Lacrosse: The National Game of Canada/Chapter 3

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Though sports are transmitted from one generation to another, they usually change their general character, as they do their names, yet seldom lose their most prominent features. When civilization tamed the manners and habits of the Indian, it reflected its modifying influence upon his amusements, and thus was Lacrosse gradually divested of its radical rudeness and brought to a more sober sport—though to call the game in any measure a sober recreation may be bordering on the sarcastic. Only a savage people could, would or should play the old game; only such constitutions, such wind and endurance could stand its violence. The present game, improved and reduced to rule by the whites, employs the greatest combination of physical and mental activity white men can sustain in recreation, and is as much superior to the original as civilization is to barbarism, base ball to its old English parent of rounders, or a pretty Canadian girl to any uncultivated squaw.

The aim of Lacrosse is so evident and simple that a child looker-on can intuitively understand it. It has no elaborate nomenclature to make it puzzling; its science and beauty need but eyes for discovery. The players are divided into two equal sides; each has a goal to defend and one to attack; certain men are posted in certain positions; the ball is placed midway on the field and faced for by the centres. The object of both sides is to put the ball through the goal of the opponent and prevent him getting it through theirs; and all the running, throwing and endless variety of play tends to that end. One objection to some field games is the intricate mystery surrounding the best parts of the exercise; and however much we admire the fine play we intuitively understand, it is disagreeable to know that there is a vast deal hidden, because of our theoretical and practical ignorance. A field game ought to be a literal sport: if it is encompassed by too much conventionality—if too much science makes it tedious and exclusive, wherein lies its literal recreation? The most of men have no sympathy with field games that can only interest when crack players make them lively. If they are to be hard study, don't call them sports; if sports, then get out of them all possible recreation.

It is not generally the custom of Anglo-Saxons to depreciate a game because it is likely to become more popular than their particular favorite; but Lacrosse has been one of the best-abused in the catalogue of recreations. It would seem a pity if the race of grumblers met with even a sport to please them. Lacrosse, however, survived in spite of disparagement; and its unparalleled spread within the last two years is the best proof of its suitableness and attraction. A game that can persuade over two hundred of the youth of a single Canadian city to rise at half-past five, three or four mornings all through the summer weeks, when all other games put together cannot muster a corporal's guard; and that can regularly attract thousands of spectators when the exhibition of other games fails to pay expenses, needs no eulogy; it speaks for itself. Lacrosse has its failings, but so has every game; but for what the object of all such sports should be—that is, the healthy, active exercise of every part of the body, unintermittent amusement, infinite variety, and science enough to stimulate young players to keep at it till they learn, and old ones not to give it up—what other game compares to Lacrosse?

It has the merit, too, of being a cheap game, in which all can participate without much outlay. It is not exclusive; every player has his innings, so to speak, at the same time, and no one monopolizes the best part because he happens to be an extra good player. Good players cannot be kept down, nor sent off fagging for others; they rise to the surface as surely as cork on water. There are none of the debasing accompaniments, the bar-room associations of other games; there is no beastly snobbishness about it. There is nothing missed by being late at practice; the game is always alive, and there is always an opening for late comers. A game can be played in a short time, and as much exercise got in half an hour as will do for a day. With a crosse and a ball any one can practice alone; any boy can amuse himself all day.

A contributor to Chambers Journal, in December, 1862, under the heading of "A Rival to Cricket," makes free use of my little brochure of 1860, often word for word, without acknowledgment. I freely forgive him the plagiarism for thus discoursing: "As a game, I rank Lacrosse far above cricket or golf. It does not require attendants and special ground, like golf, and it boasts more unintermittent amusement and more simultaneous competition than cricket. The materials, too, are cheaper, and you require no 'hog-in-armour' costume. It is more varied, more ingenious, more subtle than cricket, and, above all, it can be played in all seasons of the year without danger, expense or preparation. No marquees required, no grass rolling, no expensive bats or balls, no spiked shoes, and no padded leggings to preserve you from the cannon shots of fast bowlers, who seem determined to maim or lame somebody; above all, there is not that tiresome and wearisome waiting for the innings. The whole twenty-four (or field) have their innings simultaneously, and have both an equal chance and an equal certainty of amusement and employment; while in cricket a beginner gets, perhaps, ten strokes at a ball, and that is all in the whole game. I admit the pleasure of the good swipe in cricket, the excite- ment of the runs, the delight of blocking a treacherous slow ball, the rapture of catching out a good player, and the feverish anxiety of a close-run game, but still I hold that cricket cannot hold a candle to Lacrosse for variety, ingenuity and interest."

