No matter what the temperature is outside, the ice will melt at Ted Reeve Arena this week and clear the floor for lacrosse.
It’s Canada’s summer sport, and on this side of town no one plays it better than the Toronto Beaches.
The Junior A team signs players from all over the city and Ontario. Some go on to play pro in the National Lacrosse League, others find lacrosse scholarships waiting at a US college or a Canadian university.
Merrick Thomson, the Beaches’ new head coach, did both. He set a league-topping 3.38 goals per game at the University of Albany, had two standout seasons on the Philadelphia Wings, even made Canada’s field team.
“It was amazing for me,” he said. “Everything you see on TV is pretty much the real deal.”
Thomson said playing in the NLL is a bonus, but not a living. It may be the fasting growing US sport, but salaries in pro lacrosse are still a world apart from pro baseball, and even hockey.
“The biggest thing is to get down to the NCAA, I believe, to play college lacrosse,” said Thomson, adding that more and more Canadians are finding lacrosse scholarships down south.
That’s great for players, but can be tough on Ontario’s Junior A league, the strongest talent pool in Canada.
This year, a full dozen players on the Toronto Beaches’ roster are still away finishing the NCAA season. It may be five or six games before Thomson has a full bench.
“Everyone’s dealing with it, and you just have to work through it,” he said.
Last year, Thomson was assistant coach to Bruce Codd, the former Toronto Rock player who led the Beaches to just three points shy of a playoff spot.
As soon as the Beaches’ season kicks off May 9, Thomson said he will be leading the fight to close that gap.
“We want to bring more respect and pride back to this organization,” he said.
Top teams like Whitby, Orangeville and Six Nations are fed by strong minor leagues, where most players grow up splitting their sports year between hockey and lacrosse.
The Beach has a long lacrosse history, great fields at nearby Cherry Beach, and lots of potential in its minor teams, said Thomson.
“If we can just string together some Ws, some wins, I really think this place will come alive,” he said. “But that starts with us, and with me and how I get these guys ready.”
Thomson said he’s got lots of talent to worth with – the Beaches have a lot more depth because of recent draft picks, and serious young athletes who can play up-tempo all game.
Besides building on Codd’s efforts to make the Beaches playoff contenders, Thomson brings a hard-won lesson from his NLL years.
It was a concussion that forced Thomson to retire from the Wings and Team Canada. Head trauma is epidemic in sport, he said, and while people are learning more about it, Thomson said physical games like lacrosse and hockey will always carry risk.
“I think there are a lot less dirty hits, but kids are getting bigger, stronger, faster, and it’s small quarters. It’s going to happen.”
Thomson tells players to appreciate every practice, season game, and playoff game they play.
“The game is special, and it can give you a lot, but it can also be taken away from you,” he said. “You’ve got to make it count.”