The Philadelphia Wings were not supposed to win the 2001 Champion’s Cup.

How could they?

After squeaking by the Rochester Knighthawks in the semifinals, they were up against the mighty Toronto Rock, a team that finished first during the National Lacrosse League’s regular season, and destined to be professional lacrosse’s next dominating dynasty.

Plus, Toronto was hosting the final that year, loading up the Air Canada Center with 19,409 rabid Rock revelers, ready to ring in Cup number three at the expense of a seemingly step behind Philly group. At the time, teams did not win games, let alone a championship game, on Toronto’s home turf. Visitors went to the ACC, and Maple Leaf Gardens before that, to do one thing. Lose.

The Wings also had something else going against them, as if the above wasn’t enough. The team had a lot of Americans on their roster, while the Rock had none.

Photos: Adam Mueller, New York Titans and Philadelphia Wings photos provided by Larry Palumbo. Tom Ryan photos provided by Zach Heffner. USBOXLA Nationals photos provided by Jeremy Garcia.

Over the previous two seasons, Canadian talent had started their aggressive assault on American-heavy NLL lineups, slowly sweeping away US-born field-first players from the league. That revolutionary roster recipe, based on the Rock’s perfect playoff record over two-plus seasons at that point, seemed to work well.

Well, it worked, just not that night.

The Wings dominated the Rock through speed, strategy and smarts, especially on the defensive end, an area most thought Toronto would have an overwhelming advantage. Their 9-8 Cup-clinching victory (a tight score that did not really reflect what had just taken place) is still considered one of the biggest upsets in NLL history. Those Americans that most felt could not compete with some of the best pure box lacrosse talent on the planet, not only competed, they outplayed, outworked and outmaneuvered the Rock for four straight quarters.

“I don’t think we could’ve written a better script to win a championship game,” said Philadelphia’s American-born head coach, Tony Resch, seconds after securing the title. “This was just an awesome win.”

Since that game, no American head coach has led a team to a Champion’s Cup victory, and 16 seasons later, few Americans have even coached a team in the playoffs, let alone a final.

The next year, Resch would seemingly pull off the impossible, again. Coaching Team USA against Canada in the inaugural Heritage Cup (an exhibition warm-up game leading up to the 2003 World Indoor Lacrosse Championship), Resch’s American side would stun the Canadians 21-16. It was a game most felt the US would be embarrassed in. They were not.

The Americans have not beaten Canada since, going 0-6 against the Canucks, who’ve dominated the international box lacrosse landscape since that 2002 Heritage Cup catastrophe.

Today, there is not a single American coach in the NLL. In fact, there hasn’t been a head coach since John Tucker led the Philadelphia Wings in 2011.

The NLL (previously Eagle Pro and Major Indoor Lacrosse League) lists 83 head coaches (or co-head coaches) in their most recent media guide as having coached during the loop’s 31 seasons. 55 are Canadian, 24 American, and four of Iroquois descent. Although many Americans coached in the Eagle and MILL, as we showed in Americans in the NLL Part I, just like with roster spots, Canadians are gobbling up coaching duties too.

See where Resch ranks among the NLL’s winningest (ranked by winning %) head coaches during both the regular season and playoffs

REGULAR SEASON

Coach Nationality GP W L W%
Les Bartley Canadian 131 93 38 .710
Gary Gait Canadian 32 22 10 .688
David Pym Canadian 48 33 15 .688
Tony Resch American 78 53 25 .679
Dave Evans Canadian 42 27 15 .643
Bob Engelke American 48 30 18 .625
Medo Martinello Canadian 34 21 13 .618
Ed Comeau Canadian 122 75 47 .615
Ted Sawicki Canadian 35 21 14 .600
Darris Kilgour Iroquois 206 121 85 .587

PLAYOFFS

Coach Nationality GP W L W%
Les Bartley Canadian 22 18 4 .818
Mike Hasen Canadian 13 10 3 .769
Ed Comeau Canadian 10 7 3 .700
Tony Resch American 12 8 4 .667
Tory Cordingley Canadian 18 12 6 .667
Chris Hall Canadian 17 11 6 .647
Darris Kilgour Iroquois 23 12 11 .522
Bob Hamley Canadian 11 5 6 .455
Derek Keenan Canadian 14 6 8 .429
Paul Day Canadian 13 5 8 .385

Note: Both lists only include coaches who coached more than 10 games. As of May 12, 2017.

Does a lack of American coaches at this level matter? Former Les Bartley Award winner (aka NLL Coach of the Year), Adam Mueller, isn’t so sure it does.