" It was marvellous to see, as the ball for the first flew up in the air, those statues spring into life instantly. The field was dotted with groups of struggling figures, now running into jostling knots, now fanning out in swift lines like skirmishers before a grand army. Every now and then there would break away from the rest some sinewy, subtle runner, who, winding and twisting like a serpent, would dash between the eager ranks of his rivals, avoiding every blow, now stooping, now leaping, now turning, quick as a greyhound and artful as a fox ; and then, as the ball was shot between the crimson flags of the Montreal men, the Indians would give a war-yell that echoed again."

Lacrosse is always fresh and lively, and sustains its attractiveness from'beginning to end. No player has either time or inclination to sit on his heels and yawn ; there is none of that serious work and gloomy pleasure which is the bane of some field games, and which some players try to counteract by light gym- nastics, or feats which have nothing to do with the game. It unbends the mind better than any other sport, because of the ubiquity of the ball ; it is more like genuine recreation, and is a holiday to the blood to play, and a half-holiday to look on.

One grand element in Lacrosse is its native attraction and amusement to spectators — and how soon it converts them into players ! The indefatig- able running and fascinating contests between opponents wherever the ball goes ; the excitement of dodging and of battles around the goals, are watched with breathless interest, while the frequent sudden upsets and somersaults would make even a Plato laugh, and the moroseness of an Antis- thenes take flight for ever. Any one who has taken the trouble to study the faces of spectators at a match may have seen in their expression an index of the character of the game. Gouty old gentlemen forget their big toes in the excitement of watching a struggle for the ball ; the faces of crusty bachelors soften into the old smiles of their youth, while low grumbling laughter, as if afraid to come up, begins to shake them in epigastric regions, and gradually ex- panding into hearty haw-haws, gives them a perma- nent and happy cure. Prudes forget their primness ; snobs their propriety ; old women fearlessly expose themselves to dismantling ; young ladies to the demol- ishment of crinoUne and waterfall ; small boys to the imminent fracture of limbs ; dogs will rush frantic- ally over the field and after the ball, exposed to annihilation, while cheers rend the air at good play, and an epidemic of laughter seizes the crowd at the ridiculous incidents and misfortunes of unlucky men. It seems very pardonable to enjoy the laughable shipwreck of some overweening dodger and his excited checker, who make battering rams of their bodies, and send dodger, checker, crosses and ball all in a heap. It helps the circulation of the blood even to watch the varied changes on the field as the ball flies through the air, and twenty-four or more active fellows are alive to its career. The lively and graceful attitudes, the skilful manoeuvring of body, and the scientific handhng of the crosse ; the little spirts and leaps — often pretty enough to be affected; the twists and turnings, rallies and charges, make a beautiful combination of play ; while the eye can sometimes hardly follow the skilful feats and incidents which occur in such quick succession. How determinedly, how earnestly they work ; how they put their hearts into the pleasure, and even enjoy their own misfortunes ; letting out the most demonstrative proof of sound lung and limb ever developed by field game, and realizing some- thing of the rush and thrill of a genuine battle. Nature may send born poets into the world, but she never sends Lacrosse players ; at least, not in any white community. There is nothing more amusing to a good player than to watch ^-he first attempts of a tyro, with a crosse and a ball. There it lies on the ground before him ; nothing seems simpler than to pick it up. He makes a frantic dash with his stick lowered, but the ball makes a retrograde movement, and the more he pokes at it, the more it seems to evade him. By and bye he learns to take it cool ; there is another plunge and a scoop, and he has it ; and now the mischief of the thing is to carry it. If he holds his cvosse out at arm's length, it persists in rolling off ; if he attempts to throw to any point, it will go straight up over his head, or to the very point where he least expected. He sees a dodger passing checks in succession, and it seems easy enough; checking not so very hard; goal-keeping simplicity itself. His entire existence for the first few hours is one of inglorious mishaps and disappointments; but soon the ball is carried with ease, and thrown with accuracy; the sprawling nervous tips and swipes in final desperation give place to grace and facility, and the novice enjoys something of the astonishment of a young Newfoundland dog thrown into the water for the first time, who, trying to walk, discovers he can swim.

