In a sultry summer evening, there’s no place Rip Harrison would rather be than the Essex Skating Facility. Sure, he could be out swimming in the lake, cycling on the bike path or, better yet, tossing back some cold ones at a local watering hole. But instead, the 27-year-old is covered in padding from the waist up, sweating his sweet one off while equally sodden fellows try to knock the stuffing out of him. Welcome to indoor lacrosse, known as “box lacrosse” because it’s played on the concrete floor of a dry ice rink.
Harrison, a 2004 University of Vermont grad, is one of nearly two dozen men on the Vermont Voyageurs, a new semi-professional box lacrosse team that began its inaugural campaign this year. Brainchild of local lacrosse enthusiast and coach Jeff Culkin, the team is made up of players whose experience ranges from local clubs to the professional ranks of Major League Lacrosse. Since they come from all around northern New England and southern Québec, biweekly practices can be sparsely attended, but everyone turns out for the games.
In the interest of full disclosure, this writer is all about lacrosse. If there’s a stick with a net attached to it, I’m into it, unless it’s for catching butterflies. I was in sixth grade when I began playing the “Creator’s Game,” as it is known by the Iroquois who invented the sport hundreds of years ago. Granted, I was only playing catch with my neighbor, Harry, but it was enough to pique my interest and get me hooked on the sport for life. I played lacrosse — the women’s version, without the pads and the brutality — throughout high school and college. When I couldn’t keep up with the young’uns anymore, I began coaching. Today, I am just a fair-weather spectator, which is why the Vermont Voyageurs caught my attention.
In a state dominated by cold-weather sports, the Voyageurs are a novelty. Vermont has professional baseball and basketball teams as well as top-flight collegiate ice hockey programs and a semi-pro football team, but there’s never been much lacrosse to watch; it has always taken a backseat to more traditional sports. But with the Voyageurs comes an opportunity for hard-core enthusiasts to sate their passion for the game, as well as for lacrosse newbies to observe what’s known as the fastest game on two feet. During the Burlington International Waterfront Festival in July, the team played two exhibition games against the U.S. Developmental Team in front of sizeable crowds and split the series evenly.
Lacrosse has a long and storied history in the First Nations communities of southeastern Canada and the northeastern United States. Amongst the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy, the sport is considered medicinal, a way of healing tribes and bringing honor to nations. It is believed that the game was given to native peoples by the Creator and should thus be respected for its spiritual component. The warrior men who played the game were often some of the most important figures in their communities.
Box originated in Canada in the 1930s as a way to generate business for ice hockey arenas during the summer. Over the years, the sport’s popularity grew and it became the preferred form of the game on Iroquois reservations around Canada and New York. Rez teams such as the Kahnawake Mohawks, the Caughnawaga Indians and Akwesasne Thunderbird represent formidable competition for nonindigenous teams like the Voyageurs.
The sport of box lacrosse is the gritty, more rough-and-tumble cousin of the field sport. In field lacrosse, 12-a-side games are played on pitches 110 yards long. The game is so fast, it’s hard to keep track of the tiny, white ball. The teams are composed of attackmen, face-off players and long-pole defenders, whose sticks are up to 72 inches long. In box, each team fields six players, and defenders, attackmen and transition players rotate into the game on the fly, much like they do in ice hockey. Rotations last no longer than a minute. Because it’s inside a “box,” the indoor game isn’t as fast, but it’s as hard-hitting as the field version, if not more so. As in ice hockey, fans wait for the moment when a player bashes another into the boards.
Rip Harrison, who serves as an assistant coach of the boys’ lacrosse team at Rice Memorial High School, is the Voyageurs’ de facto team leader. He views the team’s development as an opportunity to resurrect his own career. A few years ago, Harrison was drafted to the Chicago Machine, a professional team in Major League Lacrosse. Shortly after, he destroyed his knee and his pro dreams were dashed. He had never played box before this year, but sees it as a good fit. “It’s been a ton of fun. But it’s a huge learning curve,” Harrison says.
Teammate Doug Moses, who played with Harrison at UVM, was also fairly new to box when the Voyageurs formed. He played the game with Voyageurs teammate Andy Thomas in Prague a few years ago and caught the bug. “It was really fast and competitive, and the skill level was really high,” Moses says.
During a recent practice in Essex, about a dozen youngish guys warm up on the dry rink. Their sneakers squeak and slide on the concrete as they begin a practice drill, winging the compressed rubber ball from one corner of the rink to another. Every so often, a Voyageur drops a pass and the ball goes bouncing away. “Come on, guys. Keep it sharp,” one of the helmeted players yells to his teammates.
At this practice, Chad Fairfoull, a veteran lacrosse coach from Québec, treats the guys to a tutorial in box lacrosse. Under a purple Iroquois Nation flag hanging from the ceiling, Fairfoull gathers his charges together to give them some tips. “Box lacrosse, to me, is like NASCAR racing. It’s full throttle all the time,” he says, trying to pump up the players. The pep talk works and the team members pick up the pace. Many wear extra arm shields to protect them from wrap checks.
During a five-on-five drill, players practice an intricate pick-and-roll routine. One player feeds the ball into the choreographed fray while his teammates set picks on the defenders. Ideally, another offensive player will pop out for the ball, receive the pass and take a shot. Even when the men are getting the drill right, it’s nearly impossible to get a shot past the goalie, who is suited up to look like the Stay-Puft marshmallow man. With 90-mile-per hour shots coming at close range, the goalie can’t afford to take any chances. A lacrosse ball on unprotected skin can do extreme damage.
As the practice continues, the box begins to take on the gamey aroma of sweaty gloves and pads. The weekday warriors show signs of fatigue. One player skips a shot past the goal cage and yells, “Fuck!” and slams his stick to the ground. Another vomits all over the bench. “It’s not a practice unless someone vomits,” the jocular Fairfoull quips. “That’s how I look at it.”
Culkin is pleased with his team’s performance so far, especially since it’s the first season they’ve played together. They have “exceeded expectations,” he says. While it’s doubtful box will ever achieve the level of popularity in Vermont that it enjoys in Canada — where box lacrosse players are revered on native reservations — Culkin is hopeful his team will draw crowds. And if not, there’s always ice hockey.