was characterized by a deeply spiritual involvement, and for those who took part did so with dedicated spirit and with the highest ideals of bringing glory to themselves and their tribes, and honor to the participants and the tribes to which they belonged.
Once settlers began to establish themselves in Canada, they took a great liking to Lacrosse and it wasn’t long before almost every small community in Canada boasted of a Lacrosse team. During that time, rules were established for the number of players on each side and the playing area to be covered.
The origin of the sport can also be traced to Jean de Brebeuf through recorded observations of a Lacrosse game in 1683 in what is now Southern Ontario, Canada. The legacy of the original North Americans to the European settlers, Lacrosse remains one of the few aspects of Native culture which has survived and prospered under the settlers’ tutelage. Pre-dating recorded history, the sport has roots which are long and deep in North American society in general and the life and culture of the Natives of Ontario and Quebec. To the early French settlers, the stick reminded them somewhat of a Bishop’s crozier or staff. The French word for crozier is “crosse” and soon they started calling the game “La Crosse”, which is the name everyone is familiar with now.
Lacrosse, because of its unique history, exists as a link between the disparate components of Canadian, American, First Nations and European Settler history. It remains the rare occurrence in which an element of native culture was accepted and embraced by Canadian society. The European concepts of structure and rules were added to the religious and social rituals of the first North Americans, and together produced one of the first symbols of the new Canada, Lacrosse.
It was in the early 1800s that the Montreal townspeople became interested in this activity of the Mohawk tribes. In the 1840s the first games of Lacrosse were played between the townsfolk and the Natives. The action and skill of the game soon won the hearts of the locals, and though it was many years before any significant wins were logged against the Natives, the game of Lacrosse was quickly winning the loyalty and interest of the newest North Americans.
By the late 1850s and early 1860s Lacrosse had its foothold in the sporting society of the time and the first non-native Lacrosse clubs were being formed. This quickly led to the formation of inter-city rivalries and challenges, and the competitive base of the sport of Lacrosse was born.
Across the northern border, Lacrosse was named Canada’s National Game by Parliament in 1859. In 1867 the Montreal Lacrosse Club, headed by Dr. George Beers, organized a conference in Kingston in order to create a national body whose purpose would be to govern the sport throughout the newly formed country. The National Lacrosse Association became the first Canadian national sport governing body in North America dedicated to the governance of a sport, the standardization of rules and competition, and the running of national championships to promote good fellowship and unity across the country. The unforgettable motto of the organization was: “Our Country – Our Game.”
Through the 1880s Lacrosse grew at a phenomenal rate until, by the turn of the century, it was the premier sport in Canada. By the end of 1867 there were about 80 clubs operating across the country. By 1877 there were 11 clubs in Montreal alone and 7 in Toronto. Major clubs also operated out of Ottawa, Hamilton, Quebec City, and there were more than 100 clubs throughout the towns and communities in Ontario and Quebec.
The game, however, was not restricted to just those two provinces. Manitoba joined the ranks of Lacrosse-playing provinces as early as 1871 with clubs operating in Fort Garry and Winnipeg. By the spring of 1883 Albertans were playing the game. Lacrosse spread into the Maritimes by 1889 in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in the following year. British Columbia, long one of the major forces in Lacrosse, began playing the game in the 1880s and by 1890 the British Columbia Amateur Lacrosse Association was formed. In 1893 the last remaining province, Saskatchewan, had formed its first clubs and was active in the sport.
In addition to the number of clubs playing the sport, fans and the press became obsessed with Lacrosse. Games in the 1880s were commonly attended by 5,000 fans, and it was not unusual to see as many as 10,000. The press of the time took great care and attention to report not only the most recent games and scores, with full descriptions of the games, but also to report all the activities of meetings and assemblies. A common message that was repeated time and again was the reference to Lacrosse as the “National Sport of Canada”. The Canadian press knew that it was the most important sport to their readers.
Among the many accomplishments of the sport of Lacrosse from that era was innovation in presenting sport to the fans. One of the first night games to be played under the new “Electric Light” was played in August of 1880 at the Shamrock Lacrosse Field in Montreal. In order to help the fans follow what was occurring on the field at night, in a second game the promoters decided to coat the ball with phosphorous. Another major innovation was the concept of presenting other sports as entertainment during the breaks in the game. It was common practice to hold track and field competitions and demonstrations during the half time breaks of Lacrosse games.
The advent of the 20th century saw Lacrosse as the dominant sport in Canada. There were extensive amateur and professional leagues across the country and teams routinely travelled from Quebec and Ontario to B.C. and vice versa to challenge for supremacy in the game. As an example of its popularity, in 1910 a Montreal team travelled to New Westminster to challenge for the Championship of Canada. The game was attended by more than 15,000 fans. The total population of New Westminster at the time was less than 12,000.
In 1901 Lord Minto, the Governor General of Canada, aware of what the game meant to the public of Canada, donated a silver cup to become the symbol of the senior amateur championship of Canada. The Minto Cup, today the symbol of supremacy in the Junior ranks, remains one of the proudest prizes of Lacrosse. The fierce competition for senior supremacy in Canada led to the dominance of professional teams and soon the Minto Cup became the trophy of the professional leagues.