Mueller is the last American to win the league’s top coaching honor, named the NLL’s best bench boss with the New York Titans in 2008. He and Resch are the lone Americans to have ever received the highly-respected, league-wide accolade.

“It’s not a concern of mine,” said Mueller. “With only nine teams in the league, American, Canadian or otherwise, it’s going to be tough to break into the NLL as a new head coach.”

“I think we see a lot of the same names when positions pop up. Canadian coaches have been doing this for a lifetime. They have a clear advantage. So, it only makes sense that with so few opportunities, they are the ones that get hired.”

Mueller played in the league from 1990 all the way to the 2000 season, suiting up for the Detroit Turbos, Baltimore Thunder, Albany Attack, and Wings along the way. Many Americans played in the league during that time, and like Mueller, several coached in the NLL after retiring. US players like Sal LoCascio, Pat McCabe, Tom Ryan (pictured above), and of course Resch and Tucker, all played and later served as head coaches in the NLL. Even with an ever-so-slight bump in player participation this year (six more Americans played this year than last year’s record-low count), with so few Americans playing the pro game today, the trend of American player turned coach is, well, clearly non-existent presently.

“I’m not even sure how many American coaches today are qualified to coach at an NLL level to be honest,” said Mueller, who did not grow up playing indoors, but learned valuable box lacrosse lessons from Canadian players and coaches when he competed in the league. “I think an American that played defense in the league could probably do a really good job coaching defense.

“Same thing on the other side of the floor, but I’m just not sure, right now at least, there are many Americans that know enough to adequately coach both sides on the floor in the NLL.”

Right now, the US Box Lacrosse Association has approximately 300 certified coaches instructing about 12,500 youth the right way to play box lacrosse. About 20 of those 300 are Canadians, usually former pros now living in the US, but the rest are Americans.

When Mueller played in the NLL, there were virtually no Americans coaching youth, let alone professionals, the proper way to play the sport. He had to rely on the Canadians.

His first instructor was Miro ‘Medo’ Martinello, who coached the Turbos during their first four seasons in the league. The Windsor-born Martinello led the club to a Cup win in 1991.

“The biggest thing with me, and the other Americans, was making sure we caught up with the Canadian’s indoor skills,” said Mueller. “I remember showing up early, before anyone else hit the floor, so I could work on the technical aspects of my game.

“As a field player, I was clearly behind. Martinello was so good for us because he was very technical, loved teaching the game, knew what the Americans needed, and he was just a really confident coach.”

In Baltimore and Philadelphia, two teams that were coached by Americans at the time, Mueller had a much different experience.

“I think the Americans tended to learn the more technical parts of the game through other players,” he said of his time playing with the Thunder and Wings. “The American coaches I had there had never really played offense in the league or anywhere else, so it was more difficult for them to tell us what to do on that side of the floor. I had some great coaches there, but the learning process was different for sure.”

In recent weeks, USBOXLA confirmed the eight coaches that will be leading the inaugural season of the Colorado Collegiate Box Lacrosse League, the country’s first college-aged loop. All eight are American.

One of those coaches is former University of Denver standout, Terry Ellis, who unlike Mueller, had never competed in the NLL, but did spend valuable time playing for the Coquitlam Adanacs during the Senior ‘A’ season in British Columbia. He feels that experience will help him better connect with American college players that have yet to play much if any real box lacrosse. “I can relate more to field players who are just beginning or have relatively little experience playing box lacrosse in comparison to their Canadian counterparts,” said Ellis. “The majority of the players who will be playing in the CCBLL come from a lacrosse background rooted in the field game.

“I myself was a field player transitioning to the box game. I can easily relate to and tell those newcomers what to expect and how to make that transition more smoothly.”

While USBOXLA-certified coaches typically coach American youth the same way any Canadian kid would be instructed during their more formative years, at higher levels like college and the pros, picking up the finer points after never having played box, can be significantly more difficult. Unless your Tom Schreiber of course.

Like Ellis points out, a different approach is needed. Mueller agrees, and when he started coaching the expansion Titans in 2007, he was forced to do just that.

“I think we were laughed at for quite a while before we started showing we could compete with the best in the league,” said Mueller. “We entered as an expansion team at the same time as the Chicago Shamrox, which made it even more difficult.”

While the trend of adding more proven Canadian box talent over American field-only bodies was still the preferred path by most, Mueller and the Titans staff turned back the clock a bit when building their roster.

“It wasn’t my intention to necessarily build a team with so many Americans,” said Mueller. “We were kind of forced to in fact. We were forced to take American field players in order to compete faster. There was less good Canadian box talent available to us that expansion year, and we knew we had to approach things differently.”

