The Hamilton Nationals were a short-lived and unloved franchise in Major League Lacrosse. The club originated as the Toronto Nationals (2009-2010), which was MLL’s first team in Canada. After two years of poor attendance in Toronto, the National relocated to Hamilton in February 2011, but fared no better there.
On the field, the situation was better. During their first season in Hamilton, the Nationals advanced to the Steinfeld Cup championship game, losing to the Boston Cannons 10-9. After missing the playoffs with a 4-10 season in 2012, the Nationals returned as semi-finalists in 2013, losing to the eventual champion Chesapeake Bayhawks. During the 2013 season, Hamilton’s Kevin Crowley won the MLL’s Most Valuable Player award.
Nationals owner Curt Styres grew up on and still lives in the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve in Southern Ontario. He made his fortune as a partner in the Grand River Enterprises cigarette conglomerate. Styres is also the owner of the Rochester Knighthawks of the indoor National Lacrosse League and the former owner of the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League.
The Nationals suffered from abysmal attendance throughout their three-year stay at Ron Joyce Stadium on the campus of McMaster University. In 2011, the Nationals average 1,214 fans for six home matches. The club’s published figures climbed slightly to 1,539 in 2012 and 1,837 in 2013, but a source close to the team told Fun While It Lasted that the Nationals sold fewer than 4,000 tickets for the entire 2013 season. (By contrast, the league’s flagship Denver Outlaws claimed a league record 31,109 fans for their July 4th home game alone in 2013).
On November 21, 2013, Major League Lacrosse announced that the Nationals were out of business. On the same day, the league introduced the Florida Launch as an expansion club to replace Hamilton on the 2014 schedule. The rights to the Nationals’ 23-man roster were assigned to the new Florida club.
Everett, Washington’s Comcast Arena was the third stop for this wandering box lacrosse franchise, which began play in upstate New York as the Albany Attack back in 2000. After four seasons in Albany, the franchise moved across the country to the Bay Area and became the San Jose Stealth in 2004. Current owners Bill & Denise Watkins purchased the club in 2007 while it was languishing with the worst attendance in the league at San Jose’s HP Pavilion.
The Watkins’ moved the franchise to Everett following the 2009 season. Everett was by far the smallest market in the National Lacrosse League, which takes pains to avoid being tagged as a “minor league”. Accordingly, the franchise took on the regional “Washington Stealth” identity and hoped to draw fans from throughout the Puget Sound region.
The Stealth were an outstanding team on the carpet. During their four seasons in Everett, the Stealth appeared in the NLL Championship Game three times, winning in 2010 and losing in 2011 and 2013. The exception was a demoralizing 2012 season, which saw Head Coach Chris Hall miss part of the season after a throat cancer diagnosis. The Stealth went into a nose dive and finished dead last with a 4-12 record.
With Hall back for a full season at the helm in 2013, the Stealth returned to the NLL final against the Rochester Knighthawks. Although the Stealth earned the right to host the title game, Comcast Arena in Everett was unavailable due to a schedule conflict. They were forced to move the game 90 miles north to the Langley Events Centre in Langley, British Columbia. There, the Stealth lost to Rochester 11-10 in a closely contested game before 5,200 fans (see complete game video below).
Despite the on-field success, the Stealth were a loser at the box office in Everett, which turned out to have all of the limitations of a minor league market despite the NLL’s assertions to the contrary. Six weeks after the 2013 title game, the Stealth announced a permanent relocation to the Langley Events Centre. The franchise will be known as the Vancouver Stealth beginning with the 2014 season.
The Stealth and the Rochester Knighthawks meet in the 2013 NLL Championship Game at Langley, British Columbia. May 11, 2013.
Stealth vs. Colorado Mammoths at Comcast Arena. February 18, 2011.
The Quebec Caribous – or “Les Caribous” – were a pro box lacrosse team that existed for one season in the summer of 1975. The National Lacrosse League franchise originated in Syracuse, New York during the league’s inaugural season in 1974 and relocated to Quebec City prior to the 1975 campaign.
The Caribous languished at the bottom of the six-team league for much of the season and were in last place as late as August 25th. Then they got hot, winning six of their final seven games to earn the fourth and final playoff spot. In the post-season, the Caribous upset the defending champion Long Island Tomahawks in the semis and then defeated their provincial rivals the Montreal Quebecois for the NLL’s Nations Cup championship.
Les Caribous were reportedly prepared to continue for a second season in 1976, but the National Lacrosse League dwindled to only three active clubs during the winter of 1975-76. The NLL folded in February 1976 before a third season could be launched.
“It Was Provincial Indeed” – October 6, 1975 Sports Illustrated coverage of the 1975 NLL Nations Cup final.
The New Jersey Storm were a short-lived indoor lacrosse franchise owned by recently retired New Jersey Nets All-Star Jayson Williams. Williams, who reportedly earned $87 million during his 9-year NBA career, paid a $500,000 expansion fee for the National Lacrosse League team and named the club after his alma mater, the St. John’s University Red Storm.
Less than three months after the Storm’s November 2001 debut, Williams accidentally shot and killed his chauffeur at his New Jersey mansion on Valentine’s Day 2002. He would spend much of the next decade in judicial proceedings before finally entering prison eight years after the incident in February 2010 after pleading guilty to aggravated assaults. Despite his legal troubles, Williams would remain the owner of record for the Storm until the franchise’s eventual demise in California in 2005.
The Storm struggled on the field and at the turnstiles during their two seasons in New Jersey. The team finished 5-11 in 2001-02 and 3-13 in 2002-03, missing the playoffs both seasons.
In September 2003, the franchise relocated to Anaheim, California. The club played two years as the Anaheim Storm before folding in June 2005.
The Philadelphia Wings were one of the founding franchises in the National Lacrosse League (1974-1975), a mid-1970′s attempt to introduce the sport of box lacrosse to major arenas in the Northeastern United States and Eastern Canada. The original six clubs were the Maryland Arrows, Montreal Quebecois, Philadelphia, Rochester Griffins, Syracuse Stingers and Toronto Tomahawks. Teams played a 40-game summer schedule between May and September 1974.
Culturally, the sport of box lacrosse shared a lot of DNA with ice hockey. Many Canadian players of the era also had experience playing lacrosse and several NHL players moonlighted in the National Lacrosse League to make extra cash during the summer. Wings forward Doug Favell was a goaltender for the Toronto Maple Leafs during the winter (and a former Philadelphia Flyer). The NLL also attracted NHL owners and investors with NHL connections. Detroit Red Wings owner Bruce Norris owned the Toronto franchise. Wings owner Ed Tepper, a local real estate developer, was a personal friend of Flyers owner Ed Snider.
The Wings debuted in Philadelphia in remarkable fashion on Sunday night, May 19th, 1974. The Philadelphia Flyers beat the Boston Bruins that afternoon at the Spectrum to capture the Stanley Cup. While the city celebrated, stadium workers hurriedly flipped the building, laying the NLL”s wooden court over the ice for the Wings game that same night. Wings players made their way through the revelers out on the streets to get to the arena. But the lacrosse team was hardly an afterthought. An announced crowd of 12,841 turned out to watch the Wings beat the Montreal Quebecois 18-11.
Philadelphia put up the best record in the NLL in 1974, finishing the regular season at 27-13. They were also the most popular box office draw, claiming just under 9,000 fans per game. Larry Lloyd (82 goals) and John Grant (78 goals) finished #3 and #4 in the league in scoring, respectively. In a mild upset, the Wings lost the best-of-seven Nations Trophy championship series to the 2nd place Rochester Griffins in September 1974.
After the 1974 inaugural season, three of the NLL’s original six franchise shifted cities and the league was unable to attract new expansion teams, despite Wings’ owner Ed Tepper’s public pronouncement in January 1975 that the league expected to add new clubs in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Indianapolis and Kansas City. Philadelphia remained as one of the league’s few stable franchises.