In 1910 Sir Donald Mann, chief architect of the Canadian Northern Railway, donated a gold cup to be awarded to the national amateur senior champion. When donated in 1910, the Mann Cup was appraised at $2500.00. Today it is one of the most valuable and beautiful trophies in all of sport, and the championship prize of the best Senior team in Box Lacrosse in Canada. So popular was the sport that such notables as P.D. Ross, owner and editor of the Ottawa Journal, donated trophies for competitions in their areas. The Ross Cup, first donated in 1906 for the championship of the Ottawa area, has been rededicated by the C.L.A. as the championship trophy of Senior Men’s Field Lacrosse.
The Olympics of 1904 and 1908 saw Lacrosse, very popular in Canada, the United States and Great Britain, chosen as part of the program. The sport, so much a part of the community life, provided one of Canada’s gold medals in 1904, which was the first Olympics to which Canada sent an official delegation. The Olympic program of those early years was determined a great deal by the host country. Therefore when the venues shifted to European sites, Lacrosse, not popular on the continent, was dropped from the program of competition. Though its career in the Olympics was short lived, Lacrosse still remains the only team sport in which Canada has won more gold medals than the rest of the world combined.
The sport of Lacrosse, years ahead of its time in becoming professional, had made a virtue and a standard of a practice which was in direct conflict with the majority view of a society which still reflected the Victorian ideals of amateurism and excellence in sport for its own sake. The nature of this controversy was reflected in the struggle within the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association to resolve the fact that Lacrosse was the only “professional” sport in the organization. It resulted in major conflicts between factions of the organization and by 1920 the Montreal Lacrosse Club, part of the M.A.A.A. and founder of the sport of Lacrosse, had been so severely restricted and penalized by the organization for professionalism that it could no longer compete in any league.
In 1925 the organizers of Lacrosse throughout the country began to realize the need for solidarity and combined effort to revive the game. That year saw the re-creation of the Canadian Amateur Lacrosse Association with all the sport united under one banner. The Mann Cup was awarded to the senior champion of Canada and the Minto Cup was awarded to the junior champion. Unfortunately the war years and the new freedoms provided by technology and the attraction of the countryside took their toll of available athletes and the sport still struggled with participation.
The coming of the 1930s brought innovation once again to the sport. Promoters began to consider alternatives to the game of Field Lacrosse. Hockey popularity was rising and in order to capitalize on the familiar winter venue of indoor rinks, the promoters married the two most popular games, Lacrosse and Hockey, and created indoor Lacrosse, also known as Box Lacrosse or Boxla. The game was built upon speed and action and very quickly won massive support within the organization. By the mid 30s the field game had been completely replaced by Boxla and the box version became the official sport of the Canadian Lacrosse Association. Soon, nowhere in Canada was anyone playing the original version of the game of Lacrosse.
As Canada turned its attention away from the game of Field Lacrosse, the sport was gaining popular support and growing rapidly south of the border and overseas. Introduced into the United States in the 1870s, Lacrosse had continued to expand and win acceptance along the eastern seaboard. The more hospitable weather conditions helped to make Lacrosse prosper in the institutions of higher learning, especially in the Ivy League schools, as a spring sport. England continued its passion for the Canadian game introduced in the 1870s and following the example of exhibition games played before Queen Victoria, it became a sport of the upper classes and found a welcome home in private schools and universities. Australia was the other hotbed of Lacrosse. Imported from Britain, it took hold and has existed happily and popularly since the 1880s and 90s. Thus outside of Canada, sport enthusiasts had taken to our game with a passion and while they held to the traditional game, back home in Canada Box Lacrosse was the passion.
The game of Lacrosse has evoked Canada’s uniqueness and individuality as a nation for well over a century. It has accomplished this function largely because of the willingness of government, historians, writers and the sports community to use it as a symbol of Canada. It has been accepted around the world that it is an integral part of Canadian culture and history.
Participation in Lacrosse has had a roller-coastered history. While the game grew in the late 1800s, participation waned in the 1920s until the introduction of Box Lacrosse. And although the game grew tremendously since then, it has had further ups and downs, but leading into and during the 1990s, participation rates grew exponentially in all forms of the game. Currently more than 100,000 players register with the Canadian Lacrosse Association.
The World Championships of Lacrosse, which are attended every four years, are considered significant international events. The major difficulty in the 1960s and 70s was that while the other countries were playing Field Lacrosse, in Canada, only Box Lacrosse was played. For the first few world championships, the CLA was forced to convert its premier Box players to field players.
The culmination of this effort came in 1978, when against all odds the Canadian team pulled off a major upset and defeated the powerful American team in the championship game. This was the only time the Americans have lost the World title since its inception. Having lost badly to the Americans in the round robin by a score of 24-3, the Canadian team stormed back to win the championship in overtime 17-16. The Canadian National Team also emerged victorious in the 2006 World Games.
The fallout of that win in the United States has been the renewal of interest and participation in Box Lacrosse. The resurgence of those games has produced a form of Lacrosse which is unique to Canada. The marriage of the skill, patience and strategy of the pure field game with the speed and reaction of the Box game is what makes Lacrosse in Canada different than anywhere else in the world.
Dozens of countries are now involved in Lacrosse – from the USA, Australia, England, Scotland and Wales to the relative newcomers Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Singapore, Sweden, etc. The Iroquois Nationals, a Native North American team, participate in the Men’s World Cup as a separate “national team”.