After a slow start during that expansion season, New York went 10-6 the next year, losing in the East Final. Although Mueller stepped away from the team a season later, the Titans finished just three goals shy of winning the Cup in 2009.

Could Americans still compete and coach in the NLL? Clearly, they could. The Titans proved that.

“Look, I think the Canadians we had in New York were absolutely fantastic, but that whole situation and a lot of the success we had, was also largely due to a bunch of Americans buying in and committing themselves to playing a style of lacrosse they were not used to,” Mueller added. “I don’t think what we did was rocket science, but I think we provided the Americans on that team a system that allowed their box game to thrive much, much faster.”

Steve Holmes, who Mueller now coaches for with the Fusion Lacrosse-powered Penn*Lax All Stars (a Philadelphia-based, USBOXLA-sanctioned travel team), has a similar story as many of those Titans players. Like the Americans that played for Mueller, Holmes was fortunate enough to find himself in a similar situation in San Jose with the Stealth. Although he was coached by Canadians in California, first Walt Christianson and later Chris Hall, it was San Jose’s American manager Doug Locker that Holmes says made the switch for him that much easier.

“Locker was instrumental in helping me get my feet on the ground and feel comfortable in California, and he did that with all of the guys out there,” said Holmes, whose speed and tenacity made up for his lack of box basics during his earlier Stealth seasons. “Once I got passed the accents, those guys really took me in.

“I got the impression that the Canadian coaches and players in San Jose really wanted Americans to take to their game and enjoy it as much as they did. The environment they created for the Americans there really helped us develop faster.”

Like Mueller, Holmes would also play for the Wings, and later founded Fusion Lacrosse with current NLLer and former Canadian teammate, Kevin Crowley. Fusion was one of the first USBOXLA-sanctioned clubs, and today sports some of the top American box lacrosse players and coaches.

“In order for the outdoor game to evolve and be played at its peak potential, it needs to have players with a healthy background in box lacrosse,” said Holmes. “Players committed to box training play the field game at a higher level.

“They make quicker decisions, are generally tougher, more creative, more secure with their stickhandling, and move the ball faster. I think everyone can agree on that.”

While Fusion staff also includes former Canadian NLL players like Luke Wiles and Alex Turner, American Eric Hoffman, who spent time with the Wings, is also there. Plus, non-NLL American coaches like Matthew McCormick, a two-time captain at Drexel University and now a USBOXLA-certified coach, are also on staff teaching US youth the right way to play the sport.

While other groups within the US focus solely on the growth of players (typically older players), USBOXLA’s four pillar approach ensures development at a player, game, referee, and of course, coach level.

It’s American coaches like McCormick who Holmes feels are critical for the growth of the game from pee wee all the way to the pros. “The growth everyone wants in the country won’t happen without qualified coaches throughout the US,” he said. “We are ecstatic to have access to the resources USBOXLA provides, enabling us to work with our coaches here at Fusion and make them better box lacrosse instructors, which ultimately makes our players better as well. You can’t have one without the other.”

So, again, does it matter that there are no American coaches currently bossing a bench in the NLL?

It’s kind of an unpleasant stat, but no, not really. While it likely won’t happen the same way it did for Mueller and others – times have changed –  with more American coaches learning the game under USBOXLA’s leadership than ever before, that stat will surely spike soon enough.

“One day, I believe we will see more USBOXLA-certified coaches pursue coaching box lacrosse professionally,” said Holmes. “I know we have a number of future candidates already in Fusion and Penn*Lax that would be eager to pursue an NLL coaching job one day.”

As mentioned in Part I of this series, for far too long, the box lacrosse (often called indoor or hybrid, nothing close to real box) developmental emphasis in the US was being placed almost exclusively on post-collegiate players. The youth levels were simply ignored for decades prior to USBOXLA forming in 2010. Shortcuts were taken regularly, decision makers hoping magically that the sport would spread with this backwards approach.

While 12,500 American youth are finally learning how to play box lacrosse the right way under USBOXLA’s guidance, the same can clearly be said for coaches too. While these US-born players and coaches will take a few more years to mature and develop, the NLL will ultimately benefit from the structured system USBOXLA has provided all of its members.

Oh, and Holmes has one more suggestion to garner interest in the game, one that Resch and Mueller would likely align on. “Bring back the Wings,” declared Holmes. If and when an expansion Wings team is announced, Holmes might have the next Resch or Mueller already coaching box in the city.

Patience.