The Thunder is getting on the stick

Its leading returning goal scorer is a stockbroker. Its second leading scorer is a teacher at a school for children with learning disabilities. And one of its goalies runs a health club.

Their primary occupations are diverse, but they all share a common part-time job and one ultimate goal -- returning the Baltimore Thunder to the top of the Major Indoor Lacrosse League.


That's a tall order for a team that hasn't won the league championship since indoor lacrosse's inaugural season in 1987, but the Thunder, under the direction of first-year coach John Tucker, will take the first step toward reaching that lofty goal when it faces off against the Boston Blazers at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Baltimore Arena.

"People think we're lunatics for playing the sport and they're probably right, but I love it," says Thunder forward Brian Kroneberger, a Loyola College graduate whose "real job" is selling stocks for Ferris Baker Watts. "Basketball has great athletes and a lot of scoring, but no hitting. Hockey is a great game with a lot of hitting but not much scoring. Indoor lacrosse has both and there's no place to hide.


"As you move up the food chain of athletes, you have to bring something to the table," he adds. "In this game, you better be really quick or really strong. If you're neither, you'll get weeded out in a hurry."

"It's ice hockey without the skates," says seven-year veteran Tim Hormes, who teaches dyslexic children at Jemicy School in Owings Mills. "You can pretty much do what you want, as long as you don't kill somebody."

Russ Cline, who co-founded the league along with Christopher Fritz, didn't even know how to spell "lacrosse" when he first saw it being played indoors, but he knew enough about the entertainment business and sports promotion to recognize that the sport could survive at the professional level.

"I didn't know if lacrosse was spelled with two 'C's' or two 'S's' the first time I saw a box lacrosse game in Canada, but I was immediately blown away by the action and the skill of the players," recalls Cline. He served as director of marketing and public relations for the Kansas City Chiefs for 10 years before joining forces with Fritz and setting up league headquarters in Prairie Village, Kan. "We were looking for a sport for the 21st century, one that young people could embrace, and it seemed like a great package."

Teams have come and gone during the indoor lacrosse league's first decade of operation (remember the Charlotte Cobras, Pittsburgh Bulls and Washington Wave?), but one mainstay in the league that bills its sport as "the Fastest Game on Two Feet" has been the Thunder, one of only two of the league's original teams.

Where the Thunder's presence has been lacking is in the playoffs, where they haven't been since the 1993 season, when they sneaked in with a 2-6 record.

Baltimore suffered its worse season in 1994, when it finished 1-7, and they followed that up with a 3-5 finish and last year's 4-6 mark.

Despite its dismal record, Baltimore has managed to maintain a solid fan base, and the league as a whole has never averaged fewer than 7,700 fans per game.


Indoor lacrosse, or "box lacrosse," which originated in Canada where it was played primarily in the summer on iceless hockey rinks, is taken seriously by fans in Buffalo and Philadelphia, who regularly sell out Philly's 17,370-seat Spectrum and the 16,284-seat Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo.

The growth of the sport in some cities, or lack thereof, was called into question during the off-season by the indoor lacrosse players' association, which threatened a "mass retirement" if its demands -- namely higher pay and selling off of the teams to local ownership groups -- were not addressed. The two sides reconciled after the owners agreed to pay the players more money and promised to sell off a portion of the teams before next season. Under the new agreement, a first-year player will make $300 per game this season while a top-scale player (one with nine years of league experience) will make $675 per contest.

Tucker, who remembers the early days when players had to supply their own shoes and their own medical insurance, says it was the roar of the crowd -- not the money -- that lured him to the indoor game.

"I just like playing lacrosse in front of a lot of people, and that is what initially attracted me to the league," says Tucker, the indoor lacrosse league's most valuable player in 1987, 1989 and 1990. "The money was really inconsequential, and still is, but what the players are getting paid now makes it a pretty attractive part-time job."

With more than 250,000 active lacrosse players in the United States, the sport is destined to produce a new crop of marquee players. For the better part of the last decade, that role has been filled by the Gait brothers, Paul (of Rochester) and Gary (of Philadelphia), and Buffalo's John Travares.

While the Thunder's 1997 roster doesn't boast any bona-fide superstars, Cline expects big things from Baltimore in the near future.


"Our challenge now is to get a winning franchise in Baltimore and we feel John Tucker, and the leadership he brings, can do that," says Cline, who is president and chief operating officer of the indoor lacrosse league.

Thunder 1997 schedule

Date .....Opponent .............Time

Jan. 4 ...Boston .............8 p.m.

Jan. 18 Philadelphia ....8 p.m.

Jan. 25 ..Rochester ..........8 p.m.


Feb. 7 ...Buffalo ............8 p.m.

Feb. 8 Boston .......8:30 p.m.

Feb. 22 ..Philadelphia .......8 p.m.

March 1 ..New York ...........8 p.m.

March 7 New York ........8 p.m.

March 22 .at Rochester .......8 p.m.


March 29 .at Buffalo .........8 p.m.

Tickets for the Thunder's five home games are available at the Baltimore Arena box office and all TicketMaster locations or by calling (410) 481-SEAT. All 10 games can be heard live on WJFK (1300 AM).

Pub Date: 1/02/97