The team itself was a disappointment in 1975, finishing in 5th place and out of the playoffs with a 21-25-2 record. Following the season, the NLL’s Boston, Long Island and Montreal clubs lost their backers. With only the Wings, the Maryland Arrows and the Quebec Caribous prepared to continue, and no expansion prospects in sight, the National Lacrosse League folded in February 1976, almost two years to the day after its formation was first announced.
In 1987, professional box lacrosse returned to the American sports scene with the debut of Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse. Among the league’s four teams was a Philadelphia club, which chose to revive the Wings brand name. The “new” Wings still exist to this day after more than a quarter century of play. They are the longest continuously operating pro lacrosse team in American history. One player – John Grant Sr. – returned from the original Wings of the 1970′s to see action for the new Wings. In later years, his son John Grant Jr. would also come to star for the Wings.
Owners: James Herscot, William H. Brine, Jr., Peter Brine.
The Boston Bolts were a professional box (indoor) lacrosse team that played for one season at the Boston Garden in the summer of 1975. The Bolts were members of the National Lacrosse League (1974-1975). The franchise started out as the Toronto Tomahawks in 1974, but the club drew poorly at Maple Leaf Gardens and was sold and relocated to Boston prior to the NLL’s second and final season.
Lowell, Massachusetts businessman James Herscot was the front man for the ownership group that brought the franchise in from Toronto. Midway through the 1975 season, there was a management upheaval and Herscot was pushed out, replaced by brothers William and Peter Brine of the W.H. Brine sporting goods company, a prominent maker of lacrosse equipment.
The Bolts debut match at the Boston Garden on April 28, 1975 drew an announced crowd of 8,724 to watch the Bolts play the Long Island Tomahawks. The sport of box lacrosse and its environs would have been unfamiliar to most of those in attendance that night. The teams played on a hardwood surface laid over an ice rink and surrounded by hockey board. (Today the sport is played on synthetic carpet, just like indoor soccer and Arena Football). The Bolts and their opponents, the Long Island Tomahawks, delivered on the high scoring, hard-hitting action promised by NLL promoters. But the Tomahawks spoiled the Bolts’ debut, hanging a 19-17 overtime loss on the Bostonians.
NLL teams planned an intense 56-game schedule (later scaled back to 48) and the summer time games in the old Boston Garden were particularly grueling, since the building had no air conditioning. The average NLL player earned about $10,000 during the 1975 season, according to this 1975 Sports Illustrated feature on the league.
Bolts captain Ivan “The Terrible” Thompson finished 4th in the league in scoring with 91 goals and 116 assists in 46 games. He was named a First-Team NLL All-Star in 1975. Goaltender Ted Gernaey was named to the Second Team. The Bolts finished tied for 3rd place in the six-team NLL with a 22-24-2 record. Their season ended with a 4 games to 3 loss to the Montreal Quebecois in the playoff semi-finals.
The Bolts ownership group dissolved sometime after the 1975 season ended. The National Lacrosse League folded in February 1976, after financial troubles reduced the league to only three viable clubs in Maryland, Philadelphia and Quebec City.
This was a great find from a collector in Maryland. A championship game program from the debut season of the Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse League back in 1987.
The Eagle league was the second attempt to start a professional box lacrosse circuit in the United States. The National Lacrosse League (1974-1975) played during the summers in sweat box hockey arenas for two summers in the mid-1970′s before folding. Eagle league founders Russ Cline and Chris Fritz were promoters by trade: hard rock concerts, monster truck shows and tractor pulls. Big arena events with blue collar appeal. Box lacrosse was no different. As Sports Illustrated’s Franz Lidz put it in a feature on this 1987 championship game, Cline and Fritz marketed box lacrosse to “fans of ice hockey, pro wrestling and Rambo.”
All four of the league’s franchises advanced to the playoff series after the Eagle League’s modest six-game inaugural season. According to Lidz, Cline & Fritz were so sure that either the regular season champion New Jersey Saints (4-2) or the Philadelphia Wings (3-3) would advance to the championship, that they booked the Philadelphia Spectrum to host the title game in mid-March. When the league’s two weakest teams, the Baltimore Thunder (2-4) and Washington Wave (2-4) both advanced to the final by upset, the promoters pushed back the championship by a week and hurried to book the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland where they Wave played their home games.
An announced crowd of 7,019 turned out for the title match on Saturday, March 21, 1987. The Capital Centre didn’t own its own lacrosse carpet, so the game was played on a second-hand indoor soccer carpet purchased from the Pittsburgh Civic Arena. The carpet still bore the logo of the defunct Pittsburgh Spirit (1978-1986) of the Major Indoor Soccer League. Baltimore prevailed 11-10 in a close match, packed with crowd pleasing hard hits.
The Washington Wave lasted for three season, folding at the end of 1989. The Thunder hung onto until 1999. One franchise from that original 1987 season, the Philadelphia Wings, still plays to this day and is still owned by Russ Cline & Chris Fritz.
Love the colors and clean design of this vintage 1970′s program from the all-but-forgotten Syracuse Stingers of the indoor National Lacrosse League (1974-1975). The NLL was the first effort to establish the sport of box (indoor) lacrosse on a truly professional basis. Six teams played the inaugural season, primarily in major hockey palaces like the Philadelphia Spectrum, the Montreal Forum, and Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens in the Northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada. The two exceptions were in New York, where the Stingers and the Rochester Griffins set up shop in the downtown War Memorial arenas that had long hosted minor league hockey in these small industrial cities.
Today, the sport of box lacrosse is played on a carpeted surface, much like indoor soccer. In the NLL era in the mid-1970′s, the game was played on an unforgiving wooden floor laid down over the cement foundation of a hockey rink. NLL clubs marketed violence, much like the minor league hockey clubs of the Slap Shot era. Indeed, there was some cross over of players between the two sports. The Rochester Griffins featured Buffalo Sabres left winger Rick Dudley, moonlighting during the NHL off season. At one point during the 1974 campaign, Dudley led the NLL in penalty minutes. The Maryland Arrows franchise used Attila The Hun as a spokesperson for their radio campaign. Sports Illustrated described the marketing of the NLL as an effort to sell the sporting public on the battle of Stalingrad indoors”.
The Stingers were one of the weaker entries in the league, partly due to constant turnover in their coaching ranks. The original coach of the team was supposed to be Richie Moran, architect of the Cornell University lacrosse dynasty of the 1970′s. The Stingers introduced Moran at a March 1974 press conference and he was expected to join the team part way through the club’s 40-game schedule after the NCAA tournament concluded in late May. In the meantime, players Jim Higgs and Louis Jacques coached the Stingers on a interim basis, but this wasn’t ideal because a league rule forbade player-coaches, so Higgs and Jacques had to be de-activated in order to coach. A front office employee even coached one game. Moran, meanwhile, dropped out of the picture amidst rumors that Cornell threatened to fire him if he took the Stingers gig during summer break. Finally the team brought on Medo Martinello, a Canadian coach with a long track record who actually started the season as an NLL referee and officiated several early season Stingers games.
The Griffins turned out to be the class of the league and won the first NLL title in September 1974. But the small cities of Syracuse and Rochester couldn’t support the sport and both clubs disbanded following the 1974 campaign. The rest of the NLL followed suit a year later, folding after two seasons of play in early 1976.
The NLL was the first major effort to establish a fully professional league for the sports of box (indoor) lacrosse. The league’s six founding franchises played in major NHL arenas in Toronto, Montreal, Philadelphia and Landover, Maryland, along with American Hockey League arenas in Rochester and Syracuse, New York.
An article inside the program describes the sport to the uninitiated as “Hockey + Football + Basketball”, but the sport it most resembled was clearly ice hockey. Several NHL and minor league players moonlighted in the NHL during the summers of 1974 and 1975. Quebecois co-owner and General Manager John “Fergie” Ferguson (pictured at left in the leather jacket) was a former left winger and enforcer for the dynastic Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1960′s. Ferguson played on five Stanley Cup champion teams with the Canadiens between 1965 and his retirement in 1971.
In terms of popularity, the six team circuit ended up with haves and have-nots during the summer of 1974. The Philadelphia Wings (8,737) , the Quebecois (6,934), and the Maryland Arrows (6,689) all drew well for 20 home dates. But the Rochester Griffins (2,764), Syracuse Stingers (2,582) and the Tomahawks (2,102 in the cavernous Maple Leaf Gardens) fared poorly and all relocated to new markets for the 1975 season.
Ferguson stepped down from his posts with the Quebecois midway through the 1975 season to become Head Coach and General Manager of the NHL’s New York Rangers. The National Lacrosse League folded in March 1976 after further franchise turmoil and when it became clear that the Montreal Forum would not be available to the popular Quebecois franchise due to the 1976 Olympic Games that summer.
Future United States National Soccer Team Head Coach Bruce Arena played for the Quebecois during the 1975 season.
John Ferguson passed away after a battle with cancer in July 2007 at the age of 68.
“This is the best thing I’ve done for Chicago since drafting Michael Jordan in 1984.” - former Chicago Bulls Head Coach Kevin Loughery Sr., on bringing a National Lacrosse League expansion franchise to Chicago.
The birth of a pro sports franchise calls for a heavy dose of hyperbole and NBA veteran Loughery went all in by invoking the J-word when announcing the launch of the Chicago Shamrox in February 2006. Safe to say the feeling didn’t last long for the elder Loughery, his son Kevin Loughery Jr., the team’s managing partner, or their primary financial backer Donald Sallee. Their investment lost an estimated $6 – $7 million dollars during the team’s disastrous two-season run in the National Lacrosse League.
Sallee and his partners paid a $3 million expansion fee for the Chicago franchise in February 2006, buying in at the peak of a speculative bubble in the 20-year old box (indoor) lacrosse league. Although franchise fees had escalated from $500,000 to $3 million over the previous six years, the Shamrox entered a league that had yet to solve the problem that had sunk countless pro sports start-ups: how to break even as a tenant in someone else’s building. Labor strife also loomed on the horizon, with the league’s collective bargaining agreement due to expire shortly after the Shamrox’ inaugural season in 2007.
The Shamrox set up shop at the brand new $62 million Sears Centre in suburban Hoffman Estates, Illinois. The 11,000 seat building opened in October 2006 and was already troubled by the time the Shamrox debuted in January 2007. Ryans Cos., the arena operator, was a Minnesota-based property developer that had no previous experience managing venues. They signed up a menagerie of doomed sports franchises from cut rate leagues to fill dates. In addition to the Shamrox, the logjam of tenants included the Chicago Hounds of the United Hockey League, the Chicago Storm of the Major Indoor Soccer League and the Chicago Slaughter of the Continental Indoor Football League. The Hounds had to cancel their inaugural game when Ryan Cos. officials failed to prepare the ice surface or install safety glass in time for the game. 4,000 stupefied hockey fans were sent home after watching hapless arena employees blast the gloppy ice rink with garden hoses and fire extinguishers for two hours in a novel (and fruitless) approach to ice making.
The Shamrox debut on January 6th, 2007 went much, much better. The Shamrox defeated another NLL expansion club, the New York Titans, 15-12 in the inaugural game for both clubs. A Sears Centre record crowd of 8,456 turned out for the game, which was televised nationally on the NLL’s cable package with the Versus Network.
After a 2-0 start, the 2007 Shamrox finished the season 6-10 and did not qualify for the playoffs under Head Coach Jamie Batley. Attendance was disappointing and the opening night numbers turned out to be a peak. A screwy schedule offered no help the Shamrox ticket sales department. After the thrilling opener, the team spent over a month on the road before returning for the team’s second home game. At the conclusion of the season, the Shamrox’ final four home games – half of their entire 2007 home slate – were crammed into a 21-day stretch. The Shamrox averaged 6,025 fans over eight home matches – far short of the NLL’s purported league average of nearly 11,000.
According to a lawsuit against the National Lacrosse League in April 2009 (later withdrawn), Shamrox ownership realized they had bought a lemon almost immediately. The team’s 2007 inaugural season was characterized as “a financial disaster”. As early as August 2007, according to court documents, the Shamrox owners were desperate to sell but allegedly encountered obstructions from the league office.