If it is a worthy thing to be a player at all, it is well worth while being good one. When the novice has learned to pick up and master the ball, to throw, catch, check, dodge and field properly, he will find he needs something more to get on "the first twelve." To play well he must be able to keep it up; to stand the exertion in the game he must live temperately, and abstain from all " hot and rebellious liquors." To be a good player, too, he must learn to control temper under the most trying provocations, cultivate courage, self-reliance, perseverance; and, above all, learn by heart and practise in conscience that beautiful verse of Thackeray's—

"Who misses or who wins the prize,
 Go, lose or conquer as you can,
 But if you fail, or if you rise,
 Do each, pray God, a gentleman."

The best players are early risers. No sluggish snoozing after five or six, but up while "silken dailliance in the wardrobe lies," and out in the blue unclouded morning, on a fresh green meadow, where one's blood is set a boil, and put into such healthy circulation that appetites are made ravenous for breakfast. A grand tonic it is, too, which bestows a clear head and a fresh heart, and makes one feel as if he had stolen a march upon time, and was prepared to tackle to business, after the fashion of Monckton Milne's men of old who

"Went about their gravest tasks
 Like noble boys at play."

Lacrosse dislikes fellows who "spree," who make syphons of their œsophagi, and who cannot make better use of their leisure than to suck mint juleps through straws. It dislikes immaculate snobs, or snobs of any kind, who are allowed to live to show what an absurd donkey excessive conceit can make a man. It has no sympathy with grumpy, selfish brutes, whose science consists in swiping, and who think more of their individual performance than the honor of the game. Neither has it affinity for those model specimens of propriety who think a young man is on the road to perdition unless he is always reading good books, and making himself a bore to his friends by stale, hypocritical moral conversation—those nice young men in black broadcloth who never can take a joke, and who prefer draughts with other nice young men to healthy Lacrosse. The game of Lacrosse dislikes all hypocrisy, unnaturalness, and assumption, and it is the very thing to knock all such out of a man. By the shade of Tullock-chish-ko,[1] it is a glorious game!

Take those whining schoolboys who "creep unwillingly to school," give them crosses, encourage them to go into it, rough-and-tumble if they will until they learn better play, and the sapling will shoot into finer plant, and the lessons come easier and stay longer. Lacrosse quickens and brightens the mind. The close quarters in struggling for the ball, the contests of strength and agility, will bring out dormant energies in boys, develop their pluck and manliness, give them self-confidence, and, like Nelson when a boy, they will forget or never know the meaning of fear. Cerberus may come down ever so cruelly on upturned palm, but the lads will not cry: what care they for taws or tanning when they have run the gauntlet of a dozen whirling crosses, and each one of them, like the English after Agincourt, can

"Strip his sleeve, and show his scars,
And say—These wounds I had on Crispin's day."

And here Shakspere brings us to the "moving accidents" in the game. It was once a part of the players creed to believe in unpitying roughness, and the best men were noted for maiming others and following the ball in a raiding fashion, "seeking whom they might devour." That was in the days of no government, when clubs were seriously considering the propriety of attaching surgeons, and purchasing club ambulances. Happily this is changing, though not yet complete. The laws forbid spiked soles which might pierce the feet of an antagonist, deliberate tripping or striking each other, holding or grasping a player or his crosse. There is nothing in the game as severe as the "mauling, hacking, and tripping" of the Rugby game of football, or the maiming from cricket or racket balls. Who has not seen every part of the anatomy maimed by cricket and base ball, and eyes gouged out by racket balls. The worst accident yet known from Lacrosse was the fracture of the radius of an arm by a fall. No one was ever maimed for life, though it is hard to go earnestly into the game and entirely escape some slight skin cuts and scratches. Many players have their own blood upon their heads by persistent attempts to dodge when they cannot dodge; but after all no game is worth a fig if it has not some spice of danger.

