The Rise of Alberta Lacrosse

The Rise of Alberta Lacrosse

Duane Bratt

 February 2024

            One of the positive aspects in Canadian lacrosse has been the rise of Alberta lacrosse over the last two decades. Lacrosse restarted in the late 1960s in Alberta and over the next couple of decades it remained a small sport. Nevertheless, it was periodically able to produce good teams and good players. The Edmonton Fullers won the 1975 President’s Cup (SrB) and so did the Calgary Mountaineers in 1983. The Enoch Tomahawks won the 1980 Founder’s Cup (JrB) and the Edmonton Miners did it again in 1999. In addition, many players, because of a lack of junior/senior opportunities, left the province for great success in British Columbia. Probably the first was Dwight Maetche who left Edmonton to join the Burnaby Cablevision JrA team in 1980 and would star in the WLA and NLL for years. Many BC teams relied on Alberta imports. For example, the Richmond Outlaws went from a below .500 team to a Minto Cup appearance when a group of Calgary players led by John Kilbride, Jason Wulder, and Leo Paquin arrived in town in 1989. Similarly, the Burnaby Lakers JrA dynasty (1996-2007) relied on players such as Kaleb Toth, the Snider brothers, the Wray brothers, Jamie Shewchuck, Joe Vetere, etc.

            However, the situation is very different today. Quantitatively, participation numbers in Alberta have grown to a significant percentage in Canada. For example, in 1999, Alberta had 1, 867 box players, 81 in men’s field, and 40 in women’s field. This was approximately 7% of the players in Canada. By 2019 (last year before covid), Alberta had 9, 969 box players, 502 in men’s field, and 173 in women’s field. This was 22% of the players in Canada. Despite the major drop in numbers due to covid, in 2023 Alberta had 8, 005 players (17% of the players in Canada).

            Qualitatively, Alberta teams are winning national championships across multiple divisions. In 2023, the Edmonton Warriors won the Founder’s Cup (JrB) matching what the Calgary Shamrocks did in 2019. Team Alberta won the Carol Patterson Trophy (U22 female box title). The Edmonton Miners finished second at the President’s Cup (SrB) and the Edmonton Miners and Calgary Mountaineers were both competitive at the Minto Cup (JrA). While 2023 was an exceptional year, it was not an aberration. The Calgary Shamrocks won the Founder’s Cup in 2019, the Edmonton Miners won three straight President’s Cups 2016-2018, and the Edmonton Miners lost the Minto Cup in the third deciding game in 2022. In minor lacrosse, Team Alberta is a consistent medal winner, and the U17 male box team won back-to-back titles in 2017-2018. The quality of Alberta players is recognized by the NCAA and pros. Over the last two decades, hundreds of Albertans have played men’s and women’s field in the US. In the Fall 2023, NLL draft, 3 Alberta players went in the first round: Toron Eccleston, Bennet Smith, and Levi Anderson. Overall, there were 8 Alberta players chosen. There are over a dozen Albertans currently playing in the NLL.  

            How did this happen? Obviously, credit needs to go to many volunteers who have worked tirelessly for years building the sport. However, as a social scientist I look for systemic factors. I have identified several lacrosse-specific and demographic factors to explain the rise of Alberta lacrosse.

            First was the arrival of the professional Calgary Roughnecks. Lacrosse had seen slow, but sustained growth over the preceding years, but it exploded with the Roughnecks. Founded by Brad Bannister, who had played lacrosse in Calgary and had started the minor Okotoks Mustangs program in the late 1990s, the Roughnecks had an immediate impact on registration numbers not only in Calgary but across the province. In 2002, the last season before the Roughnecks, there were 5, 445 box players in Alberta, but this dramatically rose to 8, 003 in 2003. A 32% increase in one year! In addition, several Roughnecks players would go on to run clinics, camps, schools, and coach teams. It is tough to calculate the increase in lacrosse ability that would subsequently occur due to the efforts of Kaleb Toth, Tracey Kelusky, Brad MacArthur, Bruce Codd, and Andrew McBride.

            Second, was the creation of the Alberta JrA division within the Rocky Mountain Lacrosse League (RMLL). Due to the hard work and vision of AJ Johma and David Fehr, the Edmonton Miners and Calgary Raiders were created and started to compete for the Minto Cup in 2003. At the time - and for about another decade - it was a very controversial decision. Sadly, there were those who did not want it and tried, repeatedly, to kick Alberta out of the Minto Cup. But Alberta had important allies in Lacrosse Canada including Presidents Jim Burke (Alberta) and Joey Harris (Manitoba) as well as Dean McLeod the long-serving Ontario JrA Commissioner who truly wanted to grow the game beyond Ontario and BC. This meant that the top players in Alberta did not have to leave the province. The JrA players would become role models for minor players. Moreover, the coaching ranks in minor, junior, and senior lacrosse in Alberta would start to fill up with alumni from the RMLL JrA division.

            Third, was the emergence of second-generation lacrosse people coaching throughout the province. I have seen this growth personally. When I was coaching minor lacrosse in Calgary (1995-2001), I was a rarity because I had played lacrosse at the junior and senior ranks. Today, it is rare to find A teams that are coached by someone without a lacrosse background. Although, the B and C teams continue to struggle with non-lacrosse coaches.

            Beyond these lacrosse-specific factors, there are also demographic explanations. First, has been the increase in the population of Alberta. In 1969, Alberta had a population of 1.4 million (around 7.5% of Canada), but by 2022 it had risen to 4.5 million (around 12% of Canada). Obviously, the more people in a province, the more lacrosse players you should have. In addition, the source of that growth has been migration from other provinces. This means that Alberta has benefited from top lacrosse individuals from Ontario and BC moving and contributing to development in Alberta: Wayne Sutherland, Kelly Mitchell, Todd Lorenz, Cody Hawkins, etc.

            A second demographic change is the wealth in Alberta. Unfortunately, lacrosse has gotten expensive. Sticks are not cheap! More so for an isolated province: 10-hour bus from Vancouver, a 4-hour flight to Toronto, with little lacrosse in the US states that border it. To increase the pool of teams at the junior level, the RMLL includes teams in interior BC, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. This means that the JrA and JrB teams in Alberta have budgets much higher than their peer teams in BC and Ontario. What has saved Alberta is that it is the richest province per capita in the country. In 2022, per capita GDP was $101, 000 in Alberta, second was Saskatchewan at $97, 000. This far surpasses the other big lacrosse provinces of Ontario ($69, 000) and BC ($73, 000). In an analysis of Olympic medals, the top factors are population and per capita GDP; same thing with lacrosse in Canada.

            The rise of Alberta lacrosse is a great news story nationally and provincially. However, explaining its rise is not often understood – even by people in Alberta. Hopefully, this article is a modest contribution to that discussion.