Meanwhile, the National Lacrosse League was mired in a chaotic offseason. On October 16, 2007, the National Lacrosse League announced the cancellation of the 2008 season due to an impasse with the Professional Lacrosse Players Association over a new collective bargaining agreement. Under the previous CBA, salaries average $14,500 across the league, with a $6,800/year rookie minimum and a $25,552 ceiling for up to two “franchise” players. At the time, most NLL players held jobs during the week, practiced one night a week, and played in the league on weekends. 70% of all NLL players were Canadian, so the Shamrox actually held their Wednesday night training sessions in Ontario and then flew players to league cities for matches.
The 2008 season remained cancelled for nine days, but the sides continued to negotiate. On October 25, 2007 they reached agreement and the season was back on. But the nine-day shutdown cost the league two franchises. The expansion Boston Blazers delayed their start for a year until 2009. The Arizona Sting also suspended operations for a year, which later became a permanent shutdown.
With ownership still desperate to unload the club, the Shamrox opened their second season in January 2008. It was largely a carbon copy of the first. The team once again finished 6-10 and out of the playoffs with Jamie Batley as Head Coach. 2008 attendance dipped nearly 20% to an average of 4,964.
In the spring of 2008, the league introduced the Shamrox owners to investors from Sports Capital Partners (SCP), owners of the St. Louis Blues of the NHL and Real Salt Lake of Major League Soccer. Shamrox investors put together a sale agreement with SCP that would have moved the club to St. Louis at a “fire sale” price, as characterized by Shamrox owner Donald Sallee in the 2009 lawsuit. The league rejected the transfer application, killing the sale.
As the 2009 season approach, the nearly insolvent Shamrox owners were still stuck with the club. On December 5th, 2008 Shamrox officials notified the league that a shutdown was imminent, barring some unforeseen miracle. The league responded with a directive the Shamrox officials sell the franchise within 120 days, pursuant to the league’s constitution, or else lose all rights to their league membership.
The Shamrox formally shut down on December 11th, 2008, just fifteen days before the start of the 2009 NLL season. The league hurried to conduct a dispersal draft and rework the league schedule. The news came as a shock to NLL fans, who had little awareness of Chicago’s franchise turmoil. The clock was now ticking on Shamrox ownership to recoup some portion of their massive financial loss through a sale before the April 7th, 2009 termination deadline. Soon, it appeared they had a willing buyer.
Steve Donner and Curt Styers headed Orlando Sports Partners, LLC. Donner was a long-time sports investor and former NLL owner. Earlier in 2008 he sold his small market Rochester Knighthawks NLL franchise to Styres for an astonishing $5.6 million, a nearly 100% premium over the previous record price for the league. Donner’s group offered $1.5 million for the Shamrox with a plan to relocate the team to Orlando. At this point, Donald Sallee alleged in his lawsuit, the league interfered in the sale, telling Donner that the league would not approve the sale. Allegedly, the league then offered Donner an Orlando expansion franchise for the price of $5 million.
With the St. Louis and Orlando deals torpedoed, the April termination deadline arrived with no resolution. Sallee filed suit against the league on April 7th, 2009, as referenced above, on grounds of anti-trust violations, tortious interference, breach of contract and fraud. Although the suit was voluntarily withdrawn two weeks later, it’s worth noting that the suspended Arizona Sting franchise also sued the NLL just ten days earlier for interfering in their own attempted $1.5 million sale to Donner’s Orlando group. After Sallee withdrew the suit, the franchise was formally terminated in the spring of 2009.
“It was a complete mess from the beginning,” former Shamrox President Phil Ryan told Yates. “The Shamrox just bled money.”
Ryan noted that the team only had 250 season ticket holders heading into the 2009 season and pegged the Shamrox’ two-year losses at $6 million to $7 million. As of December 2009, a full year after the shutdown, fans were still waiting for their refunds.
The Shamrox may have died, but they were outlived by their dance team, the Hot Rox, who continued to perform for several years at Chicago Fire soccer and Chicago White Sox baseball games, in addition to overseas tours to support American troops.
The Shamrox’ home debut at the Sears Centre against the New York Titans on January 6, 2007.