What boots it to any one else if those who are hurt do not complain? Do Lacrosse players enjoy their mishaps, as foxes, they say, enjoy being hunted? It would seem so. Before the formation of laws by the Montreal Club in 1867, the game was destitute of regulations, saving the impromptu rules made upon the field, and broken at the first opportunity. Now it has a code which has regulated and systematized it from beginning to end, quietly settled old causes of dissension, and opened a field for development which was previously hidden by rough play. It is true there are some men always on the qui vive for offence, who will dog their opponents and hit their heads oftener than their crosse; one may never expect fair play or good manners from them. A few such players counteract all the good intentions of the laws, and originate the only faults that can be found in the game.

One objection to Lacrosse—hardly ever made, though, by players—is the great exertion required. It is a common perversion of the game to be made violent by unscientific and young players. They make vehement what they cannot make scientific. But the fierce exertion is fast becoming traditional, and it is a question if the present game is more fatiguing than foot-ball, or half as trying and dangerous as a stiff boat-race. Hard work, however, is no disparagement. It is a fact that Her Majesty's subjects, wherever they are to be found, are fonder of real hard work in their amusements than any other people. It is this inherent quality which makes them the best average cricketers, rowers, boxers, and fox hunters in the workl, and the most adventurous travellers. The Alps have hecn climbed by more Brit<jns than all the other nationalities put together ; a Briton penetrated to the North Pole, too far to survive ; anr)ther, despite of peremptory mandates, ventured into African mazes and Chinese sanctums, and had his bowels let out for reward. A French- man, looking on at a game of cricket, said he would rather fight than play it ; and some nations cannot understand the spirit of adventure of the Anglo- Saxon race. In Canada the same love of adventure and hard work is evinced in snow-shoeing, toboganing, and Lacrosse, as well as those imported sports which are not indigenous to the soil. The Montreal fox hunt has a stiffer country to ride over than any in Europe. Canadians gave the All-England Eleven the hardest tug this side of the Atlantic ; Canadian oarsmen are probably equal to any in the world. It is this love of hard work which helps to make Lacrosse popular. Labor ipse voluptas. There is somewhat of an illusion, however, among spectators at a Lacrosse match. They see an excitable wavering game ; the real play is not confined to any limit — it is far from Quakerish. They see twenty-four men on the alert for the ubiqitous ball—here and there they move out and in, while some run as fast as their legs can carry them. The ball flies through the air from one point to another; there are innumerable close contests and hard struggles in attack and defence, all of which appear in quick succession. From the red flags to the blue, the men are full of life—not one is useless—the grass has no time to grow where they run—and the result is an apparent amount of intense exertion, which the spectators invariably magnify.

Pity it is that gunpowder should rob us of such glorious fights as Hastings and Naseby, and, as Don Quixote laments, give men now no chance for individual valor; for what grand training Lacrosse would have been for sword and battle-axe encounter—for splitting helmet from crown to chin—for storming redoubts without fear of flying shot or shell; in fact, for hand to hand conflict. Confound the man who first invented breech-loaders! Are those splendid bayonet charges of the "thin red line" to become traditionary because any scarecrow can lie on his belly and pop a dozen bullets at it in the same time as he used to fire one? But a truce to war and weapons; this sounds bloodthirsty, and Lacrosse is a recreation, though it may be, too, as all such sports are, a peace preparation for war, if needs be. A valuable addition to education in Canadian schools is the systematic instruction in the use of the rifle and gymnastics. Nothing better brings out the mental as well as physical mettle of boys. The story of a certain Duke who, looking on at the boys playing at Eton, said, "It was there the battle of Waterloo was won," is familiar to every one.

To come back to the game. Lacrosse as a beneficial exercise has no superior. It combines the benefits of several. It brings into operation at one time more muscles than any other game, and equalizes the exercise over the entire system. Biceps and chest, trained by boxing, are developed at the expense of other muscles and parts left in repose, and the object of exercise is frustrated, that is, the symmetrical development from head to toe, brain as well as muscle. Lacrosse stimulates nutrition, invigorates and equalizes the circulation, quickens and frees the function of respiration, strengthens the appetite and digestion, and purifies the blood. Its sociability calls forth a nervous stimulus which acts enticingly on the muscles; and, in accordance with the truest physiological rules of exercise, it has its origin in, and is kept up by, an active mental stimulant, involving a healthy variety of movement which may be proportioned to any age or constitution. It educates the body to speed and agility, and gives one a feeling of freshness and lightness, the true sign of good health. Galen says games of ball cure low spirits, "be it with hand or racket."

