By John Altavilla
3:50 PM EDT, August 6, 2014
History tells us the first documented version of lacrosse was played by native tribes inhabiting North America in the 1630s.
Legend says the rules of the ancient sport were devised to help sharpen the focus, dexterity and courage of young warriors.
Needless to say, much has changed over the past four centuries with a sport whose popularity seems to grow each year, especially in the wealthier suburbs where kids play it and parents watch it.
But it was certainly intuition and opportunity that led the Mohegan Sun's Tribal Gaming Authority to pursue the sport's indoor professional league as a tenant for its arena, home of concerts and basketball games.
And finally on Wednesday, a match made in demographic heaven was announced. An investment of about $1.5 million landed Mohegan Sun 50 percent ownership of the National Lacrosse League's Philadelphia Wings.
"Having a team here will allow our league to help reconnect to the roots of the game," said NLL commissioner George Daniel.
Come December, the still-unnamed team will take its place in the Eastern Conference of the nine-team league. Inside Lacrosse reported on Tuesday that the Wings name and logo will stay in Philadelphia; the league hopes to field a team in the city in the future, though it will need a new ownership group and new arena contract.
On Tuesday, the In Lacrosse We Trust blog reported that general manager Johnny Mouradian will leave the franchise after four seasons.
Four-and-a-half hours north of Philadelphia on Interstate 95, the Mohegan Sun Arena will host nine regular-season games in an 18-game schedule played mostly on the weekends. The contests will fit comfortably into the arena's traditionally slow winter calendar.
"This is a very exciting day for us. It is an exciting sport," said Mitchell Etess, chief executive officer of the Mohegan Sun.
Joining Connecticut in the Eastern Conference are Buffalo, Minnesota, Rochester, N.Y., and Toronto. The Western Conference has teams in Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton and Vancouver.
After finishing the 2014 regular season on top of the East, the Rochester Knighthawks became the first team in league history to win three straight league titles.
Philadelphia, which began play in 1987 and is coached by Blane Harrison, was 6-12 last season. It was the only original NLL team still playing in the same city as when the league was founded. The franchise has won six league championships but none since 2001, the last time it reached the championship game. It just announced its plan to relocate July 11.
The indoor game is a variation referred to as box lacrosse, a condensed, full-contact version of the outdoor game popular with many colleges and high schools on the East Coast.
The NLL, which lately has averaged more than 9,000 fans a game, plays four 15-minute quarters with two-minute breaks between the quarters and a 12-minute break at halftime. The clock does not run when play is stopped.
And if a game is tied after regulation, the teams play sudden death periods of up to 15 minutes each. Each team dresses 18 players, including two goaltenders. On average, 22 goals are scored a game.
About 75 percent of league players, who make an average of $20,000 annually, are from Canada.
"I will tell you that we are aiming to win," said Kevin Brown, chairman of the Mohegan Tribe. "That is part of the game here. We have a team coming here that has a long tradition of winning [six league championships]."
Etess, whose WNBA team, the Connecticut Sun, has been the building's main sports tenant since 2003, said he knew little about the sport when the prospect of owning a franchise was brought to his attention.
"I know I had seen the sport on television, but what I hadn't realized until I paid closer attention was that everywhere I went people were playing lacrosse," Etess said. "Kids were carrying sticks around. And I had heard the sport was growing in leaps and bounds."
According to US Lacrosse, about 750,000 athletes, male and female, played the sport at some level last season. Among those were 290,000 at the high school level and 36,000 in college.
In 2004, the first year of girls lacrosse as a sanctioned high school sport in Connecticut, there were 3,210 boys and 2,592 girls playing at the high school level. In 2013, those numbers had increased by 42 percent.
"So [the casino] did some research, got together with George Daniel [the commissioner] and decided it was something worth pursuing. We consider the sport a great demographic for our building, the sport is played at a great time of year for the building and it gives us the chance to keep bringing people here. We were intrigued."
Etess soon got a call from a business associate who had heard that Philadelphia might be for sale. That led to meetings with Michael French, the president and co-owner of the Wings.
"Admittedly, there was a lot of mixed emotion about relocating," said French, a former Cornell captain and national collegiate Player of the Year (1976) who is also a former Wings player, coach and general manager. "But we are thrilled to be here. We think it's an extremely healthy market. … We feel this will be a great opportunity to get more of those championship rings."
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun