June 01, 2021

Article at theyyscene.com

Game On: ELEV8 and Calgary Field Lacrosse programs offer a release from COVID cabin fever

After a year of caution-taped playgrounds, off-and-on extracurriculars, and limited-at-best physical education, Calgary kids are desperately ready to shake off the cobwebs and move freely in the world once again.

For Geoff Snider, founder and CEO of ELEV8 Lacrosse, he's hoping the extended bout of cabin fever might lead to a surge in kids giving Canada's national summer sport a go.

"We're super optimistic that there will be a lot of kids who want to get out and play, just because they haven't done much over the winter," says Snider.

The ELEV8 coaching staff spent much of the past year travelling to schools around the province, introducing the sport of lacrosse to students - many of whom had never even heard of it before.

Brother and sister Xavier Birchfield, 8, and Gwendolyn Birchfield , 7, received free vouchers to attend a Calgary Roughnecks game after the ELEV8 team visited their classes at Sam Livingstone School last year.

After attending several of the local National Lacrosse League (NLL) team's games, the kids were hooked, and when it came time for them to find something to do during the first summer of the pandemic, lacrosse just seemed like an obvious choice, says their dad, Timothy Birchfield.

Both ELEV8 and Calgary Field Lacrosse programs are run exclusively by a roster of coaches who are either current or former professional lacrosse players, many of whom went through ELEV8 training programs themselves growing up.

Snider, for example, is a two-time NLL All-Star MVP, who played box lacrosse professionally with the Denver Outlaws, Philadelphia Wings, and Calgary Roughnecks.

ELEV8 coach Brett Craig was a three-time All-American, starting every game of his college field career at Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania, before quickly moving up the ranks to start his rookie season with NLL's Colorado Mammoth in 2019.

Craig says, as a player, the professional calibre of coaches at ELEV8 motivated him to excel on the field and on the floor.

"They're watching you, and it's like, 'Ok, I've got to work really hard or these guys are gonna be disappointed.' That's what kept me wanting to get better."

"It's like if you had a group of Calgary Flames out coaching a hockey program," says Snider.

Comparatively, hockey might be one of the first sports that springs to mind when thinking of lacrosse.

"[Lacrosse] made me better at hockey, and also a faster runner. It's also improved my shooting skills," says Xavier, who plays hockey in winter and is entering into his second summer with Calgary Field Lacrosse this year.

"Lacrosse is great for hand-eye coordination. Instead of staring down at the ice's surface, looking at a puck; your head's up, you're outside, you're using a different skillset where you're reading the play, managing the ball in a different region on your body, and you're playing in what is a contact sport - but with just a bit of a different mindset," says Snider.

"There's lots of guys around the NHL; John Tavares, Wayne Gretzky, Joe Nieuwendyk, Brendan Shanahan; there's guys that played this sport at a very high level who are playing in the NHL as well."

Snider is quick to point out that there are synergies between lacrosse and many other sports too, adding that it's "a great way to build on your athleticism as a whole, in a short period of time."

The list of celebrity athletes and entertainers who have played lacrosse is surprisingly long for a sport that's really just begun to see a real surge in popularity over the past three decades or so - despite having originated in North America roughly 3,000 years ago.

NBA All-Star Steve Nash, Patriots GM Bill Belichick, pro wrestler Mick Foley, Flames assistant GM Craig Conroy, Steve Carell of The Office, Letterkenny's Nathan Dales, and even the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl all played high-school and college-level lacrosse.

For Gwendolyn, having a "famous" Roughnecks coach is one of the highlights of playing Calgary Field Lacrosse. Her dad Timothy jokes that he'd been giving her "media training" for when she's a famous lacrosse player herself one day.

For Timothy, the sport seemed like a perfect way for his kids to stay active during the summer, spend time outdoors, have fun, and make new friends. Safety was also a priority.

"I read an article years ago about injuries in sports for kids, and one of the things I found is that there are typically very few injuries in lacrosse."

COVID-19 posed even more health and safety hurdles, but Snider says the organization took it in stride, keeping 270 Calgary Field Lacrosse players physically distanced last year, in line with Alberta Health Services protocols. As a result, not one positive case was traced back to the program.

Snider says he anticipates the summer 2021 programs, which begin at the end of June, will start out operating with physical distancing in place, but he's optimistic that won't be the case for the entirety of the season.

On top of safety, cost can also be a concern for many families, and both ELEV8 and Calgary Field Lacrosse work with KidSport, JumpStart and the Flames Sports Bank to offer subsidies for low-income families and access to equipment.

For kids with a background in hockey, most hockey gear is interchangeable with lacrosse equipment - all you really need to add is a kidney protector and running shoes.

And, as part of a push to see more girls enter the sport, sponsor Northland Lacrosse is also offering a free stick and eyewear to girls joining any Calgary Field Lacrosse program this summer.

Craig, an ELEV8 alum himself, says ELEV8 and Calgary Field Lacrosse offer a spectrum of training programs for kindergartners who have never held a stick in their lives, to elite players preparing for college scouts.

"For athletes in the ELEV8 programs, going pro becomes a realistic goal - because they've got half a dozen guys in front of them who did it."