The Not-so Technical Guide to the NLL

This is my annual re-release of this story. The first couple years this story’s release coincided with the beginning of the National Lacrosse League (NLL) season unfortunately last December/winter there was no lacrosse action. The welcome backs begin Friday December 3rd and much to the delight of many fans the games will be streamed on with a weekly Canadian match-up broadcast on the station.

Back in 2006 when the Edmonton Rush came to Edmonton is when I was introduced to lacrosse. The learning curve of grasping the game that honestly is “the fastest game on two feet” was steep. That’s why I wrote this piece four years ago and keep re-posting it, to help new fans through those first few games.

Being Canadian, lacrosse is obviously compared to hockey but I find it much closer to basketball so I’ll break down the game using comparisons to both sports then go over some of the more unique to the sport of lacrosse elements. The breakdown will not be done in “lawyer speak”, it will be done in the same conversational tone that many a time during a Rush game was used to explain to the people around me that were visibly confused.

Hockey Comparison

Lacrosse is similar to hockey in the sense it is 5-man units going up and down the floor but in lacrosse everyone (typically) changes at centre. Generally forwards only play offence and defencemen only play defence. So when the defence gets possession of the ball, you will see forwards from that team coming off the bench at the door closer to centre to help achieve a breakout.
You will hear the word “transition” a lot in lacrosse and it boils down to a team trying to push the ball up the floor before the other team can change players. Any defender who gets possession of the ball can charge into the opposing zone but do not be surprised if he circles back and tosses it back to a forward coming off the bench. If the “transition” player does not feel he will get a good scoring opportunity, he will give the ball to the offence in hopes that they do their job and score a goal. Think of it as trying to catch the other team on a line change. The long lead pass from the goalie is an element in every lacrosse game.
Be warned, the first few times you see the mass changes occurring at centre it can be confusing. Soon enough you will be able to predict the long outlet pass before it happens.

Basketball Comparison

Lacrosse is similar to basketball in the sense of set plays. When watching a basketball game you will often hear the terms “pick and roll” or “iso ball”. When a lacrosse player at the top of the zone (think top of the key) has the ball, he will sometimes have a teammate come up to try to set a pick to give him some room to create a shot or passing lane OR he will try to engage the defender with the hope to get around him cleanly to drive toward the net to either take a shot or draw an extra defender to him to pass it the newly open teammate.
The shot clock is also much more recognizable to basketball fans than hockey fans. In the hockey section we talked about pushing the ball up the floor and to ensure that movement the NLL has an 8-second rule to get it over centre. The pace of lacrosse is much closer to basketball than hockey.

Unique to lacrosse

During an NLL game, the music always stays on so if the DJ plays Triple H’s “Time to Play the Game” leading into the opening face-off, he will not turn it off once the face-off is won. Speaking of face-offs, quite the spectacle to behold compared to the dropping of a puck or the gentle tossing up of a ball. Face-offs only occur after goals! After a penalty, the team on the powerplay is awarded possession and the play is whistled in. Whistling the play in keeps the game flowing much smoother than stopping to do face-offs after every save. There are rare circumstances where non-goal face-offs occur but the keyword is “rare”.
While basketball has “3 in the key” and hockey has seemingly ever-changing rules about the crease, lacrosse is vigilant about protecting the painted crease. You can fly through the crease but if your shoelace touches the crease and before you score, it will be waved off.
The roughness of the sport is not cheated. In hockey a big, clean hit in open ice almost always is followed with an exchange of “why I oughta’s”.  A big, clean hit in lacrosse is just part of the action, it is not made out to be a spectacle because it truly is a part of the game. Many people are surprised at the hacking and whacking a ball carrier receives while in possession. As long as you can argue the intent is to jar the ball loose, it’s legal.
I’m still waiting on Santa to grant me my wish of the NLL returning to Edmonton. In the meantime, one roots for the Calgary Roughnecks until it is time to dislike them again.
Remember to shop local folks.

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