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Saturday, February 5, 2005
Updated: February 7, 3:50 PM ET
Lacrosse has increased attendance

Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Though the NHL lockout has left dozens of arenas across North America dark on most nights, not all of them are lacking for events during the long labor stoppage.

The National Lacrosse League, which boasts 10 healthy franchises, plenty of scoring and some pretty serious fights, is trying to capitalize on pro hockey's hiatus and continue to grow interest in this relatively obscure game.

Without Wild games this winter at the Xcel Energy Center in Minnesota, the NLL's Swarm have set up shop and plopped their green artificial turf on top of the ice.

While a swirling snowstorm limited the actual crowd to 5,884, the Swarm sold 13,198 tickets to their regular-season home opener two weeks ago. And many patrons have been pleasantly surprised by a sport they knew next-to-nothing about.

"It was a good atmosphere. It was fun to watch. It was so similar to hockey, it was amazing," said Jim Daeffler, also a Wild season-ticket holder. "As a fan, the Wild situation we don't have any control over. I'm fairly positive the season is lost. Maybe even next year might be a problem. If they did come back next year, I would continue to keep my tickets for the Swarm as well as the Wild. It's one of those things that I thought would fill the void, and it's turned out to fill more than the void."

That's what the NLL wants to hear.

"Our season-ticket base is up 20 percent league-wide, and we think that's a direct result of the lockout," commissioner Jim Jennings said.

A sustained absence of hockey doesn't help, because missed games are missed opportunities to cross-promote lacrosse. (The Rochester Knighthawks are the only team that doesn't play in an NHL arena. Most clubs, including the Swarm, are owned and operated by the NHL franchises in town.)

But this is clearly the NLL's big chance to reach more casual fans with one less sport on their radar. Through one-fifth of its 80-game schedule, the league was averaging 10,205 customers per game -- up from 7,808 in 2002. The All-Star game will be shown live on NBC on Feb. 26, a first for the sport.

"That's something we've been looking for for a long time, to get on network TV," Jennings said.

Toronto, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Anaheim, Arizona, Colorado, San Jose and Calgary comprise the rest of the league, which envisions expansion to 16 franchises in coming years. It began in 1986 with four teams as the Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse League and gradually grew, with a couple name changes and several franchise shifts, into today's NLL.

As with the NHL, each club carries 23 players. They dress 16 runners (instead of skaters) and two goalies, with six on the floor at once including the man minding the net. Games consist of four 15-minute quarters. Line changes, checking, power plays -- they're all prevalent parts of indoor lacrosse.

The biggest difference, other than the high final scores, is that the ball moves between small nets at the end of players' sticks, as opposed to the way a puck is whacked around the ice. Oh, and a 30-second shot clock keeps teams from stalling.

"It's a game that you can fall in love with really easy," said Swarm coach Mike Simpson, a longtime lacrosse player in British Columbia who currently spends the rest of his time fighting fires in Victoria.

After the Swarm dropped a 15-10 decision to the Buffalo Bandits, Simpson was dissecting the game for some of the undereducated locals.

"We lost, but there's 25 goals with lots of contact," Simpson said. "What's not to like?"

The league's average salary is $12,500, Jennings said, which isn't a bad wage for a part-time job. Most games are on Fridays, and players rejoin the team the day before for practice. During most weeks, they're busy as personal trainers, landscapers, salesmen and construction workers.

On the weekends, they're doing what they really love.

"In Canada, that's what we did," said Neil Doddridge, the NLL's all-time leader in penalty minutes who once played the sport with NHL star Brendan Shanahan. "Lacrosse is a great cross-trainer for hockey."

Added teammate Ryan Cousins: "I think every guy on the team has a pair of skates."

At the Swarm's home opener, fireworks erupted after "The Star-Spangled Banner." Hard rock and heavy metal dominated the deejay's play list, and dancing girls emerged between periods to entertain -- apparently one advantage of covering up the ice.

And sure enough, less than two minutes into the game, Swarm forward Sean Pollock was after Buffalo defenseman Kyle Couling. Helmets tossed aside and fists flying, they sparred for several seconds as fans cheered and clapped their inflatable noisemaking sticks before officials stepped in to break it up.

"It's part of the game," Simpson said. "When it's over, it's over. We don't want to promote that sort of stuff, but they get it out of their system and we move on."

Doddridge had a finger fused together after getting it stuck in an opponent's facemask during a fight a few years ago. And without any padding below the waist, players are more vulnerable to injury.

"Every game you're walking away with bruises or you're bleeding or you split your face open or your leg open," Cousins said. "It's just the nature of the game, pretty much. Everyone's always banging each other, hitting each other. Get your nose dirty. That's the way you play."