Why Did So Many Pro Hockey Players Play Lacrosse?

It was the perfect time to ask Walter Gretzky a question I’d always wondered about. 

How important was lacrosse when it came to his son’s journey to become the NHL’s all-time leading scorer and the player most consider the greatest to ever lace up a pair of skates?

It was back in the early 2000s and the country’s most cherished hockey parent, the man who made the backyard rink mainstream, was in Calgary at the Saddledome to perform the ceremonial ball drop prior to a National Lacrosse League tilt for the hometown Roughnecks.

I was there to cover the game for the Calgary Sun and jumped at the chance to have a pre-game chat with the Great One’s dad.   

Down in the bowels of the ’Dome, we sat down on a pair of metal folding chairs and I posed the question.

“It sure helped Wayne,” he answered. “Because in lacrosse, you learn how to fake and he used those same fakes, or moves, in hockey. It sure helped him, no doubt about that.

“Knowing the different moves, dropping his shoulder and such like you have to do in lacrosse …, really helped him.”

Walter coached his son in lacrosse, as he famously did in hockey.

He fell in love with the sport, he said, just like Wayne. 

“It’s one of the oldest sports in the Canada but it’s not one of the biggest sports (in popularity),” said Walter, who passed away in March of 2021. “But it sure is a great sport, a lot of fun to watch.”

There’s no doubt the sport left an indelible impression on the Great One, who recently joined an ownership group consisting of his future son-in-law and pro golfer Dustin Johnson, Canadian basketball legend Steve Nash, and billionaire Joe Tsai to bring a National Lacrosse League franchise to Las Vegas.

Over the years, lacrosse and hockey have gone together like doughnuts and a double-double in certain regions of Canada.

Plenty of notable national sports stars took part in both games.

Way back in the day, it was fellas such as Newsy Lalonde, Jack Bionda and Lionel Conacher (Google these gents if you’re too young).

Then came Gretzky, Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk, Joe Sakic, Brendan Shanahan, Doug Gilmour, Adam Oates and Mike Gartner.

These days, it’s Steve Stamkos, Jonathan Toews, Sean Monahan and John Tavares (whose namesake uncle is the all-time leader scorer in NLL history ), to name but a few.

“For me, it was always hockey in the winter, lacrosse in the summer,” said Monahan, who grew up playing lacrosse in Brampton. “The two really work together really well.

“In lacrosse you learn to protect yourself from getting hit, rolling off checks, making moves and stuff like that. Obviously you’re catching the ball and passing, so hand-eye co-ordination goes a long way.

“I think hockey and lacrosse are two sports that complement each other well.”

The similarities between the sports are front and centre: Both are played five-on-five with two goalies in nets at each end, the game taking part on a hockey arena floor or outdoor box, with all the players carrying sticks and wearing helmets.

However, some will say that box lacrosse actually has more in common with basketball than hockey. 

To a certain extent, that’s true. First off, you’re running in shoes and not skating, and offensive sets consist of picks and screens in a structure with set plays, all designed to try and produce odd-man situations on offence.  The two-man game, as it’s called, is all about picks to create 2-on-1s. On the other side of the ball, switches and slides by defensive players are an orchestrated dance meant to try and stymy the offensive attack.

At the end of the day, it’s both the similarities and differences that make it a perfect summer sport for hockey players.

There is a great focus these days on kids playing multiple sports for myriad reasons, including but not limited to: Staving off the boredom that can come with early specialization, avoiding repetitive-stress injuries by having the body do different activities, having kids face a new challenge and broaden their horizons, and becoming a better overall athlete to help them excel in their primary sport, which is often hockey here in this country.

Lacrosse checks off all the boxes.

“It’s such a great sport,” said Monahan, who currently plays for the Calgary Flames. “I played it growing up and loved it. It’s my favourite sport to watch.

“You don’t realize how much goes into the game to play it. It’s aggressive and skilled – it’s a real treat to watch.”