CANADIAN COACHING TRIO BEHIND FINLAND’S GROWING BOX LACROSSE PROGRAM
Canadian Lacrosse Association – TURKU, FINLAND – As Finland begins to play host today to the first ever European Box Lacrosse Championships (EBLC), it owes the development of its fledgling national team program to a trio of Canadian coaches who are committed to giving back to the game by helping it grow on the far side of the world.
The Gatorade and Maarli Arenas in Turku will see 14 teams competing over eight days to become the first European champions of indoor lacrosse. Finland believes its decision to bring Tracey Kelusky, Devan Wray and Neil Doddridge over as coaches while maintaining a commitment to developing its homegrown talent gives it a shot at winning that first ever title. More importantly, Finland believes that approach will pay the biggest dividends in the long run.
Finland made its choice of how to run a national box lacrosse program in advance of the 2015 World Indoor Lacrosse Championships in the Onondaga Nation in upstate New York. Finland General Manager Matti Tahkapaa talked to some Alberta players at the Ales Hrebesky Memorial tournament in Prague, Czech Republic in April of 2014. That led to a connection with Alberta’s Wray and him becoming Finland’s head coach.
Wray brought in Ontario’s Tracey Kelusky and British Columbia’s Neil Doddridge to help Finland follow a blueprint that diverged from that of several other countries that were also trying to develop national team programs. Rather than relying on an influx of Canadian (or American) players with heritage from the country to help its players learn, Finland decided to regularly bring its coaches over while relying on players actually from Finland to learn how to play indoors.
“That was always our intention, to develop local Finland guys and create a grassroots program that will continually feed our national program. There’s a box league in Finland and it’s starting to become more and more popular,” says National Lacrosse League Hall of Famer Kelusky, who took over the head coaching reins this year when Wray needed to step aside for the time being because of the time commitment. “We’re not going to look to Canadian guys who are third generation or fourth generation or whatever. Our goal is to develop the guys we have here.”
One of the keys to doing so is to be in the country. Kelusky and the other coaches have made the trip of over 6,000 kilometres regularly. “In the course of the past couple of years, probably eight or nine times,” Kelusky estimates of his own frequent flying. “The vision was that we’d come over four times a year, host mini training camps, be here for four or five days and put the guys through their paces.”
That vision is paying off. Finland finished ninth in Onondaga, behind eight countries that mostly have substantially longer box lacrosse histories than it does and enters the Euros among the medal favourites. Again, though, the real goal isn’t a medal here in Turku. It is long-term growth and competitiveness as a box lacrosse country.
That requires more than just having three dedicated coaches making the trek to teach a handful of enthusiastic and athletic players the nuances of the box game.
“The ultimate goal is we want to have a Finnish guy in place that can coach this group so that when we’re not here that they’re continuing to develop, continuing to take the next necessary steps. We’ve built this, our goal is we want to develop it no different than a Peterborough minor lacrosse,” Kelusky says, using his hometown program as an example. “We’ve got to start at the start then we’ve got to make our natural progressions.”
To that end, Kelusky, Wray and Doddridge have been helping the program’s managers in Finland to spread the gospel of box lacrosse. “One of the things we’ve done is have some of our national guys go into schools with a handful of sticks and introduce the game to young children,” Kelusky points out.
With the national team players and candidates, the task has been elementary. They really were starting from scratch with a talented group of field players who loved the indoor game but didn’t understand many of its basic concepts, let alone its nuances.
“My first taste of it a couple of years ago, it was helter skelter,” Kelusky recalls. “It was jungle ball so to speak and it didn’t really resemble box lacrosse. Slowly but surely we’ve implemented a system. We want to help grow the game but we want to develop our players so that we’re competitive moving forward.”
One development that is helping some of the top Finnish players to contribute to the growth of themselves and their teammates is having them head to Canada to play in the summer. “It’s always good when you can transplant guys into a marketplace where it’s very competitive and they can learn more and they can bring it back and share something for the other guys to aspire to. These guys are going over to Canada and playing against some of the best players in the world. Then they come back here and hopefully they’re showcasing what they’ve learned,” Kelusky explains.
With Kelusky, Wray and Doddridge being spread across the country, Finnish players have a wealth of connections in the Canadian lacrosse community to draw on and they’ve taken advantage to gain experience in various cities at the Junior A, Senior B and even Senior A levels. The poster child for this approach may well be big, athletic transition player Joakim Miller. He was granted a tryout with the Vancouver Stealth of the NLL and impressed the team’s brain trust. While he didn’t make the Stealth’s roster, he wasn’t far off.
The Finns didn’t play in Canada this summer because they didn’t want to have to leave their teams for a couple of weeks in the middle of the season to compete at the Euros, but they’ll be back. “Their commitment is first and foremost to the national program here in Finland, which is great,” Kelusky adds. “We’ll continue to place these guys as we see fit and I’m sure it’ll be sooner rather than later that we’ll see a Finnish guy playing in the NLL.”
Coaching is an important factor, but Kelusky says its the players who are really driving the success and growth of Finland’s program. “These guys love lacrosse. That passion is there. They want to play at the highest level. I’m looking forward to seeing how we fare in the European championships coming but these guys, for me it’s fun to watch because the passion is there and these guys want to aspire to something else other than paying for their club team in Finland. They want to go play in Canada summer ball or NLL or whatever.”
For his part, Kelusky says he feels like he’s getting plenty out of the experience, too. While part of their mission is to help groom coaches who can keep the program growing between Kelusky and company’s trips to Finland, he’s in no rush to hand the program over entirely.
“I mean, you’d eventually want to hand it over but to be honest with you this gig is pretty awesome from a coaching standpoint,” Kelusky says enthusiastically. “I love coaching pro [with the NLL’s New England Black Wolves] and MSL in Peterborough, but these guys are like a blank slate. It’s really enjoyable and it’s something I’m hoping to be involved with for a long time.”
For now, though, Kelusky, Doddridge and their team have a European championship to focus on. You can see them and the other 13 teams play thanks to live streaming (and archived games) provided by FanSeat.
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