Friday, January 9, 2009
Updated: January 12, 1:19 PM ET
Blazers are back in style
By Peter Lasagna
Martin Scorsese might open with a long panoramic interior shot of TD Banknorth Garden. Bird. Orr. Fay. The worshipped banners.
Time-lapse motion cuts of the overflow crowd filling section after section. Gary Glitter's driving anthem cascades through the rafters with unison echoes on the "HEY!" The pretty people of a prizefight mix with Bruins hockey jerseys and towheads. The camera pulls wide, scanning along the upper-tiered luxury boxes and slowly zooming in on an opulent VIP table of animated, successful men.
Sure, the years have rounded a few hard edges, but the tailored suits clearly cover the frames of athletes. Some look like they could pull on the spandex tonight and chase New York's Titans around the Garden floor. Even before the movie mic picks up a piece of dialogue, their eyes and gestures exude affection and history.
Tales of Talmo's Tiger outfits and Dan O's stewardess etiquette evoke choking explosions of laughter. They've shared pro indoor lacrosse life together, connected by the New England and first Boston Blazers from 1989-1997.
Opening night of the 2009 Blazers takes them back.
Still-visible scars revive colorful stories of Bulls, Turbos and car show models. As twentysomethings, they barnstormed MILL arenas and predawn flights. They absorbed legal cross-checks to the back of their Jofa helmets for $75 a game, drawing first curious, then obsessed, fans to the Worcester Centrum in 1989.
They confounded the MILL owners' best-laid plans, winning the regular-season title and hosting the 1990 World Championship. These New England collegians created a uniquely Americanized brand of Canada's national sport, generating enough interest to move uptown to the hallowed Garden in '92.
Forget Wikipedia saying today's first-year NLL franchise "is not associated with the former Boston Blazers." Indeed, a generational tie appears on the bench where past Blazers standouts Tom Ryan, Randy Fraser and Todd Francis mold the new kids. This distinction between MILL old and NLL new may be legally accurate, but the original green-and-orange-clad Gatorade bottle warriors are vitally linked to the contemporary incarnation of red, black and white.
Retaining the original name has been a vital issue to these indoor veterans since the Bay State NLL team ceased operations in 1997, each rumor of return rekindling a united commitment to keep the brand.
Professional Lacrosse Players' Association president and former Blazers captain Peter Schmitz says, "We all voted 50 times to maintain the Blazers name. The first three reasons? Ego, ego [and] ego."
The other, deeper motivation was continuing the legacy of the MILL days.
"The identities of the truly original NLL teams from 1974-75 have been lost," Schmitz says. "Now saying you were a former pro lax player for the Blazers brings immediate recognition. We're proud. Even if we wore bike shorts, got two pairs of sneakers and played for Coors Light tickets."
Schmitz's legacy (51 points over five seasons) also includes forging a players' union against the wishes of league owners. He fought constant obstacles so he and his peers could be valued as something more significant than a break between circus acts, his courage allowing today's pros to be compensated for their talents. He handled Teamsters in leather maxi coats as deftly as he fed Walt Cataldo coming out of the box.
A look back allows Toby Boucher to examine just how far pro lacrosse has come.
"When we played it was the only paid avenue, the first chance to play in front of 18,000 insane Philly fans," he says, describing the essence of that old Blazers treasure. "The MILL/NLL was our game. We played for the 'soul' of the sport, a great time with buddies, free airplane trips. We also wanted to show we could compete and learn how to succeed at the Canadian game."
The 1988 NCAA DIII Midfielder of the Year (Ohio Wesleyan) and Ohio Lacrosse Hall of Fame inductee (2007) also believes regional pride played a huge role in fixing the Blazers' place firmly in his teammates' lives.
"New England lacrosse got no respect," Boucher explains. "Most of the Blazers played for Brine [in the summer]. We played in three championships -- one indoor and two club -- and were never the brides."
The brothers of the Blazers bond played together, trained together and traveled together all year long.
"The new Blazers matter because New England Lacrosse needs them," he says. "Every one of us wanted them to come back and will be rooting hard."
Reflecting 14 years later from San Diego, Boucher wishes he'd played longer.
"You don't realize how much you miss the camaraderie, the roar of the crowds," says the former Blazer with 73 career points. "No one asks me to appear at rock concerts, beauty pageants, radio spots. I laugh to myself now that [signing autographs] started to be a pain. How funny is that?"
Daughter Caroline plays at Torrey Pines High School (San Diego) and has no idea how baggy Lycra looked on her pop's chicken legs. Toby swears his 10-year-old son Tucker wasn't named after former Philadelphia Wings nemesis John Tucker.
The camera pulls back from the dashing men in the luxury suits. Houselights dim. Over the PA, a man asks if the crowd is "reeeaaddy to rrrrrrummmble!"
The graying Blazers instinctively rise to the ready, prepared for faceoff. Blazers icon Jon Fay was once the most dynamic performer in the league; he's still among the most fit athletes in the arena. He turns to Peter Schmitz: "We were really the lunch-pail gang. No stars. No egos. Just playing the game, living the dream."
Gary Glitter pounds. The Garden shakes. The Blazers are back.
Peter Lasagna is a columnist for Inside Lacrosse Magazine and the head coach at DIII Bates University in Maine.