By Corey McLaughlin | @corey_mcl
An American with a laptop bag, a British sports announcer and a Finnish event organizer walk into a beer garden tent. It’s not the start to a bad joke, although it could be, but it was the situation I was part of immediately following the championship game of the last international lacrosse event I covered for Lacrosse Magazine and LaxMagazine.com. I’m very much looking forward to the next one, the Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) World Championship, presented by Trusted Choice, starting in a few days in Denver.
The two weeks I spent in Turku, Finland, during July of 2012 for the FIL Under-19 World Championship included truly some of the most memorable experiences of my journalism life. As a relatively young buck, I’ve been fortunate enough to cover professional sports and big-time college events, and to interview a host of interesting people from many different backgrounds and various levels of acclaim.
But never had I been basically embedded with a team, in this case the U.S. U19 team, in a foreign country, an 8-hour flight from home in a Northern hemisphere locale that provided almost 20 hours of sunlight per day in the summer. The midnight sun, they call it. As the days went on, the fabric of the event became more evident, too, seeing all the behind-the-scenes effort and logistics it took to stage a two-week lacrosse tournament featuring 12 teams playing in a public park in the oldest city in the country.
You get to know people this way, to see what makes them tick without asking traditional postgame interview questions. It’s the way things should be when you’re writing about another person’s life, or entire teams or nations for that matter, for the rest of the world to read.
As the lone full-time writer from the national lacrosse media overseas covering the U19 games that year, I felt a responsibility to beam back accurate and entertaining information on what I felt could be historic games unfolding before my eyes, and average crowds of about 1,200 in-person for key games that involved the U.S., Canada or Iroquois Nationals. Hopefully many more could get the lowdown through our website and social media channels.
The last thing I wrote for publication on LaxMagazine.com before boarding a plane at JFK airport in New York with the U.S. team was, “Something unexpected is bound to happen: players stepping up in surprising ways, an upset or unfamiliar storyline. A Teemu Selanne sighting perhaps. It's a large part of what makes these events great.”
I still believe that now. The characters involved then created more storylines than I could have imagined. For the first time, a U.S. U19 team lost a game in international competition when the Canadians beat Team USA in overtime in pool play competition. Given the proliferation of Canadians in the NCAA college game over recent years, this didn’t come as a complete shock. The real surprise came three days later, when the Iroquois Nationals U19 team became the first Iroquois group to beat the U.S. at any level of international, outdoor play. Lyle Thompson, perhaps foreshadowing great things to come at Albany, had the ball in his stick in the final minutes as the Iroquois killed clock. Randy Staats netted a hat trick. “This is the best team that we've put together ever,” goalie Warren Hill said.
I blogged, tweeted and wrote out the news and box scores. The British sports announcer delivered play-by-play in a makeshift webcast booth next to me. At halftime of certain games, we shared thoughts on what was transpiring. The Finnish event organizer, Matti Tähkäpää, helped make sure I would have an Internet connection, otherwise what exactly was I doing there?
A couple rows above me each game, Brian King, now the coach at John Carroll (Md.) School, was handling videotape duties of each game so coaches and players could break down tape and make adjustments. He told me to keep up the good work. People back home were following along. Nowadays, with social media and analytics, instant reaction and numbers can tell you the same thing, but it was good to hear from a live person.
The U.S. went on an avengers-like run through the medal rounds, beating the Iroquois in the semifinal and Canada to win gold.
Matt Kavanagh, now a rising junior attackman at Notre Dame, emerged as the tournament MVP. It’s fun to watch him and other members of that team, like Maryland faceoff man Charlie Raffa, compete at a high level in the college ranks, sometimes in the same game such as in this year’s final four when the Irish played Maryland. Raffa was injured and couldn’t play the second half. After Notre Dame won, Kavanagh walked right up to me on his way to the locker room after the game to shake my hand. “I feel so bad for Charlie,” he said the next day. “He’s one of my best friends,” a bond no doubt strengthened through the trials of international competition.
Before the final, Raffa delivered an emotional speech in the middle of a huddle during warmups. He said they didn’t come all the way to Finland for a silver medal. Leaders stepped up on that team all over the place. Long after it was all over, almost half a year, I ran into Tim Flynn, the U.S. U19 team head coach, at the US Lacrosse National Convention in Philadelphia. He went out of his way to thank me for chronicling the experience and “what I did for the kids.”
You hear a lot about the close-knit nature of the lacrosse community, and it’s these types of things that make you realize it really exists. Even more, these moments re-enforce to you why coaches coach, players play and maybe I do what I do.
Two years later, I expect to see and experience more of the same, and moments I can’t predict, over the next two weeks.
There are plenty of on- and off-field storylines to be had: the U.S.-Canada rivalry; the rise of the Iroquois (five Thompsons are on their roster and the Nationals are competing in their first men’s world championship in eight years after the passport controversy four years ago); there are nine first-time participants, including a group from the war-torn nation of Uganda. That’s just a glimpse.
Maybe it won’t feel as small as Finland. The 2014 world championships is the largest international lacrosse event ever — with 38 men’s teams and more than 200 festival clubs — competing at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo. There will be a greater media presence — it won’t be just me from our own staff, for example, and the ESPN family of networks is broadcasting more than 40 games. But whatever the role — spectator, player, coach, official, sponsor, volunteer, media, casual observer — there will be an opportunity to form new bonds over the roughly two weeks, to meet strangers who can become people you haven’t forgotten about years later. Maybe you’ll run into them in the stadium, or on the sideline of one of 19 outside fields, or in the vendor area, hotel, or beer garden.
For me, the time in the latter would occur after working, of course, if it’s open by the time we’re done. Two years ago in Turku, I had to slip out of the conversation about what had just transpired on the field, and a scratching-the-surface talk about Finnish club teams. I needed to write my postgame story. But I would have stayed if I could.
Corey McLaughlin is the deputy editor of Lacrosse Magazine, the flagship publication of US Lacrosse.
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