A pair of professional lacrosse teams are making a bit of history in southern Ontario arenas this year.
The Ohsweken Demons and Iroquois Ironmen are both competing in the inaugural season of the Canadian Lacrosse League, or CLax as the circuit is being simply dubbed.
Both the Demons and Ironmen feature rosters filled only with Aboriginal players. This is the first time any pro sports franchise in North America has featured only Native athletes.
“I guess it’s a unique situation for sure,” said Vince Hill, who serves as the director of operations for both squads.
Both the Demons and Ironmen play their home contests out of the same Six Nations facility, the Iroquois Lacrosse Arena. They are not the only two clubs in the league that share a home rink. The Durham Turfdogs and Oshawa Machine play out of the General Motors Centre in Oshawa. And the Brampton Inferno and Peel Avengers both call the Powerade Centre in Brampton their home.
CLax, however, has had some growing pains. League officials had predicted an average of a couple of thousand fans would be showing up for their games.
But that hasn’t been the case. The two Native sides have been averaging about 400 spectators for their contests. Games in Oshawa are slightly better attended, with 600-700 fans showing up most nights. Matches in Brampton typically only draw 200-250 people.
“It’s not as high as I expected the league (officials) wanted,” Hill said.
But he’s not entirely surprised.
“Realistically, no not at the start,” Hill said when asked if he thought CLax attendance figures would be considerably higher. “But I think we’ll draw more in the future. If you sat back and look at it, it will take a bit of time to get the crowds out. That’s because it’s run during hockey season. You’re competing against Junior A hockey teams and even the pros (for fans).”
The CLax season, which runs from January through April, is also run at the same time as the established National Lacrosse League (NLL), which features nine franchises in Canada and the United States.
Hill said some wondered how the Demons and Ironmen would fare in the circuit by having just Native athletes.
“The question at the start was whether we had enough talent to compete at a pro level,” he said. “So far we’ve been holding our own.”
The Demons won six of their first 10 games and were tied for second place in the standings with the 6-5 Turfdogs, who had played an extra game. The Ironmen, who had played the fewest games in the league (9) had a 4-5 mark and were in fifth spot. Following a 14-game regular season schedule, the top four finishers advance to the CLax playoffs.
Marty Staats, who coaches the Ironmen, said he was not the least bit concerned when it was revealed his team and the Demons would field all-Aboriginal rosters.
“I know there’s enough good lacrosse players out there to be good,” he said.
Staats said he’s also thrilled to be involved with the league in its first season. And especially with a squad with just Native players.
“I definitely feel like a part of history,” he said. “It’s been mentioned in practices of how we’re being a part of history.”
Hill is hoping to see the Demons and Ironmen square off in the CLax championship final.
“That was our goal when we started,” he said. “It would be nice if it happened. We’ll have to see how things sort out.”
Some may wonder how Hill can be the director of operations for a pair of squads. But he’s not the only individual in the league doing so. The Turfdogs and Machine have the same director of operations, Steve Toll. And Ron Evans holds the same title for both the Inferno and Avengers. Hill has already made four trades between the Demons and Ironmen.
“It’s not just me flipping players,” he said. “We talk to all the coaches before we make any trades. It’s worked out well so far.”
And so too has the fact that both organizations wanted to have just Native players.
“This year we wanted to see how we would do,” Hill said. “We’ll reassess it at the end of the year. But at this point I can’t see us (adding non-Aboriginal players). For us, there’s four other teams (non-Aboriginals) can play with. We’d be denying our own people a chance to play.”
Want to help support these two historic teams? Spread the word, check out their websites (The Ironmen’s site is here, the Demons’s site is here) — if you’ve got a Twitter or a Facebook page, let your friends know.
Want to see some action? Here’s a video of the Demons playing the Brampton Inferno: