The Champion’s Cup
Professional indoor lacrosse in North America is about to wrap up its 24th season and there have been many changes to the league throughout its history. Teams have come and gone. Seasons are longer. Even the name of its championship trophy has changed. But one thing remains constant: you play to win the game.
One team will be crowned National Lacrosse League champion this weekend, and while the NFL has the Lombardi Trophy and the NHL has the Stanley Cup, players in the NLL leave their sweat and blood on the turf every week for the chance to drink from the prestigious Champion’s Cup.
The Champion’s Cup wasn’t always called the Champion’s Cup. When the league was called the Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse League (1986-1988) and later rebranded as the Major Indoor Lacrosse League (1988-1998), teams like the Baltimore Thunder and the Detroit Turbos were doing battle for what was called the North American Cup.
But in 1998, the Major Indoor Lacrosse League became the National Lacrosse League, and with it came the name change of its championship trophy. While its name was new, the desire of coaches and players to hoist the trophy remained and burns within today’s players as much as ever.
“It (the Champion’s Cup) means everything,” said Stealth Captain Jason Bloom, who has reached the playoffs in each of his four NLL seasons, but until this season had not advanced past the first round. “It’s the reason we play this game. It’s not for fame or fortune; we play to win.”
Some have been more fortunate than others in their quest for the Cup. Since professional indoor lacrosse began play in 1987, the Philadelphia Wings hold the most championship appearances with nine and the most titles with six.
In 1998, when it was first known as the Champion’s Cup, the Wings played a three-game series against the Baltimore Thunder for the championship. It was the only time a series was used to crown a champion in the history of the league.
The Toronto Rock has won five titles in the last eleven seasons, its first coming in 1999. It was led by one of the most decorated athletes to ever play the game, Colin Doyle. The 1999 title game marked the first of three Champion’s Cup Final MVP awards for Doyle, who ranks fourth on the championship game goals list with 14. This weekend, Doyle and the Rock search for their six title to tie the Wings for most all-time.
Winning the Champion’s Cup has become the pinnacle of professional lacrosse. Stealth Head Coach Chris Hall won his only Champion’s Cup as the bench boss for the Calgary Roughnecks in 2004. He understands the elite company of which he is a part.
“Winning the Champion’s Cup means you’ve achieved the highest honor in our sport,” he said. “The players in this league are the best in the world. And for that season, you can call yourselves the best of the best. There aren’t many people in any sport that can say they’ve reached the highest level of their sport.”
But having tasted the sweet nectar of victory from the Champion’s Cup, you never want to lose it. The old adage is that it’s easier to win your first championship, than it is to keep it. Hall agrees.
“Who knows when you’ll get another chance,” he said. “I’ve been lucky enough to win one, and I desperately want another.”
Saturday, the Washington Stealth and Toronto Rock will square off for the right to hoist the trophy above their heads in celebration. The trophy will stay with the winning team for the next year, until the next season’s playoffs begin and the struggle for lacrosse supremacy starts anew.
While the name of the league, its teams, players and trophy have changed in the 24 seasons of professional indoor lacrosse, the weekly test of wills on the turf in arenas throughout the United States and Canada every winter has withstood the test of time. And each and every player in the National Lacrosse League will tell you that the juice is worth the squeeze. Especially if you get to drink it from the Champion’s Cup.