Does Lacrosse not do any service for mind as well as body? Certainly it does. It knocks timidity and nonsense out of a young man, training him to temperance, confidence, and pluck; teaches him to govern his temper if he has too much, or rouses it healthily if he has too little. It shames grumpiness out of him, schools his vanity, and makes him a man. It develops judgment and calculation, promptness and decision; destroys conventionality, and creates a sort of freemasonry which draws men of the same tastes and sympathies together. It has one result, too, which the good Dr. Arnold, of Rugby, foresaw in such healthy exercises when he made them part of his system of instruction, viz., a mingling of Greek with Christian education, "in which the body should become the strong instrument of the trained mind and free heart, open to every pure, high, and heroic feeling." Its moral influence is beyond dispute.


There are a few disparagers of Lacrosse who refuse it fealty, because, as they assert, "there is no science in it," though they fail to remember that it is as yet in its infancy among the only men—the whites—who can develop its science, and that it has only recently been brought under the restraint of standard laws, which materially check the old rough-and-tumble play. It takes more than one season to make a good Lacrosse player as well as a cricketer; and when we study to practise on the principles maturing, there will be just enough of science in the game to make it popular, and not too much to make it a bore.

What is "Science" as implied in a sport? The wrestling and leaping of hounds at play is not science. A cat can spring with more nimbleness than a Lacrosse player, and a young setter will get at a ball on the ground with his fore-paws or his teeth, however quick it may be tipped or frisked with a crosse—but that is not science. Science in a sport implies training and education of the intellect, a high use of the reasoning faculty, and a capacity to experiment and improve, and impart principles of knowledge to another. It can only be a human prerogative. The difference between it and art is, that science is a collection of the general principles or leading precepts ; art is the skill that applies them. " A principle in science is a rule of art." The theory of Lacrosse is its science — the practice is its art.

The science of a sport is not immutable like that of mathematics. The latter is founded upon a few axioms and definitions, and it is impossible to prove Euclid's propositions to one who disputes the axioms. In a sport, however, contingencies and casual circumstances occur, which lead oflf from some theories into new ones, and such science can never be unalterable and certain.

Is the art of Lacrosse based on a science ? Not entirely so, not as much so as cricket ; but that there is science in the game is proved by the fact that many throws, dodges, checks, &c., are explained by fixed principles, from which no one can deviate and be successful. The throw of the ball, for instance, unlike that of a die, is not under the doctrine of chance. All things being equal, the rules given for accurate and long shots, &c., are no probability or surmise. No one undertakes to say that principles can be laid down to govern every movement, every part of play—that cannot be expected in any sport.

Catlin's and other descriptions of the original game differ very much from the present Lacrosse, and the transformation is palpable even to those who cannot play. Old players can recal the game of ten or twelve years ago, or even three years ago, before the establishment of laws, and will acknowledge the improvement of the present game, not only in the destruction of the old principle of brute force and hard running, but in the invention of new and superior modes of practice. Many of the general principles of fielding, methods of dodging, throwing, frisking the ball, &c., were unknown three years ago as a regular art. The game is not played better now because every player trains or is better winded and stronger than the old players, but because it is played on different principles. When the bagged crosse was repudiated, a comparatively new field of development was opened, and a vexatious cause of excessive dispute and dodging removed. The laws of Lacrosse created new ranges of thought and experiment ; new theories and principles were laid down, and new modes of practice developed, and more method given to any madness in the game.

Science in Lacrosse is brought out by the netting on the stick used, which is not possible in shinty, or games played differently with a different instrument. The various feats with the ball on the crosse are not possible in any other game.

The development of science in Lacrosse, has been broufrht about, too, by the smallness of the fields, or the short distances from goal to goal ; bringing the players t*- close contests, and necessitating quick feats, ? id entirely different play from that formerly practised on large fields The whites have only ever beaten the Indians because they played on smaller fields than the latter are accustomed to ; and there is no doubt but that if the red skins had goals half a ■ile apart, the whites would seldom, if ever, get a ^iKince to touch the ball. The white game differs from the red, in being restricted by that mark of civilization and tresi)ass, the fence, and by the differ- ence of the constitutions of the two people.

The mistake some white [)layers make, and which has retarded development, is in trying to imitate the Indian game to the very letter. Now this is simply as absurd as attempting to live as he does. They are differently situated, and the most degenerate have, as a rule, better inherent constitutions than the majority of white men; and if the present generation of them, modified the game from the original to suit their present habits and mode of life, how much more should we, who are inferior to them in wind and endurance, temper it to suit us. A sensible, thoroughly civilized people cannot, and should not, play Lacrosse exactly after the manner of the Indian. The fact that they may beat the pale-face, is more a proof of their superior physical nature, than any evidence of their superior science. They play on their old principle of war, viz.: to have the most men at the critical points of attack and defence, and obey no arrangement of any kind. Every Indian feels that where the ball is, there he should be, and though they do not altogether abandon an instinctive disposition, the glory of Lacrosse to them is in the exciting chases after the ball. The Indian village game was not intellectual enough for the whites, and needed systematizing; but never let this improvement be carried to such extreme as to spoil its extemporaneous peculiarities of fielding, and the general free character, which distinguishes it above all other field games.

However much the game has changed, it cannot change much more and retain its charms. Base-ball perfected rounders; cricket, club-ball; and the laws of Lacrosse supplied the deficiencies existing before they were formed. The game can never change from its present character as it did from its original; it is not desirable that it should. Neither can old methods of play ever become useless, unless the game becomes so revolutionized that it will no longer be the attractive game it is. If old styles of throwing, dodging and checking were ever good, they can never become obsolete; nor can any developments of science ever make a good hard player a nonentity. The metamorphosis of the game was completed when the laws were formed; its general character can undergo little other change, though the methods of play in every department must become more numerous and improved, as knowledge of the game increases.

That Lacrosse can never be as scientific a game as cricket is freely acknowledged; but that it suffers thereby is not believed. The genuine worth of any physical recreation is in keeping the physical above the mental, for once the mind is paramount to the body, the object of bodily exercise is frustrated.

The science in Lacrosse will be more prominent when rough play is ousted, and men learn to play up to the strict letter of the law. If this science is to be developed, rough brute force play must end; not the hard running, nor the occasional honest shoulder encounters, but the slashing and swiping and wounding by crosses.

But supposing it was granted that there is no science in the game—can that make it a whit less popular, or less healthy? How much science is there in boating, independant of strong arms, and are all regattas to be despised? How much is there in snow-shoeing and toboganing—those glorious winter sports of Canada,—and who will dare impugn the moon-light tramps over Mount Royal, or cast the suspicion of a sneer at swift rides down Montmorenci cone?


I believe that I was the first to propose the game of Lacrosse as the national game of Canada in 1859; and a few months preceding the proclamation of Her Majesty, uniting the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, into one Dominion, a letter headed "Lacrosse—Our National Field Game," published by me in the Montreal Daily News, in April, 1867, was printed off and distributed throughout the whole Dominion, and was copied into many of the public papers. A circular giving minute instructions about the game, was afterwards distributed, and over sixty answers received from parties in all parts of Canada, who were afterwards instrumental in organizing clubs. On the day which created the greater part of British America a Dominion, the game of Lacrosse was adopted as the national game, and it was appropriate and auspicious that this should be so. The fact that it was to be the national game, spread throughout the country, and gave it popularity in districts where it had never been seen or heard of before, and where other field sports had been played for years. Suggestive as the spread of the game is of its attractiveness, it must also suggest happy ideas of the patriotism of Young Canada.

It may seem frivolous, at first consideration, to associate this feeling of nationality with a field game, but history proves it to be a strong and important influence. Cricket and curling have their national and nationalizing influences on their respective admirers, and so may Lacrosse. Whatever tends to cultivate this nationality is no frivolous influence, even should it be a boyish sport.

If the Republic of Greece was indebted to the Olympian games; if England has cause to bless the name of cricket, so may Canada be proud of Lacrosse. It has raised a young manhood throughout the Dominion to active, healthy exercise; it has originated a popular feeling in favor of physical exercise, and has, perhaps, done more than anything else to invoke the sentiment of patriotism among young men in Canada; and if this sentiment is desirable abroad, surely it is at home.

  1. The greatest player among the Choctaws of old.